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Author Charlie Cobb discusses how famed activist Ella Baker inspired the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s grassroots structure, as well as the little-known story of armed self-defense during the Civil Rights movement

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EDDIE CONWAY, TRNN PRODUCER: Thank you for joining us again for this second part of the interview with Charles E. Cobb, the author of This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed. In 1962, Charles E. Cobb left Howard University to work as a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the Mississippi Delta. He originated the Freedom School proposal that became a crucial part of the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project. A founding member of the National Association of Black Journalists, Cobb has reported for NPR, PBS, Frontline, National Geographic, and the WHUR radio in Washington, D.C. Cobb is a senior writer for He is the coauthor of Radical Equations, with civil rights organizer and educator Robert P. Moses. Thanks for joining us again. CHARLIE COBB, AUTHOR AND ACTIVIST: Thank you for having me here. CONWAY: You know, when we last talked, we were talking about the NAACP kind of, like, supporting your organizing efforts and so on, and you had mentioned Robert Williams. And so you told me a little bit about Robert Williams. And I’m wondering. You said, this book here is how guns made the civil rights movement pop possible. But as I was reading, I see that you also says that the story is much more than guns; it’s about community organizing. What did you mean? COBB: I mean just that. Guns, firstly, to give you the shortest answer, guns kept us alive, which meant that guns helped enable us to organize at the grassroots in local communities across the Black Belt itself. I think the missed point, the missed lesson of Southern movement is that more than a movement of mass protest and public spaces led by charismatic leaders, what really defines the movement in the South, certainly in the 1960s–and, I would argue, going all the way back to the days of slavery and slave revolts–is grassroots organizing in rural communities. If you think about it, slaves were not organizing protest marches on the auction blocks. Slaves were not having sit-ins at the plantation manor dining room table seeking a seat at the table. What were they doing? They were organizing something: a revolt, the ways and means of escape, the ways and means of survival, sabotage, assassination. The organizing tradition is a deep tradition in the black community. And what you’re looking at in the 1960s is just a manifestation of this old organizing tradition in rural communities of the South. That’s what we were doing. This is the influence of Ella Baker when it comes to SNCC. She’s the one that pushed us, that great lady of social change in the 20th century, in the grassroots community. And that’s the story that needs to be told. Guns fit into this story in the sense that in these local communities in the rural South, guns were simply a part of the culture, and people were going to use them to protect us, to protect themselves, or to put food on the table, or for any number of reasons. But they fit as instruments, as weapons, inside the story of community organizing. And that is what I’m trying to push forward in this book. I mean, you have–and these are ordinary people. These are not the Martin Luther Kings. These are not the Andy Youngs. These are not the Roy Wilkinsons. These are maids and cooks and sharecroppers and small farmers and mechanics and entrepreneurs and ordinary people. They’re the ones that form the backbone of the movement, they’re the ones that kept us alive with their guns, and they’re the ones that embraced us as we entered into these communities in an attempt to assist them in efforts at organizing the overthrow of white supremacy. CONWAY: Now, I mentioned heard you mention Ella Baker’s name. And when you think of the civil rights movement, you think of Dr. Martin Luther King. If you think of a woman, you think of Rosa Parks. Who is this Ella Baker? Tell me about it. COBB: Ella Baker–and I may be prejudiced here–I mean, she is one of the great figures of 20th-century social change. In 1940s, she was the director of branches for the NACP. So if you think about all those NAACP branches that existed in the South, when we showed up in the 1960s they were in many instances organized by Ms. Baker. Martin Luther King’s organization, when it was organized in 1957 or ’58, Ms. Baker was the one–. CONWAY: You’re talking with the Southern Christian Leadership–.v COBB: Christian Leadership Conference. CONWAY: Okay. COBB: SCLC, the Southern Christian Leadership Con. That was organized by Ella Baker. And she became its first temporary executive director. She was temporary executive director