This Nonviolent Stuff'll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible

Overview

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 ...

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This Nonviolent Stuff'll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible

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Overview

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.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
04/14/2014
In this persuasive long-form essay, Cobb, a journalist who served as a field secretary with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s, describes questions of the propriety of gun ownership and self-defense at the grassroots of the civil rights movement as “an intellectual tea party, perhaps momentarily refreshing but only occasionally nourishing.” Southern blacks remembered instead the lessons of Reconstruction: with the federal government largely absent and indifferent, “Black people would have to fight for their rights locally, and unless they protected themselves from reprisal, no one would.” The movement was deeply imbued with the spirit of nonviolence, but Cobb points out that its organizers and activists were guarded from night riders and state-sponsored terrorism by guns and armed militias, without whom progress in Mississippi and elsewhere would likely have been impossible. Cobb’s bracing and engrossing celebration of black armed resistance ties together two of founding principles of the Republic—individual equality and the right to arm oneself against tyranny—and the hypocrisy and ambiguity evident still in their imbalanced application. “If we exclude the more complex Native American resistance,” Cobb writes, “it can easily be argued that today’s controversial Stand Your Ground right of self-defense first took root in black communities.” (June)
From the Publisher
“[A] richly detailed memoir…”
New York Times Book Review

“Cobb's long-essay format brings the Freedom Movement to life in an unexpected way, shaking up conventional historical views and changing the conversation about individual freedom and personal protection that continues today…A nuanced exploration of the complex relationship between nonviolent civil disobedience and the threat of armed retaliation.”
Shelf Awareness for Readers

“[A] revelatory new history of armed self-defense and the civil rights movement…”
Reason

“Masterfully told…[A] challenging and important new narrative…”
—The Root

“In this challenging book, Charles Cobb, a former organizer, examines the role of guns in the civil rights movement.”
Mother Jones

“This book will have readers who might have nothing else in common politically reaching for a copy.”
—PJ Media

“Cobb brilliantly situates the civil rights movement in the context of Southern life and gun culture, with a thesis that is unpacked by way of firsthand and personal accounts.”
Library Journal (starred review)

“Cobb… reviews the long tradition of self-protection among African Americans, who knew they could not rely on local law enforcement for protection… Understanding how the use of guns makes this history of the civil rights movement more compelling to readers, Cobb is nonetheless focused on the determination of ordinary citizens, women included, to win their rights, even if that meant packing a pistol in a pocket or purse.”
Booklist (starred review)

“Persuasive…Cobb’s bracing and engrossing celebration of black armed resistance ties together two of founding principles of the Republic—individual equality and the right to arm oneself against tyranny—and the hypocrisy and ambiguity evident still in their imbalanced application.”
Publishers Weekly

“A frank look at the complexities and contradictions of the civil rights movement, particularly with regard to the intertwined issues of nonviolence and self-defense…Thought-provoking and studded with piercing ironies.”
Kirkus Reviews

“What most of us think we know about the central role of non-violence 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.”
—Hodding Carter III, Professor of Public Policy, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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.”
—Charles M. Payne, author of I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle

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.”
—Clayton E. Cramer, author of Armed America: The Remarkable Story of How and Why Guns Became as American as Apple Pie

“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.”
—Julian Bond, NAACP Chairman Emeritus

“Blending compelling experience with first-rate scholarship, Charles E. Cobb Jr. 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.”
—Timothy B. Tyson, author of Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power and Blood Done Sign My Name

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.”
—Wesley Hogan, Director, Center for Documentary Studies, Duke University

“Charles Cobb, Jr.’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 particpants, 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.”
—Emilye Crosby, author of A Little Taste of Freedom: The Black Freedom Struggle in Claiborne County, Mississippi and editor of Civil Rights History from the Ground Up

“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.”
—David Dennis, former Mississippi Director, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and Director, Southern Initiative of the Algebra Project

“When night riders attacked his home, twentieth-century Mississippi civil rights leader Hartman Turnbow ‘stood his ground’ and lit up the night to protect his family. Charles Cobb’s ‘stand your ground’ book, timely, controversial, and well documented, contravenes a history as old as George Washington and Andrew Jackson and as new as George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn. Don’t miss it.”
—Bob Moses, former director of SNCC's Mississippi voter registration program and founder and president of the Algebra Project

“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.”
—Nicholas Johnson, Professor of Law, Fordham Law School, and author of Negroes and the Gun: The Black Tradition of Arms

“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.”
—John Dittmer, author of Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi

From the Publisher
“When night riders attacked his home, twentieth-century Mississippi civil rights leader Hartman Turnbow ‘stood his ground’ and lit up the night to protect his family. Charles Cobb’s ‘stand your ground’ book, timely, controversial, and well documented, contravenes a history as old as George Washington and Andrew Jackson and as new as George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn. Don’t miss it.”
—Bob Moses, former director of SNCC's Mississippi voter registration program and founder and president of the Algebra Project

“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.”
—Nicholas Johnson, Professor of Law, Fordham Law School, and author of Negroes and the Gun: The Black Tradition of Arms

“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.”
—John Dittmer, author of Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi

Kirkus Reviews
2014-05-06
A frank look at the complexities and contradictions of the civil rights movement, particularly with regard to the intertwined issues of nonviolence and self-defense.A former field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, veteran journalist Cobb (On the Road to Freedom: A Guided Tour of the Civil Rights Trail, 2007, etc.) studies the civil rights revolution at the grass-roots level rather than through the leadership. Martin Luther King Jr. and others in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference officially adopted nonviolent resistance in the form of sit-ins, boycotts and demonstrations, yet these tactics were viewed skeptically by some activists. Violence against black resisters was so prevalent and pernicious, Cobb writes, that retaliatory violence was neither unheard of nor indeed unexpected. The peaceable sit-in at a Woolworth's in Greensboro, North Carolina, on Feb. 1, 1960, for example, contrasted markedly with a subsequent violent clash between black demonstrators and the white mob that set upon them during a sit-in in Jacksonville, Florida. Self-defense with firearms often went hand in hand with nonviolent resistance—indeed, it "ensured the survival…of the freedom struggle itself." Cobb backs up this rather perplexing statement with a variety of historical material, pointing out that blacks in the rural South had relied on guns to protect their families against white supremacist violence since the time of Reconstruction. The author also characterizes slave insurrections as "the taproot of the modern freedom struggle" and explores the contradiction of African-Americans serving in the U.S. military while being deprived of basic civil rights. Yet while retaliatory violence might have been the norm in some communities, it could not bring the vast, radical change that nonviolence did.Thought-provoking and studded with piercing ironies.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465033102
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 6/3/2014
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 112,915
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

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.

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