This country is bad with its history. Pieces of history that could help us think more clearly about today’s movements for social change are often ignored or distorted in popular media or commercial textbooks. This is especially true in the treatment of “nonviolent” resistance in the Civil Rights Movement.
We see this in how the import of the mid-20th-century civil rights struggle has been reduced. Julian Bond once succinctly and pointedly quipped that currently the public’s understanding of that struggle boils down to “Rosa sat down; Martin stood up. And then the white folks saw the light and saved the day.” To state the obvious, we need to know a lot more about what took place and why if we are going to find and apply the most useful lessons of movement history to 21st-century life today.
Consider what Dave Dennis, Mississippi project director for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in the early 1960s, told me about C. O. Chinn of Madison County, who became one of the most important figures in the Mississippi Freedom Movement. He barely exists in conventional movement history and scholarship although in 1962 at just 44 years of age he was already almost a legend when young CORE field secretaries began working in the county. C. O. Chinn was one of the first to embrace these CORE workers and the emerging local movement; they probably would not have survived without him. As the county sheriff, Billy Noble, once said of Chinn, “There are only two bad sons of bitches in this county; me and that nigger C. O. Chinn.” Many whites in the county feared Chinn. CORE field secretary Mateo “Flukie” Suarez, said of him: “Every white man [in the county] knew you didn’t fuck with C. O. Chinn. He’d kick your natural ass.” And as his wife Minnie Lou Chinn once said of her husband, “He’d fight the devil out of hell if he had to.”
When Dennis first met Chinn, he encountered the reality largely ignored today that guns were inescapably going to be part of his and CORE’s grassroots organizing projects, notwithstanding the organization’s founding commitment to nonviolence as a way of life. George Raymond, deeply committed to nonviolence, and who was the project director Dennis had sent there, told him that he had a problem with Chinn bringing his guns around movement activities. As a meeting at a local church got under way, Raymond asked him to step outside and talk to Chinn. “Whenever we have a meeting,” Raymond told Dennis, “C.O. Chinn sits outside with his guns. He won’t leave. He says he’s here to protect his people. Can you talk to him?” So, Dennis recalls:
I went outside to talk to him. He’s sitting in the back of his truck with a shotgun across his lap and a pistol by his side. I introduced myself, told him about CORE’s nonviolent philosophy. He listened. Then, very calmly, he told me: “This is my town and these are my people. I’m here to protect my people and even if you don’t like this I’m not going anywhere. So maybe you better leave.” I could tell he wasn’t a guy for any bull and I could tell he was there to do what he said he was going to do. I didn’t argue. I said, “Yes sir” and shook his hand, then walked back into the church thinking he’s got his job to do and I’ve got mine.