This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed
Some notes (not finished yet):
In the introduction, Cobb somewhat undermines the clickbaity subtitle (“How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible,” which I wonder if the publishers rather than the author added), saying the book is an exploration of the choices movement activists made under the tensions between nonviolent tactics and armed self-defense. The fact that instances of armed self-defense and resistance resulted in mass destruction of communities (e.g. New Orleans and Memphis in 18Some notes (not finished yet):
In the introduction, Cobb somewhat undermines the clickbaity subtitle (“How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible,” which I wonder if the publishers rather than the author added), saying the book is an exploration of the choices movement activists made under the tensions between nonviolent tactics and armed self-defense. The fact that instances of armed self-defense and resistance resulted in mass destruction of communities (e.g. New Orleans and Memphis in 1866, Colfax, Louisiana in 1873), makes any straightforward NRA-fantasy argument about goodguys with guns stopping badguys with guns impossible. Cobb seems to be too honest a historian-activist to succumb to facile thinking. (He even undermines the narrower phrase “Civil Rights Movement,” preferring Freedom Movement: a broader description of not only the fight for legal equality but universal social, economic, and cultural struggle.)
On page 77, Cobb notes the new consciousness, politicization, and will to resist among black veterans of World War I, where the entirety of the command structure was–up through General Pershing and President Wilson–hardcore white supremacist, and many American black troops were forced to fight in French uniform and under French command out of deference to racist political sentiments.
Black soldiers in the war, declared veteran William N. Colson in the July 1919 issue of the Messenger, “were fighting for France and for their race rather than for a flag which had no meaning.” The war had exposed more of the terrain of struggle, wrote Du Bois. “There is not a black soldier but who is glad he went–glad to fight for France, the only real white Democracy, glad to have a new, clear vision of the real inner vision of the real inner spirit of American prejudice. The day of camouflage is past.”
I wonder if the more respectful French treatment of black American soldiers wasn’t a significant precursor and cause of the subsequent (or at least I think of them as subsequent, my historical knowledge of pre-WWI emigration to France is nil) expatriate communities of black artists and intellectuals to France.
From pages 88-89: “By the summer of 1961, the Kennedy administration was watching sit-ins, and especially Freedom Rides, nervously–and with no small degree of hostility. President John F. Kennedy and his brother Attorney General Robert Kennedy felt that they threatened their administration’s domestic and foreign policy agenda by embarrassing the United States and angering powerful Dixiecrats, and so–in what must be one of the great political miscalculations of the 1960s–they pressed student activists to abandon direct-action protests and work instead on voter registration. They thought that such work would be much more acceptable to southern white power than sit-ins seeking desegregation. Therefore, the Kennedys and other high-ranking administration officials concluded, a voter-registration campaign would be met with less white violence that desegregation efforts. In turn, because voter-registration efforts would be far less dramatic–not likely to be seen on television or on the front pages of newspapers–civil rights struggle would be less embarrassing to the United States as it competed with the Soviet Union for influence with newly independent nations in the Third World–nations that, crucially, were mostly Asian, African, and Latin American. Robert Kennedy offered assurance that money from tax-exempt foundations his family controlled or influenced could be made available for voter-registration campaigns.” [emphasis mine]
Interesting to note that pressure forces the elites to offer material support, which, with a militant movement pressing against elite liberal interests, can materially reinforce the movement. Cobb goes on to say that many within the movement were suspicious and most rejected the idea of organizing for votes, but others set up a separate, parallel campaign for it. “They also felt that the moral dimension of the movement would be lost to political opportunism. The Kennedys’ willingness to help pay for voter-registration campaigns only added to their suspicion, for it seemed like a cynical political ploy, an attempt to use money to divert the movement from the sort of militant, direct-action protest they knew the Kennedys hated. The Kennedy’s indifference to enforcing existing civil rights law and their hostility to protests challenging segregationist violations of those laws had already led many in the movement to come to disturbing conclusions: that the administration’s own political needs took priority over the enforcement of civil rights law, and that the Kennedys were more than willing to compromise with southern bigots in order to achieve their political goals.”
Page 141: “Whether or not they owned guns or had access to guns, activists and organizers knew that nonviolence was generally a much more commonsensical and sustainable tactic–one more likely to succeed–than offensive armed action. But armed self-defense was one thing; armed offense was quite another. Recalled Bob Moses:
Black people had organized enclaves which they were prepared to defend. Their self-defense was pretty much around a house or church, a meeting place. “Self-defense” in the white community is surrounding the courthouse. They were going to degend the courthouse in different ways. I think of us going to the courthouse [with potential registrants] as a nonviolent offensive maneuver. It allowed us to take the offensive and actually attack. You couldn’t go to the courthouse with guns and attack.“
Page 149: “Although the philosophy of nonviolence was far less familiar than the idea of armed self-defense, it was not a completely unfamiliar method of political struggle. And as the Freedom Movement evolved and the practice of nonviolent activism began playing an increasingly important role, it turned out that these two approaches–so dissimilar on the surface–were in fact quite compatible. Understanding the civil rights movement of the 1960s requires understanding this counterintuitive but vital compatibility.”
Page 223: “Biographers of King, autobiographies by SCLC leaders such as Abernathy or Andrew Young, and studies of SCLC make no mention of [Mallisham’s armed] group, despite the fact that Tuscaloosa’s decision to desegregate was a significant victory by an SCLC affiliate. … One important mission of SCLC’s ministers had always been to protect King’s public image; if any associates were involved in armed defensive action, the SCLC leadership would not have wanted to broadcast that fact to the world.”
On page 236 Cobb describes how an interest in international black art, culture and politics was blossoming in the 1960s: “Political expression and debate seemed to be everywhere, breaking down what had been the biggest barrier blocking meaningful black North-South political discourse: nonviolence.
“The idea of nonviolent struggle had prevented northern and southern activists from truly understanding each other’s strategies, tactics, and goals.” Here he describes a more vanguard-focused leadership model in northern groups, contrasting that with the grassroots organizing model of the southern struggle.
Page 237: The way forward remained unclear, as it does today. The freedom struggle continues, in ways at once more subtle and more urgent than the activists of the 1960s. And although the questions of nonviolence and armed self-defense may seem to have receded into the past, they endure in our conceptions of both the civil rights movement and the activism that followed Carmichael’s call for Black Power. Today gun rights are remembered as an unfortunate addition to the story of black struggle, one that helped radicalize and ultimately defeat the greatest ambitions of of the luminaries who propelled blacks’ age-old freedom struggle to new heights at midcentury. Furthermore, the issue of gun rights has largely come to be associated with the conservative white Right, and far too often the concept of ‘standing one’s ground’ is invoked to defend the murder of a black person. But there was a time when people on both sides of America’s racial divide embraced their right to self-protection, and when rights were won because of it. We would do well to remember that fact today.”