How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible (3/3)
TRNN Replay: Charlie Cobb, author of “This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed,” says we must use the lessons of non-violence in the sixties to address the epidemic of violence plaguing inner-city neighborhoods today
EDDIE CONWAY, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome back to The Real News. I’m Eddie Conway. And I’m here having a discussion with Charlie Cobb, the author of This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed. And so far we have been talking about the conditions in the South.
Charlie 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 Mississippi Summer program. A founding member of the National Association of Black Journalists, Cobb has reported for NPR, PBS, Frontline, the National Geographic, and H.U.R. radio station in Washington, D.C. Cobb is a senior writer for AllAfrica.com. He is the coauthor of Radical Equations with civil rights organizer and educator Robert P. Moses.
Welcome back, Mr. Cobb.
CHARLES COBB, AUTHOR AND ACTIVIST: I’m happy to be back.
CONWAY: Alright. Well, Charlie, when we left, we were talking about organizing and whatnot. And one of the things that I noticed in your book is you were talking about the antipoverty programs and how it basically just took the wind out of the sail of the civil rights movement. Can you talk about that little bit?
COBB: Well, yeah. I think with the passage of–there were a lot of things that caused the movement to be in a state of flux–the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the emergence of poverty programs, all of which acted–we didn’t know enough, I think, as young people to really know how to effectively respond to these pressures. We were under a lot of pressure as an organization, say, as SNCC, because a lot of people thought we were too radical. So there was this whole conversation going on in Washington, D.C., and New York about how do you undermine SNCC’s influence in the South. And SNCC itself was struggling with what direction to go in. This really boils down to the question of what do you do with success.
Think about it. We started out as student activists trying to desegregate restaurants, and we won. We started out as student organizers fighting for the right to vote, and we won by 1965. We could also see that being able to get a hamburger at a restaurant or being able to cast a ballot at the county courthouse didn’t solve the enormous problems that we were looking at in the black community, and certainly didn’t scratch the surface of the kind of problems you saw in the North.
So what do you do now that you’ve won some things? We were having this argument among ourselves at the same time that very powerful forces were trying to blunt our influence in the South. And what they felt was our influence. And we didn’t have the skills, I think, speaking honestly, to meet that challenge. We as organizers mobilized communities and peoples to work sometimes full-time with us for no money.
Now, here comes a poverty program in, say, a place like the Mississippi Delta, which is plantation country, and most of the black people living in it are sharecroppers. And that poverty program says, well, work with us and we’ll pay you $30 a week. Well, how do you compete with that? What kind of language do you have that can tell somebody who’s been making, say, as a sharecropper, anywhere from $1 to $3 a day now being offered $30 a week? You know, stick with us and somewhere in the future things’ll get better. We didn’t have–and I’m speaking very honestly here–the skills, the ways and means to grapple with that. And then you have things like COINTELPRO and all kinds of things acting systematically and powerfully and deliberately against the movement, particularly the movement as it came to some conclusions, conclusions about some things that powerful people thought were too radical, like our opposition as an organization, SNCC, to the war in Vietnam, or efforts to engage in labor organizing.
And people forget, for instance, when Stokely Carmichael shouts out “black power” in 1966, he was 22 years old. Young. Most of us hadn’t reached the age of 25 by the time the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed. So there was a lot we didn’t know, particularly when it came down–we’re no longer really just in combat, say, with the Ku Klux Klan or some group like that, the association for the preservation of the white race, which thought the Ku Klux Klan was too liberal. We’re up against much more powerful forces. And I think–and if we had a table full of SNCC people here, we’d get a fierce argument going about this. But I think we didn’t have the skills.
CONWAY: But do you think just the concept of black power and black empowerment was kind of like what brought all of that attention?
