“I think guns make it [the Civil Rights struggle] possible because if you’re dead you won’t have a movement, and guns kept people alive. In particular, kept people who made the movement alive.”
This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible, by Charles E. Cobb, Jr. Basic Books, 294 pages, $27.99.
By Blake Maddux
As a young civil rights activist, Charles E. Cobb, Jr., served as the field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, or “Snick”) in Mississippi from 1962 – when he 19 years old – until 1967. Seven years after his tenure in that position ended, he began a career as a journalist at WHUR Radio (Howard University) and went on to work for National Public Radio, PBS, National Geographic, and AllAfrica.com.
In 2008, the National Association of Black Journalists inducted Cobb into their Hall of Fame.
Cobb is the author, co-author, or co-editor of three books and was, until recently, a Visiting Professor of Africana Studies at Brown University. His latest book is This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible, an eye-opening account that pulls back the curtain to reveal that there was more to the struggle for African-American equality than Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s belief in peaceful civil disobedience.
On November 10, Harvard Book Store will be hosting a talk by Cobb, who spoke to The Arts Fuse by phone from an apartment in Durham, North Carolina, across from the campus of Duke University, which recently partnered with the SNCC Legacy Project for the purpose of creating a documentary website called One Person, One Vote: The Legacy of SNCC and the Fight for Voting Rights.
Arts Fuse: What kind of research went into the preparation of this book?
Charles Cobb, Jr.: There are three streams of research that define the book. One, of course, is my own personal experience and researching my own memory. Secondly, a range of books by historians that I respected, some of whom I know, guided me to other books. These would be people like Charles Payne, John Dittmer, Emilye Crosby, and Hasan Kwame Jeffries. These are important historians, but I also know them. I’ve read their works and was helped by them. And the third and arguably the most important stream of research came from interviews. I know who the players are who are around, in the sense of SNCC and CORE [Congress of Racial Equality]. And I knew before I put one word down on paper who I wanted to talk to or who I felt was important to talk to: Bob Moses, Dave Dennis, Hollis Watkins, Charles McLaurin, etc, etc. So those are the three primary streams. I consciously choose not to do a substantial amount of archival research because I’m not a scholar. I’m a journalist, a working reporter.
AF: What did you teach in your capacity as a Visiting Professor at Brown University?
CC: I conducted a seminar as a Visiting Professor, limited to no more than 20 students, called The Organizing Tradition of the Southern Civil Rights Movement. We were looking, in class and through reading, at the grassroots dimension of the movement that unfolded in areas of the rural South. This was not a seminar exploring mass protests in public spaces led by charismatic leaders like, say, Martin Luther King.
AF: How long did you teach this class?
CC: A bunch of years. About eight years, I guess. I would come up every spring and do this one seminar.
AF: I understand that you spent several years of your youth in Springfield, Massachusetts.
CC: I went to junior high and high school in Massachusetts. I was born in Washington, D.C., so I spent a piece of my early life there, where most of my family lives.
AF: How was your youth and upbringing typical of the post-World War II African-American experience?
CC: The post-World War II period, particularly in the years of my youth in the late 1940s and 1950s, reflected dramatic change in the political climate in the black community. Civil rights were very much a part of the conversation among adults, and we heard that talk.
I think a lot of that has to do with World War II. You had 1.2 or 1.3 million black soldiers in that war against fascism and totalitarianism. And you could see immediately after World War II, there’s an upsurge in membership of the NAACP. You see the start of all the school desegregation that would ultimately result in Brown [v. Board of Education] in 1954. You see Little Rock [Central High School integrated in 1957] and any number of things reflecting civil rights, and not always good because you also have the Emmett Till murder  and other lynchings and also an expansion of the Ku Klux Klan and the creation of the White Citizens Council. Some of that I go into in the book.
So that affects my generation, which is hearing all of this. We hear our parents’ excitement about the 1954 school decision or we see Little Rock on television and we hear black GIs who are our fathers, uncles, and the like in discussion. So I think that climate change can be tracked back to World War II. There is a connection between that climate change and the eruption of the sit-ins in 1960, which is what pulled my generation into the civil rights struggle.
AF: What prompted your decision to not return to Howard University the summer after your freshman year?
