How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible (1/3)
To mark Black History Month, TRNN’s Eddie Conway interviews Charlie Cobb, author of the book “This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed,” who says he dropped out of Howard University to become active in the Civil Rights Movement
EDDIE CONWAY, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Eddie Conway.
Forty-five years ago, as a member of the Black Panther Party, I thought that the civil rights movement, even though I knew it was a realistic tactic to organize in the South, I thought it was foolish and suicidal, and I couldn’t understand how people could let police beat them in the head, sic police dogs on them, hose them down with water hose. And it was just until recently that a new book came out that points to the fact that though–some of those movements were actually protected with guns.
And today, joining me in the studio is the author of This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed. Please join me in welcoming Charlie Cobb.
CHARLIE COBB, AUTHOR AND ACTIVIST: Thank you for having me.
CONWAY: In 1962, Charlie Cobb left Howard University and worked as the field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the Mississippi Delta. Cobb is a senior writer for AllAfrica.com. He is the coauthor of Radical Equations with civil rights organizer and educator Robert P. Moses.
Tell us a little bit about yourself, your background, why you left Howard University, where you was obviously going to get a degree, and went down to Mississippi.
COBB: There are various pieces to that story that I’ll try and bring together. Firstly, there’s the generational story, meaning my generation of black young people at that time, in the beginning of the decade of the ’60s, the sit-in movement. You know, we were all captured by the sit-in movement. And even if we didn’t participate in sit-ins, you’re looking at people your own age challenging white supremacy.
And remember, back in those days, Washington, D.C., itself had only recently begun to desegregate. Washington doesn’t begin to desegregate until the middle 1950s. And places like Baltimore or Maryland, the Eastern Shore, Virginia, that’s all segregated.
So, as a Howard University student, I became involved with the sit-in movement, partly because I felt compelled, for lack of a better word, to join people of my own age who were challenging white supremacy, and probably ’cause of my own family background. And I come from a family that’s always been actively involved with civil rights and civil rights struggle, or freedom struggle, if you will, in various kinds of ways, as my mother said to me the first time I got arrested that she just wasn’t surprised that I was involved in such a movement.
CONWAY: So you’re saying you were in your second year at that time at Howard.
COBB: I hadn’t even begun my second year. I had finished my first year.
CONWAY: And so you just dropped completely out of college.
COBB: Out. I stayed. Yeah, I did, I dropped out. I thought–and that’s where most of the SNCC and CORE people felt who were doing what we were doing in different parts of the South, that this kind of work was more important than pursuing the degree that we had entered into college to get. I mean, SNCC, the student nonviolent coordinating committee, which I was involved with, was entirely formed by young people who had left school after being involved in the sit-in movement, but wanting to do something more than get a cup of coffee or a hamburger or something at some white restaurant or lunch counter, the whole organization. And CORE itself, the Congress of Racial Equality, was changed by young people who did exactly the same thing and who left. And most of them were Southerners, I should say, not Northerners. This was in 1961 when I enrolled in Howard.
So, because I was involved in the movement, CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, invited me to a young people’s workshop for civil rights in Houston, Texas. And as perhaps only a young person could do, I decided to take advantage of the invitation, and also the money that CORE gave me for a bus ticket, to see the South. And I bought this bus ticket–Washington, D.C.; Virginia; the Carolinas; Georgia; Alabama; Mississippi; Louisiana; and on into Houston, Texas.
CONWAY: You went the long way.
COBB: Yeah. Well, you took the bus in those days, you know? You didn’t get on an airplane and fly–or nobody I knew (let me put it that way) got on an airplane to fly anywhere. I had never been on it. I was 19 years old in 1961.
So I took this bus trip and I got off the bus in Jackson, Mississippi. And the reason I got off the bus in Jackson, Mississippi, was because the students in Jackson were sitting in and protesting.
Now, for my generation, Mississippi was entirely defined, in our thinking, by the murder of Emmett Till. As far as we were concerned, there was no worse place for a black [incompr.] person on earth, and perhaps in the entire universe, than Mississippi. That was our thinking.
And I felt–it’s one thing for me to be sitting in in Maryland or Virginia; it’s another thing to be protesting and sitting in in Mississippi. So I wanted to meet these people, who were saying maybe they had some kind of gene that made them different.