because she was a woman. And these preachers were uncomfortable with women in leadership positions. So I don’t see a real official executive director till Wyatt Tee Walker becomes–replaces Ms. Baker as executive director. And she was the one, when the sit-ins erupted, who recognized the value and importance of all of this student explosion coming off the campuses of historically black colleges and universities. And she got $800 from Martin Luther King to bring the students together at her alma mater–Shaw College then, Shaw University now. And out of that meeting in April 1960 emerged SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating–. And, now, Martin King gave Ms. Baker the money–she was Ms. Baker to us, because when she pulled this conference together, she was 57 years old, and we were 19 and 20 years old. So she was going to be Ms. Baker. And Martin Luther King wanted a student wing to his organization, and he saw the students becoming a part of it. Ms. Baker was the one telling the students, well, maybe you need to think about forming your own organization. And that’s how SNCC kind of emerged in 1960. And Ms. Baker was the one who really said, if you want to have change, if you want to see change, then organize from the bottom up, not the top down. Her more famous sentence in SNCC’s existence is strong people don’t need strong leaders. Pay attention to the grassroots and you will find that leadership will emerge from the movement that emerges. This is Fannie Lou Hamer’s story. This is Hartman Turnbow’s story, from whom I got the title of this book. She was truly a great woman. I would have to say that virtually all of us, in SNCC anyway, could lay claim to being her political children. CONWAY: I’m just curious now if from what you’re saying it seems that she’s responsible for the sit-in movement. COBB: No. The sit-in movement erupted pretty much spontaneously in–there had been other sit-ins before. The sit-in movement emerges February 1, 1960, when four students from A&T sit in at the Woolworth. It catches on, and it spreads like wildfire across the South, so that by 1 April, two months later, you have had sit-ins at about 80 southern cities, involving thousands of students. Ms. Baker, who then was working for SCLC, recognized that this movement represented an important explosion of student political energy. But she also knew that the students didn’t know each other. We at Howard didn’t know the students at North Carolina A&T; the students at North Carolina A&T didn’t know the students at South Carolina State or the students at Fisk. What Ms. Baker recognized was that the students needed to meet each other and have a conversation with each other. So she got the money from Martin Luther King to bring the students together, and so the Nashville students could meet the South Carolina state students and the Fisk students could meet the A&T students. That was Ms. Baker’s great insight, that these students need to talk to one another, and maybe need to think about forming their own organization and need to think about what their mission should be as a group of students. And where she used her influence was simply to say, if you do come together to do some work, think about organizing from the bottom up, as opposed to the top down, ’cause the tradition in 20th-century civil rights struggle was from the top down. So Martin Luther King was the leader of SCLC and his people, and his people came into these communities to tell them how to struggle and to follow him. Same thing for the NAACP. Ms. Baker presented a different kind of approach: listen to the people on the plantations, listen to the small farmers, listen to the maids and the cooks and the sharecroppers, listen to the mechanics, listen to the cooks–that’s what she’s telling us–and you will learn something. First you will learn what people really want. Secondly, you will learn who the real leaders of the community are, ’cause they’re not in New York and they’re not in Atlanta and these kinds of places; they’re down on the ground. You listen to these people and you will find out who they are. And thirdly, she said, if you do this, you will also discover that there’s leadership waiting to emerge. And when you involve yourself in these communities, these people will make their way to you. And this is the real force for change. I mean, that’s in a nutshell what Ms. Baker represented in relationship to SNCC, certainly. CONWAY: Well, at what point did guns come into play, in terms of protecting–. COBB: Guns were always at play. I mean, it wasn’t as if the guns appeared because of SNCC. Guns have been used by black people going all the way back to the days of reconstruction, when they had to fend off the clue Ku Klux Klan, the Knights of the White Camelia, the paleface brotherhood. There were all these organizations 100 years before we were involved, and black people had been using