CC: Most black college students were at historically black colleges and universities, and in 1961 that meant you were going to school, for the most part, in the South because – with the exception of Lincoln in Pennsylvania and Central State and Wilburforce in Ohio – that’s where the HBCUs [Historically Black Colleges and Universities] were, which meant that you were confronted with segregation. And the sit-ins erupt on black college campuses and later on the Freedom Rides about a year later. But the sit-ins erupt February 1, 1960, in Greensboro, North Carolina. So I got involved in the sit-in movement as a Howard University student because everything around Washington, D.C. was racially segregated. And Washington, D.C. had only begun to desegregate in the middle 1950s.
Because I was involved in the sit-ins, CORE – the Congress of Racial Equality – invited me to a workshop in Houston, Texas, and I bought a bus ticket from D.C. to Texas through the Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. But I got off the bus in Jackson, Mississippi, because the students were sitting-in in Jackson. And although students were sitting-in in every city that the bus went through, Mississippi – really in my mind and I think in most of my generation – was really considered the worst place on earth for black people. A lot of that had to do with the Emmett Till murder. So it seemed to me that it was one thing for me to be sitting-in in Virginia and Maryland, something qualitatively different for students to be sitting-in in Mississippi and I wanted to meet them. I made my way to their headquarters and they challenged me, they said, “Well why are you going to a workshop? You’re here in Mississippi. Stay here.” Which is what I did.
It wasn’t a decision not to go back to school, it was a decision to stay in Mississippi because it was summertime and school was out, so I could stay with them. And then at the end of the summer, I found that you couldn’t just pack up and go once you’ve started this, so I stayed instead of returning to school. And I stayed for some years. So that’s a more complicated story than just the decision not to go back to school.
AF: How did your parents react to your decision to remain in Mississippi?
CC: I think they weren’t happy about it, but they confronted with a fait accompli. It wasn’t like I sat down in the living room and said, “Well mom, well dad, I’m not going to go back to school in the fall, I’m going to be in Mississippi.” I was in Mississippi when I made that decision. They were OK with me going to the workshop.
AF: Did you see this book as a chance to introduce readers to people whom they had never heard of before?
CC: That’s part of the reason that I did the book, because I think the story of the movement is poorly told and it leaves out an awful lot of people without whom there would not have been a Southern freedom movement. I mention King early on in the book, particularly as a young minister in Montgomery, Alabama, and he had guns in his house, and he applied for a permit to carry a concealed weapon. But really this book is not Martin Luther King’s story, or Andy Young’s story. [Andrew Young was a member of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and later served as a U.S. Congressperson, and ambassador to the United Nations, and mayor of Atlanta.]
AF: Do you resolutely stand by the subtitle, which asserts that guns not only contributed to the success of the Civil Rights Movement, but that without them it could not have happened?
CC: People stumble over that idea. I think guns make it possible because if you’re dead you won’t have a movement, and guns kept people alive. In particular, kept people who made the movement alive. Even Martin Luther King was protected by guns. Sometimes he didn’t know it, but he was. Obviously guns didn’t stop the killings because all of those murders had be done by ambush, and it’s really hard to defend against ambush. After all, John Kennedy was assassinated.
AF: Why do many people have difficulty imagining the role of guns in something that those same people imagine being philosophically underpinned by nonviolence?
CC: That’s because people think of the movement wrongly, I think. The rural Southern culture, black or white, is gun culture. In Mississippi, the man I was staying with, he was going out every morning with his shotgun to hunt, to put food on the table. And they use their guns to chase varmint, like rats, out of gardens. So guns were such an ordinary part of life, and in every household I ever stayed in, it just seemed ordinary.
And I think it’s important to understand black people as people, as human beings. And in that sense, they’re going to respond to terrorism the way anybody would respond: do the best that they can to protect themselves, their families, their communities. So, while people are startled by it, because they don’t think of black people in that way, to me it’s ordinary and unsurprising.
AF: Was there ever any discussion among the members of the movement as to whether the 2nd Amendment guaranteed an individual right to possess firearms?
CC: No, we didn’t have discussions about the 2nd Amendment. We just assumed that anyone who had a gun had a right to his gun. It wasn’t a debate. The question of having a right to bear arms, certainly for self-defense, simply was not an issue. It was only, you know, is it practical to carry a gun? There was a small group of people within the movement who were philosophically committed to nonviolence as a way of life, but that’s not a 2nd Amendment issue.
Blake Maddux is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to DigBoston and The Somerville Times. He recently received a master’s degree from Harvard Extension School, which awarded him the Dean’s Thesis Prize in Journalism. A native Ohioan, he moved to Boston in 2002 and currently lives with his wife in Salem, Massachusetts.