COBB: No. No. Black power, the whole reason we were involved in voter registration, going all the way back to 1961 now, is ’cause all these local people the South, that’s what they wanted. They’re the ones who put black power on the table. Why do you think they wanted us to help them get people registered to vote, to have the power to basically effect, to use a phrase that came out in an entirely different context–basically, they wanted us to help them effect regime change. That’s what they wanted.
CONWAY: But I’m talking about from the other side, not from what the black people wanted in the South on the ground, but the powers that be, the reaction to black power, and the drive to kind of, like, change the conditions in terms of economics and so on?
COBB: I think a larger fear was at play here than you get from reaction to the simple phrase black power. I think what people in power recognized by the did mid 1960s: that something far more radical was emerging from the Southern freedom movement–ideas about governance, ideas about economic arrangements, ideas about empowerment. The classic example of this is during the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party challenge to the all-white delegation and Hubert Humphrey, and they picked, in an effort to blunt that challenge, two people from the MFDP would be allowed.
CONWAY: What’s that? The Mississippi what?
COBB: Freedom Democratic Party. They picked two people–Ed King, a white chaplain from Tougaloo College, and Erin Henry, the state president of the NAACP, and they basically told–well, we’ll see these two. When Ed King, who was white, suggested to Hubert Humphrey that instead of him, maybe they ought to think about involving Mrs. Hamer, Hubert Humphrey’s reaction was the president is not going to let that illiterate woman speak at this convention. And what you see there is a fear of ordinary people engaging in the political process. When Stokely Carmichael shouts out “black power”, what they don’t like about the phrase [incompr.] after all, Richard Wright had used “Black Power” as the title of his book on Ghanaian independence years before. Adam Clayton Powell, the New York Congressman, had called for black power months before Stokely shouted out “black power”. So you say, well, what are they afraid of? They’re afraid that what SNCC and other civil rights organizations are talking about is an expansion of participation in the political process in a way that directly threatens their power, their ability to set the agenda for the country, their ability to rule. [incompr.] that’s the fear that they had. And that fear was born before Stokely Carmichael shouted out “black power”. There’s always been this issue in this country as who has a voice in the political process, and in particular who has the deciding voice in the political process. Their fear of SNCC, their fear of grassroots organizing, was that it suggested a way for people they wanted to keep out of the political process coming in to the political process. And when I say coming in, I mean coming in in a way that they can make meaningful decisions and have meaningful influence over the direction of a county, a state, or the country itself. And this fear is still with us, which is what is all behind the current efforts at voter suppression today, for instance. That fear is still [incompr.] they will use whatever devices they can, whether it’s a poverty program or whether it’s new law in state legislatures.
CONWAY: Or locking up–
COBB: Or locking up–.
CONWAY: –the population so that they can lose their rights to vote,–
COBB: Yeah. Felony convictions.
CONWAY: –to a large degree.
COBB: Yeah. I mean, there are all kinds of devices. They’ve been used, really, since the founding of the country. You think about it, when the country was founded, you had to have property to vote.
CONWAY: Well, let me just go back for a minute, though. It seemed like SNCC changed its name at some point. What was that about?
COBB: Yeah. I wasn’t involved in those meetings. It changed its name from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to the Student National Coordinating Committee. And as I heard about it, I believe it was Jim Foreman who had been the executive director of SNCC but no longer was. I believe it was Jim Foreman that suggested that name. And it was SNCC backing away from the word nonviolent in his title.
COBB: I think they felt that it wasn’t relevant anymore. And really, SNCC really–it really wasn’t relevant. I didn’t feel as strongly about that as some people did. It’s like saying the NAACP should change its name from the National Association of Colored People to the National Association of Afro-American People. I suppose you could do that. But I’m sentimental. It’s fine. And I felt the same way about SNCC. You know, yeah, nonviolence doesn’t function with SNCC in 1968 or whenever that name changed. Nonviolence doesn’t function with SNCC in 1968 the way it did in 1960. But I give into my sentimental nature on these things, and so I was perfectly content with nonviolent CORE. But other people weren’t, and they, in a way–so they picked national. And that’s all that was.