So I did. I got off the bus and made my way to their headquarters and introduced myself as a Howard University student. I’ve been involved in the sit-ins and was on the way to Texas for this workshop.
And one of these students, then a student at Tougaloo College, who would later become the chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, Lawrence Guyot–big guy–got up off of his seat when I said I was on the way to this work. And he kind of hovered over me in complete disdain, and he said–I still remember his words–he says, you’re going to Texas for a workshop on civil rights? What’s the point of that when you’re standing right here in Mississippi?
CONWAY: Okay. Okay.
COBB: And I kind of got the message. It was like both–it was both a challenge and a demand. You know, if you’re serious, Charlie, you don’t need to go off and chatter somewhere about civil rights; we’re getting ready to do stuff here in Mississippi, and why don’t you just stay here?
And that’s what I did. I stayed. I didn’t realize that once you make that kind of decision, you can’t just then, when the summer ends, tell all the people you’re working with, well, school’s about to start, goodbye, good luck, I’m back to my classes. You’re kind of–if you’re serious, you kind of have to stay, you have to, like, see it through, because in those–the South was murderous. I don’t think people today understand at all how murderous these places were. For people to respond to you is to put their lives at risk. And their biggest fear was that you would ask them to do something, they’d do it, and then you could do the one thing that they couldn’t do, and that was leave.
CONWAY: Yeah. Yeah.
COBB: So you almost had to stay–almost a matter of honor as well as obligation.
So I stayed. I wound up staying for almost five years, as it turned out. And as a child, the big lesson in all of that, whether you look at my involvement with the sit-ins in D.C., in Maryland and Virginia, or whether you look at me staying in Mississippi, that what was going on is people my own age were challenging me to do something. And you respond to those kind of challenges in one of two ways: you walk away or you accept the challenge and you–whatever it is you’re doing–sitting in or organizing in the Mississippi Delta, you–.
CONWAY: Well, tell me now, this, your book, This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You–.
COBB: Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You killed.
CONWAY: And I see you say how guns made the civil rights movement possible. Why did you choose that particular title?
COBB: Okay. First, the title, and then the subtitle. The quote, this nonviolent stuff will get you killed, comes from a farmer in Mississippi, a man named Hartman Turnbow–tough guy, older, as many of the people who embraced us were. Mr. Turnbow was the president of his little local NAACP branch in Holmes County, Mississippi. But like a lot of those guys, they liked us because we were willing to directly challenge white supremacy, and they were looking for the kind of energy that we brought to the movement. They were frustrated at some levels, because the national NAACP, which they were a part of, was really reluctant to involve itself in the Deep South. They felt that it was too violent, too difficult, and that you wouldn’t get anything done which would cost a lot of money.
So these NAACP leaders who wanted to do something–a lot of that were World War II veterans–took us in, ’cause they said to themselves, I think, let’s use the energy of these young people, ’cause they’re the ones that put, for instance, voter registration on our table. We weren’t thinking about it. They’re the ones who said, yeah, stay with us, but we want you to do this. And really they were making a case for black power, as they were saying. We have the numbers if we can get them registered to vote, and if we can get them registered to vote, we can get rid of these sheriffs and we can get rid of these county boards of supervisors and all these other people oppressing us from official structures of government.
So Hartman Turnbow was one of them. And he met Martin Luther King in 1964. And after the usual courtesies of introduction, Mr. Turnbow, was never known to bite his tongue, looked at Reverend King and said, Reverend King, I want to tell you, this nonviolent stuff ain’t no good. It’ll get you killed. Now, that was too long for a book title, so all I did with the title was compress it to this nonviolent stuff will get you killed.
Now, I say how guns made the civil rights movement possible for what should be obvious–because they kept us alive. These guys–when Mr. Turnbow, the same Mr. Turnbow, when night riders attacked his farmhouse–and this was in 1964 or 1965; I forget when–and he drove them away with his Winchester (and, if rumor is true, killed one of them), when we showed up the next day, Mr. Turnbow said–first thing out of his mouth was, I wasn’t being non-non-nonviolent; I was just protecting my family.
