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Book Review: This Non-Violent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made The Civil Rights Movement Possible

By Charles E. Cobb, Jr.

            In my mind few American social movements have the gravitas and drama of the modern civil rights movements.  I never tire of reading about it.  Unfortunately, teaching the freedom movement has always been a from-the-top-down endeavor; that is, it has almost always focused on viewing the movement through the eyes of the elite, whether they were white government officials or black leaders.  Over the past two generations the movement and its participants have been treated as dusty relics trotted out for the annual celebration of African American History Month–I sometimes feel badly for John Lewis, the last surviving member of the “Big Four” civil rights organizations to have been on the platform at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom–which is in February, the shortest month of the year.  The annual celebration underscores that we need not think of African American history during the rest of the year, and that has served to obscure the freedom movement’s contemporary relevance.
         The searing pictures trotted out every February also cast the tactics of the movement in two simplistic ways: violence versus non-violence. That too does the movement and its participants a great injustice, for it trivializes their courage, determination and stubborn resolve to have what was rightfully theirs, what Robert Moses, a member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, calls “constitutional personhood.”  It also gave whites an easy out; plighting their troth with blacks engaged in non-violent direct action allowed millions of white Americans to convince themselves that they weren’t racist because they weren’t the ones beating up Freedom Riders or assaulting students sitting at lunch counters. 
            In This Non-Violent Stuff’ll Get You Killed,  Charles Cobb asks if non-violent direct action and armed self-defense could coexist. Spoiler alert: it can and it did. According to Cobb, “Black life in America has always meant struggle to protect and secure black life in America.  That struggle has never centered on the question of nonviolence versus violence.”  There was no clear line of demarcation between non-violent direct action and armed self defense. Cobb  reminds us that in the rural south, it was not unusual for blacks to have firearms if for no other reason than to put food on their tables.   Whites knew and accepted this.  They also knew that in virtually every community there was at least one “crazy nigger” who had no qualms about shooting a white person in order to protect lives and property.  Indeed, Cobb says that the black, rural south may be where  “stand your ground” originated.
            Blacks, armed or not, also knew that to stake their freedom on armed insurrection was dangerous and unrealistic.  They were vastly outnumbered and many, many whites would kill a black person without the slightest compunction.  Parts of the black community, however, did not think that it would be amiss to protect themselves and the brave people who were assisting them in winning their freedom.  They knew that the threat or practice of retaliatory violence was something to be used judiciously.
            Cobb has done a fine job of telling the mid-twentieth century freedom story from the grass roots.  He gives long overdue credit to the thousands of black men who returned from both world wars armed and determined to take their rightful places in American society.  Even in the Jim Crow military, many of these men got their first taste of freedom, and they came back home eager to exercise it in their own country. Those fearless veterans often formed the backbone of armed black resistance.
            Likewise Cobb doesn’t dismiss the difficulty members of civil rights organizations such as the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee SNCC) and the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) had with accepting armed self-defense when they swore an oath to be non-violent.  For some freedom fighters, just knowing that the people in these oppressed communities were trusting them with their lives allowed them to reconcile themselves to armed self-defense.
            This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed shows us a little known aspect of the southern freedom movement, and it does so through the eyes of the millions of  nameless, faceless black people who knew that a change was gonna come.  Although at times repetitive, Cobb has written a splendid book that does a great job of showing that armed resistance and non-violent direction action are not mutually exclusive.