guns. And the reason they were able to use guns in Reconstruction was because so many black people had been a part of the Union army and they came back home with their guns. And they used them to protect their farms and their families, just the way they use them in the 1960s. So when we show up in–I show up, for instance, in Ruleville, Mississippi, in 1962. The man I’m staying with, Joe McDonald, he has a gun in the corner. You know, I don’t have to tell him to go get a gun. And he’s going to use the gun the way he’s always used the gun: to hunt, to keep the varmints out of the garden, and to protect himself and those he cares about. And when I’m living in his house, I’m one of the people he cares about, and he’s going to protect me. I don’t have to organize him to do that; I don’t have to tell him to do that. He’s going to do it, ’cause he’s just a normal human being. The Deacons for Defense and Justice in Louisiana emerged to protect nonviolent CORE workers. CORE didn’t have to organize these Deacons–and the called themselves deacons, I think, just to cloud the issue of what they were about. The Deacons–basically, the Deacons’ attitude was, we’re not going to let white people kill these nonviolent people. We’re not nonviolent, and we’re not going to let the white people kill them. If they try and kill them, we’ll try and kill the white people. That’s the way–. CONWAY: When did they emerge, though? COBB: Nineteen sixty-four. CONWAY: Okay. And before that, though, with all the freedom rides in the buses, the attacks where people got off the interstate buses and got beat and brutalized and whatnot, was there people there with guns? COBB: Yeah, but–. CONWAY: And I guess my question is: how could they stand around and watch that level of brutality? COBB: Well, it depends on–they didn’t always stand around, one, and watch that level of brutality, but you have to–I think–and I go into it in much more detail in the book than I can sitting at this table–I make a distinction in terms of movement struggle. There is the struggle, there is the protest movement, largely centered in cities. And if you’re sitting at a lunch counter, you can say, yes, I’ll take all this crap from white people. That’s a tactical decision, not a philosophical decision. You can say, I’ll take it for the greater good, the mission; I’ll win sympathy. I mean, if you see a white mob surrounding some college student try to read books at a lunch counter and trying to get–how can you not feel sympathetic to them? So that’s a tactical decision you make. And if you’re strong enough, you take the punishment. That’s your choice. Or, if you’re not, you say, I can’t do that. And there were a lot of students who said, no, man, I can’t do that; if the white people attack me, I’m going to crack their job open. That’s largely an urban phenomenon. And then there’s a practical aspect. If you are sitting in at a Woolworth lunch counter and you’re surrounded by, say, 50 people beating up on you, what’s the best thing to do? I suppose you could pull out a pistol if you had one, but really, as a practical matter, the best thing for you to do–and this is sheer practicality–is to keep yourself from getting seriously hurt or to prevent somebody else from getting seriously hurt. We had techniques that we use to do that. But we made the choice. We’ll accept the violence are not accept it. We made no case for nonviolence as a way of life, as Martin Luther King did or Bayard Rustin did. We just said, as a tactic, it seems to work. It wins sympathy. And a lot of places in the South in 1960 caved in to these protests. As another practical matter, even if you’re not sitting in and you have a gun watching it, how do you use a gun in a kind of melee that you have, say, at the Birmingham bus station with when the Freedom Riders rolled in, or in Montgomery, Alabama, where everybody’s all jumbled up together? I mean, think about it. It’s sort of like the kind of shooting that goes on today in too many inner cities. These guys drive through, they fire their guns, and anybody can get hit, often young children. So there are practical concerns about when to use the gun, to bring people to the county courthouse with guns is–in rural areas is to say, well, you’re launching an armed attack. As a practical matter, that’s not going to work. CONWAY: Okay. We’re going to come back. We’re going to have another segment. Thank you for joining us. COBB: Thank you for having me here. CONWAY: And thank you for joining The Real News. We will come back in the next segment and explore what happened to the gains that were made in the civil rights struggle.


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Charlie Cobb

Charles E. Cobb, Jr. is a journalist, professor, and former activist with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Currently he is a senior analyst at and a visiting professor at Brown University.