And this is the rural South–guns a part of everyday life. People use them for hunting to put food on the table. People use them to keep varmints out of the gardens, that they had rats and the like. I only use them for self-defense, although I would put self-defense third. I would say putting food on the table, one. This is the rural South where people are poor, and guns were as natural a part of the culture as dungarees, overalls, or straw hats. And I simply don’t think that we would have gotten as far as we got–and we didn’t go all the way for all that we did–if these guys hadn’t kept us alive.
And the easiest way to think of that–I tell people all the time, I say, all you have to do is think of black people in the South as human beings. They’re going to do what any human being would do when under assault, do the best they can to protect themselves, do the best they can to protect their family, do the best they can to protect their communities. And in this case, we were a part of their communities. And if they took us into their households, if they said yes, we want to work with you, they felt there was no contradiction between saying they were a part of the nonviolent movement while they were cleaning their Winchesters or cleaning their shotguns or putting a pistol on the night table in case you wanted to use it to drive away–I mean, they just didn’t–there was no contradiction in this. They saw themselves as protecting the movement.
And in fact they did protect the movement. I tell people all the time, there would have been more to people killed in the South if it wasn’t for groups like the Deacons for Defense and Justice or Robert Williams and his group in Monroe, North Carolina, or all the individual farmers and the like who had the shotguns and the Winchesters and the 45s and the 38s scattered around their houses. And the white people knew this.
And if you look at murder in the South, you will see–and I say this in the book. I mean, when it comes to guns, we’re not talking about some kind of cowboy movie where the good guys are at one end of some dusty southern street and the bad guys are at another end and they walk towards each other and whoever’s fastest on the draw wins. When you see black people killed, two things you see with respect to guns: one, when you see black people killed, it’s almost always by ambush and not one-on-one confrontation. And two, it didn’t take much gunfire to drive white supremacists away. As much as they claim to like white supremacy, be committed, they weren’t prepared to die for it.
CONWAY: Okay. You mentioned Robert Williams and you mentioned the NAACP kind of, like, helping you all to organize and encouraging you all, and to some degree protecting you all. But I noticed that earlier, Robert Williams, he was, like, the president of the NAACP chapter, and he armed his chapter. And they protected the community. And it seemed to me that the NAACP abandoned him in the effort for him to maintain his position in the NAACP because of the use of guns.
COBB: Not so much because of the use of guns. The NAACP’s relationship with Robert Williams is fairly complex. Now, you had to tensions, different kinds of tension. There was a tension between national priorities and local priorities. And that existed in many instances across the South. What the NAACP nationally wanted to do in New York didn’t necessarily coincide with what a local NAACP branch wanted to do. They didn’t like Robert Williams’s aggressiveness and pushing this. And some of this, there’s almost a class distinction that you have to make between a gruff militant guy from a small Southern city and the New York sophisticates like Roy Wilkins or Gloster Current and whatnot who would have preferred a more polite demeanor.
What got Robert Williams expelled from the NAACP was language. A black woman had been assaulted, a pregnant black woman, a woman eight months pregnant–I forget her name–had been assaulted by a white man–and found not guilty, although everybody knew that this white man had assaulted this black woman. And Robert Williams walked out of the courthouse furious. And he basically said, we can no longer count on these courts to supply any kind of justice to black people, and I think we ought to start to try these guys ourselves on the spot and find them guilty. And The New York Times had this headline that said, NAACP leader calls for–I forget–vigilante action, some headline like that. So Roy Wilkins calls Robert Williams to say, you can’t speak like that; you’re giving the NAACP–. And Robert Williams, being the kind of guy he was, said, well, you can’t tell me how to speak. I’m going to say what I think. And the trouble with you people in New York is you don’t care about ordinary people. And they had this back-and-forth on the telephone. And then, finally, they hang up on each other. And that same afternoon, Roy Wilkins expelled Robert Williams from the NAACP.
But he still remained in Monroe, North Carolina, ’cause he had this other group. You know, Robin Williams organized a branch of the National Rifle Association also in Monroe. It was called the Black Guards. So he was still in Monroe. Then there’s some shooting that takes place–and I’m making a story really compressed–that ultimately he winds up having to flee the country until 1969. You could do a whole show on Robert Williams.
CONWAY: Okay. Alright. I’m Eddie Conway, and I’m here with Charlie Cobb. He’s the author of This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed. And we will return in the next segment, and we’ll talk about how guns helped the community to organize in the South.
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