Visiting Martin Luther King Jr. at the peak of the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott, journalist William Worthy almost sat on a loaded pistol. "Just for self defense," King assured him. It was not the only weapon King kept for such a purpose; one of his advisors remembered the reverend's Montgomery, Alabama home as "an arsenal."
Like King, many ostensibly "nonviolent" civil rights activists embraced their constitutional right to selfprotection -- yet this crucial dimension of the Afro-American freedom struggle has been long ignored by history. In This Nonviolent Stuff'll Get You Killed, civil rights scholar Charles E. Cobb Jr. describes the vital role that armed self-defense played in the survival and liberation of black communities in America during the Southern Freedom Movement of the 1960s. In the Deep South, blacks often safeguarded themselves and their loved ones from white supremacist violence by bearing -- and, when necessary, using -- firearms. In much the same way, Cobb shows, nonviolent civil rights workers received critical support from black gun owners in the regions where they worked. Whether patrolling their neighborhoods, garrisoning their homes, or firing back at attackers, these courageous men and women and the weapons they carried were crucial to the movement's success.
Giving voice to the World War II veterans, rural activists, volunteer security guards, and self-defense groups who took up arms to defend their lives and liberties, This Nonviolent Stuff'll Get You Killed lays bare the paradoxical relationship between the nonviolent civil rights struggle and the Second Amendment. Drawing on his firsthand experiences in the civil rights movement and interviews with fellow participants, Cobb provides a controversial examination of the crucial place of firearms in the fight for American freedom.
Charles E. Cobb, Jr. is a former National Geographic magazine staff writer and a former field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and has also served as a Visiting Professor in Brown University's Department of Africana Studies. A veteran journalist, he is an inductee of the National Association of Black Journalists Hall of Fame, and his reporting has won multiple awards. Cobb lives in Jacksonville, Florida.
Table of Contents
Author's Note xi
Prologue: "I Come to Get My Gun" 19
1 "Over My Head I See Freedom in the Air" 27
2 "The Day of Camouflage Is Past" 55
3 "Fighting for What We Didn't Have" 83
4 "I Wasn't Being Non-Nonviolent" 114
5 Which Cheek You Gonna Turn? 149
6 Standing Our Ground 187
Epilogue: "The King of Love Is Dead" 227
Afterword: Understanding History 239
What People are Saying About This
I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle - Charles M. Payne
"This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed is the most important movement book in many years. Charles Cobb uses long-standing confusion over the distinction between violence and nonviolence as an entrée to rethinking many fundamental misconceptions about what the civil rights movement was and why it was so powerful. This level of nuance requires a disciplined observer, an engaged participant, and a lyrical writer. Cobb is all these."
A Little Taste of Freedom: The Black Freedom Struggle in Claiborne County, Mississippi - Emilye Crosby
"Charles Cobb’s This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed is a marvelous contribution to our understanding the modern black freedom struggle. With wonderful storytelling skills and drawing on his unparalleled access to movement participants, he situates armed self-defense in the context of a complex movement and in conversation with both nonviolence and community organizing. Cobb writes from personal experience on the frontlines of SNCC’s voter registration work while also using the skills of journalist, historian, and teacher. The result is a compelling and wonderfully nuanced book that will appeal to specialists and, more importantly, anyone interested in human rights and the freedom struggle."
Armed America: The Remarkable Story of How and Why Guns Became as American as Apple Pie - Clayton E. Cramer
"This Nonviolent Stuff'll Get You Killed is a powerful mixture of history and memoir, a scholarly and emotionally engaging account of a dark time in our recent history. This is one of those books that is going to have people from across the political spectrum buying it for different reasons. One can hope that those on both left and right can learn from this book."
Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi - John Dittmer
"Any book that has as its central thesis that armed self-defense was essential both to the existence and the success of the Civil Rights Movement is bound to stir up controversy. But Charles Cobb, combining the rigor of a scholar with the experience (and passion) of a community organizer, has made his case. This book is a major contribution to the historiography of the black freedom struggle. More than that, it adds a new chapter to the story of the local people who, often armed, protected the organizers and their communities during the turbulent civil rights years."
Negroes and the Gun: The Black Tradition of Arms - Nicholas Johnson
"Popular culture washes the complexity out of so many things. Charles Cobb works mightily against that torrent. This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed shows that the simplistic popular understanding of the black freedom movement obscures a far richer story. Cobb defies the popular narrative with accounts of the grit and courage of armed stalwarts of the modern movement who invoked the ancient right of self-defense under circumstances where we should expect nothing less. This book is an important contribution to a story that is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore."
Hodding Carter III
"What most of us think we know about the central role of nonviolence in the long freedom struggle in the South is not so much wrong as blinkered. Or so Charles Cobb says in this passionate, intellectually disciplined reordering of the conventional narrative to include armed self-defense as a central component of the black movement's success. Read it and be reminded that history is not a record etched in stone by journalists and academics, but a living stream, fed and redirected by the bottom-up witness of its participants."
author of Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power - Timothy B. Tyson
"Blending compelling experience with first-rate scholarship, Charles Cobb traces the way that armed self-defense and nonviolent direct action worked sometimes in tension but mostly in tandem in the African American freedom struggle. Crafted with powerful clarity and engaging prose, Cobb’s book deploys the intellectual insights of both everyday people and excellent historians to make the case that it wasn’t necessarily 'non-nonviolent' to pack a pistol or tote a shotgun in the civil rights–era South—but grassroots activists often found it necessary. This is easily the best, most accessible, and most comprehensive book on the subject."
"This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed jostles us outside the ho-hum frame of 'pick up a gun' vs. 'turn the other cheek.' Charles Cobb’s graceful prose and electrifying history throw down a gauntlet: can we understand any part of the freedom struggle apart from America’s unique romanticization of violence and gun culture? This absorbing investigation shows how guns are often necessary, but not sufficient, to live out political democracy."
"Powerfully and with great depth, Charles Cobb examines the organizing tradition of the southern Freedom Movement, drawing on both his own experiences as a field secretary with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) working in the rural Black-Belt South and contemporary conversations with his former co-workers. While Cobb challenges the orthodox narrative of the ‘nonviolent’ movement, this is much more than a book about guns. It is essential reading."
“This long overdue book revises the image of black people in the South as docile and frightened. It tells our story demonstrating that black people have always been willing to stand their ground and do whatever was necessary to free themselves from bondage and to defend their families and communities. This is a must-read for understanding the southern Freedom Movement.”