This week marks the 50th anniversary of “Freedom Summer” and the murder by Mississippi Ku Kluxers of three young civil rights volunteers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and “Mickey” Schwerner. The triple killing was world news mainly because Goodman and Schwerner were white Jewish New Yorkers. If it had been only the African American Chaney, nobody outside the “beloved community” of the Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee would have cared. The deep south’s culture of violence against blacks was a given.
What’s not so given, even today, is the black community’s long tradition of armed resistance. I’m riffing off Charles Cobb’s new book “This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible”. Cobb, a Brown university professor, is a former SNCC field worker, a bland way of saying he was under constant fire. I’m also dipping into my own experience in the Freedom Summer south…but also north.
Ever since slaves were imported to Jamestown in 1619, armed self defense was an authentic part of the African American experience. I don’t just mean well-known rebellions like Nat Turner’s, but ordinary day to day. Almost every household I ever visited in the south had a hidden shotgun or pistol under the bed. This contradicted MLK’s dominant peace-and-love message, his honestly-held outreach to whites, many of whom (like me) flocked to his Gandhian banner. Less publicly known is that wherever “Martin” traveled he was bodyguarded by men with guns. Indeed, his own Atlanta home was a discreet arsenal of weapons.
Even less public was the role of armed black women who for decades had to endure sexual and physical assaults by white southern cops and other thugs who, given immunity from prosecution, felt they could rape at will. Attending church services in Tuscaloosa, Selma or Montgomery, I was no longer surprised sitting next to a respectable black woman who opened her purse to fan herself revealing a modest little .22. Cobb cites the well-known story of Mama Dolly Raines in southwest Georgia (where I stayed with SNCC) sitting by her window with her shotgun to protect the Rev. Charles Sherrod, a passionate believer in nonviolence, who was staying with her.
In Albany, Georgia, where I was longest, love and commitment were the hallmarks of community organizing. The locals we were embedded in took us in like their own children. We were family. They would do anything to protect us from the constant threat of beatings and death. Or as Mama Dolly, a midwife, told Sherrod, “Baby, I brought a lot of these white folks into this world, and I’ll take ‘em out of this world if I have to.”
It’s sometimes hard for civilized nawthenuhs to remember how American-cherrypie violence was in the south. In Chattanooga, where I first went to school, streetcar conductors wore holstered pistols; city bus drivers all over the segregated south “packed”. You shot a “nigger” who gave you lip without second thoughts or fear of arrest. If you’re the local sheriff in rural Georgia and fancied a black man’s woman you erased him from the picture by beating him up and jailing him for assault.
Passive resistance began to change when WW2 veterans, trained in weapons, came home. Suddenly bad whites were confronted by armed ex-soldiers in the Deacons for Defense or ex-Marine Robert Williams’ Black Armed Guard (with an NRA charter yet!) in Monroe, North Carolina, to defend against racist attacks. Historically, there had always been the odd, defiant black man with a shotgun standing on his porch confronting KKK cross burners. Now, here and there, wherever Rev. King went, or was afraid to go, was collective resistance. In Birmingham when one of King’s bodyguards was asked how he protected his man, he replied, “With a nonviolent .38 police special.”
Up nawth the black mind set wasn’t all that different but with an entirely different circumstance. When I held a seminar on Black Nationalism at Monteith College for half a dozen young street blacks each one of them proudly showed me his shiv or cheap pistol. My sweet tempered Detroit host, Jim Boggs, the African American auto worker and Marxist activist, walked me to the corner bus stop on my last day but not before reaching behind his prized bust of Lenin on the mantelpiece and withdrawing his own .38 to escort me a city block. In my old Chicago neighborhood my host, a postal worker, waved me up to his apartment by pointing a shotgun out of the window to signal to the gang kids downstairs, including his own son, he meant business.
The 10th District cops I rode with, both African American, were armed: each hid a .45 under his clipboard, wore a hip holstered .38 and an ankle .25 caliber as backup to the backup plus two Mosberg 500 riot shotguns in the rack. “And you know what,” said my police driver, “we’re still outgunned.” His theory was that much of Chicago’s black-on-black violence was a form of culture shock. “These southern boys come up north with their mamas looking for work. Down in Alabama and Mississippi they had to toe the line or get lynched. Yassuh noesuh shonuff suh. All that peckerwood crap. Take that train up to Chicago and the chains drop off. They ain’t no more oppressed. Run wild. Cuss, shoot dope, murder each other or white folks. They wouldn’t dare do that in Yazoo County.”
So in honoring Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman, martyrs to a beloved community of non violent resistance, I can’t help thinking how it might have turned out differently if on that lonely Mississippi road in 1964, they’d been tailed not by murderous morons but by the Deacons for Defense.
(Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist. His latest book is Hemingway Lives.)