This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed—How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible

By Charles E. Cobb, Jr

Basic Books

Reviewed by Herb Boyd

charles e cobb jr

In the world of publishing, as in many other walks of life, timing is everything.  Whether it was intended or just happened to arrive on 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, Charles E. Cobb, Jr. will not quibble about the publication of his book This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed—How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible.  Even before you open the first page, the mere fact that this is an effort by one of the movement’s most endearing members, one of unimpeachable integrity, is enough to command at least a cursory glance.

That cursory glance quickly becomes a lengthy read as Cobb transport you across a history of encounters where guns, both real and imagined are at the foci of his absolutely absorbing narrative.  “This is not a book about black guerrilla warfare, retaliatory violence, or ‘revolutionary’ armed struggle, and I make no attempt to argue such actions were either necessary or possible,” he explains in the introduction. 

“Nor is this a book about nonviolence.  Rather, it is about people—especially young people—who participated in a nonviolent movement without having much commitment to nonviolence beyond agreeing to use it as a tactic.”

Cobb addresses this history with authority since as a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee right in the center of Jim Crow’s bowels in Mississippi, he experienced firsthand the danger of the Ku Klux Klan, had his near-brushes with the legacy of martyrdom that was the fate of so many of his comrades.

Whenever guns and the civil rights movement are juxtaposed, it’s hard not to think of Robert Williams, the militant NAACP leader in Monroe, North Carolina who defied white reactionaries and later authored the book Negroes with Guns.  The other image from this combination is the Deacons for Defense, an unflinching group of armed men based in Louisiana and distinguished by their vow to protect civil rights workers.

Cobb devotes considerable time and insight to both Williams and the Deacons, and rightfully so.  As he notes, nothing terrifies white Americans—even Klan members—like the prospect of a black man with a gun, or a group willing “to stand their ground.”  And in this engrossing account you will be surprised by some of the men—and women—who talked nonviolence but kept a weapon nearby.

In the first pages of the book Cobb recounts the usual incidents of violence, most of them perpetrated or instigated by whites, thereby provoking a response from African Americans.  Many of these episodes are common fodder in the best books about black struggle for liberty and justice, including chapters about the numerous slave revolts or conspiracies.  But there are several of these violent encounters that are rarely given a full discussion, such as Bacon’s Rebellion or the planned uprising led by “Father” Moses Dickson and the Twelve Knights of Liberty.   I will leave these intriguing moments for you to discover.

By now, most Americans who have delved more than a book or two into black history are aware that Dr. King kept a few guns around the house for self-defense.  One dramatic example of this occurs when the late William Worthy and Bayard Rustin visit King.  Worthy, a radical journalist, almost sat on one of the guns partly concealed on a chair.  King may have been unwavering in his speeches about the practice of nonviolence but he was ready with a veritable arsenal to protect his family. 

So was seemingly mild-mannered Walter White, who replaced James Weldon Johnson as executive secretary of the NAACP.  Cobb, in vivid prose, reconstructs the race riot in Atlanta in 1906 and White’s courageous role.  “The mob moved toward the lawn,” White related in his autobiography that Cobb cites.  “I tried to aim my gun, wondering what it would feel like to kill a man.”  White never got off a shot because others fired in advance making it unnecessary for him to shoot.

During the same disturbance, W.E.B. Du Bois, then a sociology professor at Atlanta University was poised to deal with anyone daring to approach his house.  Armed with a double-barreled shotgun, Du Bois sat on his front porch, determined to protect his wife and daughter.  “If a white mob had stepped on the campus where I lived,” Du Bois wrote later, “I would without hesitation have spread their guts over the grass.”

A few of our legendary black women were also ready to unleash a barrage of gunfire against a lynch mob.  “A Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give,” wrote Ida B. Wells-Barnett.  
Daisy Bates was given the assignment to chaperone the Little Rock Nine as they sought to integrate Central High School.  As the publisher of a black newspaper, Bates and her husband were not unfamiliar with racism and violence.  One evening someone threw a rock through their living room window with a note attached to it threatening their lives.  That might have prompted her to begin carrying a .32 caliber pistol in her handbag.

Reading Cobb’s riveting accounts is reminiscent of the late James Forman’s The Making of Black Revolutionaries.  In fact, they provide bookends to the movement, especially during Cobb’s eyewitness retelling of those harrowing moments in Mississippi. 

For all the violence, the senseless murders of civil rights volunteers, Cobb concludes that there were few shootouts of any kind from the organized groups.  “Fear explains this fact,” he opines.  “Few if any white terrorists were prepared to die for the cause of white supremacy; bullets, after all, do not fall into any racial category and are indiscriminately lethal.  Wisely, I think, black defenders who could have opened up with killing gunfire usually refrained.  In place after place, a few rounds fired into the air were enough to cause terrorists to flee.”

Fleeing, however, was never part of Cobb’s itinerary and he has done a wonderful job following the gun trail and giving body to the words once spoken by H. Rap Brown (Imam Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin) that “Violence is as American as cherry pie.”

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