Guns made civil rights possible: Breaking down the myth of nonviolent change

From Salon:

A crucial part of the struggle’s been forgotten: how armed self-defense protected activists from white supremacists

Saturday, Jun 14, 2014

We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.
—Ella Baker

I have never subscribed to nonviolence as a way of life, simply because I have never felt strong enough or courageous enough, even though as a young activist and organizer in the South I was committed to the tactic. “I tried to aim my gun, wondering what it would feel like to kill a man,” Walter White wrote of his father’s instruction to shoot and “don’t . . . miss” if a white mob set foot on their property. If I had been in a similar situation in 1960s Mississippi, I would have wrestled with the same doubts that weighed on the young White. But in the final analysis, whatever ethical or moral difficulty I might have had would not have made me unwilling or unable to fire a weapon if necessary. I would have been able to live with the burden of having killed a man to save my own life or those of my friends and coworkers.

It has been a challenge to reconcile this fact with nonviolence, the chosen tactic of the southern civil rights movement of which I was a part. yet in some circumstances, as seen in the pages of this book, guns proved their usefulness in nonviolent struggle. That’s life, which is always about living within its contradictions.

More than ever, an exploration of this contradiction is needed. The subjects of guns and of armed self-defense have never been more politicized or more hotly debated than they are today. Although it may seem peculiar for a book largely about armed self-defense, I hope these pages have pushed forward discussion of both the philosophy and the practicalities of nonviolence, particularly as it pertains to black history and struggle. The larger point, of course, is that nonviolence and armed resistance are part of the same cloth; both are thoroughly woven into the fabric of black life and struggle. And that struggle no more ended with the passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 than it began with the Montgomery bus boycott, Martin Luther king Jr., and the student sit-ins.

In some respects, black struggle took on a new character, as with legislative victory over segregation and new law protecting voting rights the main battleground shifted from the South to the politically more complicated North. SCLC’s efforts in Chicago failed. SNCC dropped “Nonviolent” from its name, called for “full retaliation from the black community across America,” and then faded into increasing irrelevancy. The Black Panther Party became dramatically visible on the steps of the California State Capitol in Sacramento, where they suddenly appeared strapped in bandoliers, wearing black leather, and carrying weapons. In a manner reminiscent of the 1960 student sit-ins, chapters and some groups just calling themselves “black panthers” spread rapidly across the United States. Before the end of the decade, CORE officially declared itself a Black Nationalist organization, and across the country a dubious black political spontaneity mainly took the form of urban rioting.

Southern struggle had become romanticized—rugged, ragged SNCC and CORE shock troops bravely confronting white supremacy, especially police and mad-dog sheriffs. After the Selma-to-Montgomery march and passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, many thought that southern struggle was over, its mission accomplished, civil rights gained. Even that story, however, has barely been told; many of the southern Freedom Movement’s dimensions remain unexplored. That is one reason this book has focused on armed selfdefense and its place within a nonviolent movement. My aim has been to force a reappraisal of the movement and to open the door to new ways of understanding what happened in the South in the 1950s and ’60s.

One oft-repeated assertion about weapons in the 1960s was that their organized use increased the chances of massive retaliation by local, state, and even federal authority. That just did not happen, not even in Louisiana where the Deacons for Defense and Justice came closest to armed confrontation with police. There was no meaningful difference between white responses to armed resistance by blacks and white responses to nonviolent resistance by blacks. Where massive police force or state power was exercised, as in Birmingham and Selma, Alabama, or in Jackson, Mississippi, police violence was not a response to either the use of guns or the practice of nonviolence; rather, it was exercised for the sole purpose of crushing black protest and demands in any shape. The Freedom Rider bus in Anniston, Alabama, for instance, was not firebombed because anyone thought it was smuggling weapons; hate and fear alone drove that attack, as they did the police-backed mob attacks against Freedom Riders in Birmingham and Montgomery.

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