CONWAY: Well, I noticed in your book your advocating that we need to move back to the nonviolent position again in terms of the violence that we find in our community.
COBB: I think there should be a conversation about nonviolence, that it may be relevant again. You look at–and here I’m in many ways talking about cities. You look at Indianapolis or Baltimore, for that matter, or Detroit or Chicago, you look at this violence, last month this nine-year-old boy was killed by two gang bangers–actually, four. They were moving around this neighborhood looking for rival gang members to shoot. They thought this nine-year-old boy told their rival gang members that they were looking for them. So they assassinated this nine-year-old boy, shot him in the head and chest. You look at that and you kind of say, is it possible to have a conversation in these communities that attacks this kind of violence? How is it–and I put this in the book–I mean, clearly nonviolent struggle had an impact in the South.
I mean, the important aspect, important fact is that people engaged in nonviolent protest effected change. I think we can prove that. So how is it that the idea of nonviolence has been lost? There’s no conversation about nonviolence that’s meaningful, clearly. And I can point to individuals who I think have–Diane Nash maintains a conversation about, now, Bernard Lafayette, Reverend James Lawson, names that may not be known to many viewers who were important to the 1960s movement and are still around, but really it’s not a part of the political dialog.
And the great lesson of the South, in my view, in the final analysis, is as much as the movement in the South challenged white supremacy, more importantly what the movement did and involved was black people challenging other black people. And that is the question that’s in front of us today when we look at this violence in these inner cities: what black people are going to challenge what black people to tackle this question? That’s more important to me than asking white people for stuff.
CONWAY: But answer that. Answer your own question.
COBB: Well, I think the people that are committed to nonviolence as a way of life [incompr.] ought to do that. I mean, they ought to enter these–how do you embed yourself in a violence-ridden community? Let’s name names. How does Jesse Jackson or Martin Luther King III or Al Sharpton, who appear in some places, like they did in Ferguson, to protest the murder that took place there, since they have organizations, how would they embed themselves in murderous inner-city communities, where a parent sending their kid to the corner store is more worried about the kid getting hit by a stray bullet then by a cop’s bullet? How do you tackle that? How do you organize that against that? What’s the language that you need? Can you embed yourself in these communities the way we did in the South 50 years ago or 45 years ago? I think these questions need to be grappled with. Are there lessons from the Southern experience that might be applicable to these kinds of problems? I mean, I think that’s on us, black people, to tackle that. I think it’s on us black people to challenge one another around these kinds of issues, ’cause that’s the lesson of the movement.
You know, Martin Luther King emerges as a leader in Montgomery in 1955 ’cause he was challenged by E. D. Nixon, a leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. The Montgomery bus boycott was supposed to be for one day and one day only. They met at King’s church to discuss extending it. All the ministers were afraid to do it. They were coming up with one excuse after another about why they couldn’t do it. Finally, E. D. Nixon stands up, looks at the ministers, and he says, you preachers been eating these women’s fried chicken long enough. Now it’s time to get up off your behind and do something for them, and because it’s the women who were affected by the bus segregation. They’re going from one side of town to the other.
That’s when Martin Luther King, who was 26 years old, stands up, says to E. D. Nixon, I’m not a coward. And they formed the Montgomery Improvement Association, they agree to extend the bus boycott, and they elect Martin Luther King as head of this new organization. So what do you see in that story, in that episode? You see black people, i.e. E. D. Nixon, challenging other black people, currently preachers, to do something in Montgomery. And we still need to do that.
CONWAY: We need to do that in our own community for people that have some sense of responsibility or–.
COBB: Yeah. That’s my attitude, anyway.
CONWAY: Okay. Alright. I want to thank you for joining us, and I’m glad you took this time to share your insights with us. Thank you.
COBB: I’m happy to have been here. Thank you.
Thank you for joining us. I’m Eddie Conway. And please join us again at The Real News.
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