Sunday, February 2, 2014

Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement

We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement by Akinyele Omowale Umoja is as provocative as it sounds. Tracing a tradition of armed self defense of the African American community before, during and after the visible heyday of the Civil Rights Movement in the early sixties, the text suggests  a new way of understanding the relationship of that movement to the use of force. And it is not only a matter of self defense--at times violence was used to further the goals of the movement. The book unsettles a narrative, widespread in the media and influential on the left, that the movement achieved its goal of desegregating the South by taking the moral high road and through the use of non-violent civil disobedience discredited its opponents, whose cruelty was exposed. In turn, the federal government was impelled to act, passing crucial legislation, i.e. the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act. These in turn promptly led to the dismantling of Jim Crow structures. In the context of the failure of the Democratic Party to embrace the movement by seating the Mississippi Freedom Party rather than the Jim Crow delegates at the 1964 and the turn towards more intractable economic issues and Black Power, the question of violence was opened, and growing numbers in the movement embraced it. Depending on ones outlook, this was either a tragic error that invited government repression or a step towards revolution, aborted by forces outside the movement's control.

Umoja's narrative is quite different. Armed self defense was a long standing tradition in the South, due to constant threat of white supremacist violence. Some Blacks would keep firearms in their homes and return fire from night riders and other white supremacist vigilantes. When Civil Rights activism started to accelerate, it was a necessity, due to the intensity of the violent response, the collusion of local law enforcement with white supremacists, and the failure of the federal government to consistently protect movement activists. Early on, there was interest in the anti-colonial struggles in Africa, and their parallels to the struggles of African Americans. These anti-colonial struggles were all typically violent. In this context, strict codes of non-violence appear as an importation that always had limited support. And when non-violent groups were most active in the state, they often adopted to grim realities of Mississippi life by accepting offers for self-defense. The Deacons of Defense, an armed group in Louisiana, inspired imitators in Mississippi.

Although the Black Panthers didn't have much of a presence in Mississippi (but see below), Black nationalism does register in We Will Shoot Back. It's particular form is the Republic of New Africa (RNA), an effort to assert a nation composed of Black Belt regions in the South. Participants adopted armed self defense, which the author claims may have saved lives when the police confronted them over a dispute over land. In contrast to the other struggles described in We Will Shoot Back, the Republic of New Africa seems arbitrary and imposed from above. Although it never came close to its goal of a new country and pulling the United Nations in as arbitrar of the status of African Americans, it nevertheless raises similar questions as other efforts to create homelands for people, namely, how many African Americans would actually want to move to such a place, and what would happen to the indigeneous population already present?

During and after the RNA, civil rights struggles, backed by self defense, continued in Mississippi. Although there is a tendency to declare Jim Crow dead following passage of the Civil Rights Act, struggles continued into the late seventies around fairly basic demands such as having African Americans on the police force. These struggles were often powered by the emergence of the United League, a more militant alternative to the NAACP, which developed effective strategies involving boycotts in small cities backed by enforcement squads which would intimidate those within the African American community unwilling to support the boycotts (it might be noted here that many labor struggles in the US have used similar amounts of violent intimidation to enforce compliance).

Of the many stories of self defense recounted in We Will Shoot Back, three in particular stood out for me. In 1961, in Tylertown Mississippi, SNCC workers were told that several months before their arrival, the town had been terrorized by nightriders. Warnings that the terrorism must cease were ignored. African Americans apparently connected to a fraternal order captured one of the nightriders. His head was severed from his body and placed on a bridge as a warning to whites. The terrorism stopped.

The second incident occurred during a boycott in Aberdeen Mississippi in 1970. The context for the boycott was the suspension of two African American police officers for refusing to wear confederate symbols. Organizer Rudy Shields had a friend bring a contingent of Black males from another town to Aberdeen. Amidst rumors that the Black Panthers had arrived, the young men marched through town, striking fear among both white business owners who hoped to break the boycott and Black consumers who were not yet on board. The fear of militant, armed members of a revolutionary organization was more potent than the reality, and helped to strengthen the boycott.

The third incident happened amidst the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the 70s. In Tupelo in 1978, the aforementioned United League led a boycott of White owned businesses around demands relating both to racism of the police and failures to expand economic opportunities for Blacks. Tensions rose as the Klan joined the battle to break the boycott. The city council tried to appear above the fray, equating the struggle for social justice with Klan terrorism and trying to stop the protests of both. In this fraught environment, the United League brought arms to demonstrations, and had scouts on rooftops searching for snipers and other dangers. Things came to a head on June 10, when the United League held a demonstration in downtown Tupelo, and the Klan held a counterdemonstration.  The UL's demonstration was more than twice as large. No violence occurred, but "local Blacks were emboldened by the greater numbers of UL protesters and took the opportunity of the Klan counterprotest to unleash verbal assaults at White supremacists for years of racial intimidation and terror." Sixty four year old Jack Clark told reporters "We used to have get off the sidewalks for White folks.. and them Klansmen, wooie boy, you didn't go messin' with them. But now I tell them, "go to hell.""  Umoja attributes the new attitude not only to the size of the United League demonstration, but to the presence of armed Blacks. The release from fear of the Klan provides a stark contrast with the more famous incident in Greensboro North Carolina, where Klansmen assassinated five members of the Communist Workers Party in 1979 at a "death to the Klan" rally.

Above I've summarized just a small amount of the content of We Will Shoot Back. I strongly recommend reading the entire book. I suspect most readers will find their understanding of the civil rights movement transformed. The image painted of Black activists willing to use force if necessary to protect themselves and advance their movement is quite different from the way the civil rights movement is usually portrayed. It is not that images of disciplined non-violent activists not being provoked by beatings, or communities singing in churches are wrong. Rather, these practices should be seen as part of the same movement that at times provided armed guards to movement activists and shot back at nightriders. Attempts to disentangle an early,  good, noble, non-violent movement from a later bad, nationalist, violent movement are a lot harder to do after reading this book. Apart from the chapter on the RNA, one of the most striking things is how consistently the protests described, protests which involved armed self-defense, were advancing demands that involved rudimentary reforms necessary to abolish segregation--firing the most racist police, attaining a minimal level of respect from city governments, ending the refusal of white businesses to hire African Americans. The RNA is something of an outlier, but for the most part, armed resistance was advancing basic goals of the civil rights movement. It is also important to note that movement activity of this sort persisted long after the civil rights legislation was passed in the mid-nineteen sixties. Jim Crow was not simply abolished by legislative fiat in Washington, but through a multitude of hard fought struggles in small cities all over the South.

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