Episode 5, Season 3
Armed resistance and nonviolent direct action co-existed throughout the civil rights era. In this episode, three historians confront some comfortable assumptions about nonviolence and self-defense. Wesley Hogan examines the evolution, value and limitations of nonviolence in the movement. Christopher Strain offers a three-part strategy for rethinking this false dichotomy in the classroom. And Akinyele Umoja offers insights about armed resistance from his research in Mississippi.
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Understanding and Teaching the Civil Rights MovementEdited by Hasan Kwame Jeffries
Own the book from the University of Wisconsin Press that inspired and informs season three of the Teaching Hard History podcast!
- Learning for Justice, Strong Women and Gentle Men (grades 6-8, 9-12)
- Learning for Justice, Before Rosa Parks: Ida B. Wells (grades 6-8, 9-12)
- Learning for Justice, Walking With the Wind (John Lewis)
- Who Said it? MLK or Malcolm X (PDF by Adam Sanchez, answer key)
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: When you grow up in the Black Baptist church, you learn to appreciate a good funeral, one that strikes the right balance between celebrating a life well lived and mourning a life lost. The homegoing service for civil rights icon John Lewis, which was held on July 30th, 2020, at historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, was a good funeral. The speakers extolled Lewis’s virtues as a person. They honored his civil rights sacrifices. And they celebrated his political accomplishments.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I was watching the service on TV, enjoying it, when Bill Clinton walked to the pulpit. The former president was halfway through a warm, folksy tribute when he attacked another civil rights icon—Kwame Ture, better known by his birth name, Stokely Carmichael. Ture was Lewis’s successor as the chairperson of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Born in Trinidad and raised in the Bronx, he introduced the nation to Black power during James Meredith’s 1966 March Against Fear. Clinton’s language was more subtle than savage. But the attack was still severe.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: This is what he said:
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Bill Clinton: There were two or three years there where the movement went a little bit too far towards Stokely, but in the end John Lewis prevailed.]
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: A little too far toward Stokely? Really?! What Clinton is actually taking issue with is Negroes with guns. But what he fails to realize is that armed self-defense, both as a philosophy and a practice, co-existed alongside nonviolence throughout the civil rights era. And what’s more, in many instances, armed self-defense wasn’t even an option. It was necessary for movement activists—and for the movement itself—to survive.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: In an interview for the Eyes on the Prize documentary series, Ture reflected on the impracticality of tactical nonviolence and the importance of armed self-defense during SNCC’s 1960s organizing campaign in Mississippi. He explained.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Kwame Ture: The question of nonviolence doesn't have any real relevance when you talk about organizing. Nonviolence as a tactic in a public demonstration is at this point effective. But if you're an organizer, you're talking about being on the road three, four, five o'clock in the morning, sneaking on a plantation with the Ku Klux Klan laying in wait for you. You come down the highway, they come chasing you. If you stop and be non-violent, they're going to kill you. If you are dead, we need another worker to come to replace you to carry on the people's struggle. So the logics of this was just incomprehensible. That's why the people who were involved in organization instinctively understood that nonviolence was a tactic, and consequently the tactical name of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee stayed there, but most organizers in the Deep South who worked for SNCC were carrying guns. And these contradictions were clear.]
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Self-defense and nonviolence were a part of the same Black protest tradition. In the rural South especially, there is never a point when Black people suddenly pick up guns, because there is never a point when they suddenly put them down. Nonviolence versus self-defense is a false dichotomy, a misreading of the past that persists into the present. The importance of both as philosophies and tactics can only be understood therefore when they are treated as complementary, which is the exact approach we use to examine them here.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I’m Hasan Kwame Jeffries, and this is Teaching Hard History. We’re a production of Teaching Tolerance—a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. This season, we’ll be offering a detailed look at how to teach the Black freedom struggle, or the US civil rights movement. In each episode we’ll explore a different topic, walking you through historical concepts, raising questions for discussion, suggesting useful source material, and offering practical classroom exercises.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: In this episode, we’ve asked three historians to confront common assumptions about nonviolence and armed self-defense. Christopher Strain will offer us a framework for re-examining this false dichotomy. Akinyele Umoja is going to share some insightful examples of armed self-defense from his research on Mississippi. But first, I spoke with Wesley Hogan about the history of nonviolence as a philosophy and a strategy, so we understand it’s evolution, it’s value, and it’s limits. I'm glad you could join us.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to Wesley Hogan, a comrade in arms. I have been learning from her and working with her for the last quarter century. Wesley, it's so great to have you with us on the podcast.
Wesley Hogan: Likewise, Hasan. I'm so glad to be here today and so, so excited about the work that you all have been doing on Teaching Hard History. It's a real honor to be here.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Well, great to have you. So we got you here because there's no one who is able to make sense of nonviolence in ways that make it easy to understand than you. So where should we begin teaching nonviolence to our students in the classroom?
Wesley Hogan: It's most powerful to start with Jim Lawson, and the workshops that he began to teach in the fall of 1958 in Nashville. That's the place where students, young people—but particularly students at Fisk and American Baptist, Meharry—really begin to get to know what nonviolence is, whether they're capable of it, and how to trust each other and listen to each other. And while nonviolence is practiced sporadically in other parts of the South and then eventually in other parts of the North and the West too, the place where it's most consistently brought forward as a strategy that has the potential to change federal policy and break up Jim Crow comes right out of that Nashville movement. And the core of that Nashville movement are these workshops.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, I grew up in the Cornerstone Baptist Church on the corner of Madison and Lewis in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, New York. And I tried to be like Jesus, Wesley. I have always come up short. I'm a Christian, I just ain't a very good one. So part of what I learned, though, in studying the movement is that being able to embrace nonviolence and being able to apply nonviolence isn't necessarily something that just comes naturally. You're not born being like, "Oh, okay. I'm going to protest and walk through life nonviolently," per se. And that during the civil rights era, people had to learn to become and practice nonviolence.
Wesley Hogan: That is so right.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Is that fair to say?
Wesley Hogan: Oh, my gosh, yeah. Non-violence is—whew, it is so hard. Most of us aren't accustomed to it. It's not how we learned in the schoolyard. So when people were trying to learn nonviolence, it took a lot of time, and patience, and consistent behavioral learning—not only “let's learn the idea,” but then let's practice it. Because many of the people who came into his workshops had been raised just like me, and they were not ready.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And what does he begin to do, James Lawson, in Nashville in 1959, 1960?
Wesley Hogan: So he does something he calls socio-drama. He pairs people up, and he kind of puts them in different parts of the basement. And you know, what do you do if somebody calls you out on your name? What do you do if somebody trips you? What do you do if somebody pulls your hair or, you know, if you're a woman, somebody tries to touch your breast or something? Like, how do you want to respond in a nonviolent manner?
Wesley Hogan: If you're a teacher and you want to use this, there's a great scene with Jim Lawson in the 2013 Lee Daniels' film The Butler.
MOVIE CLIP, Lee Daniels' The Butler (actor Jesse Williams as Jim Lawson): ‘We are organized. We have a leader with every group. We have lookouts. And when one wave comes off that lunch counter, what follows? A-whole-nother wave of Negro students sitting right there at that lunch counter, blowing their mind.’ – Fisk Training Scene occurs 37 minutes into the film]
Wesley Hogan: And so they do this in pairs. They're nervous and there's some, you know, a lot of them report about—there's a lot of giggling. And he's, like, dead serious, “No.”
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Mmm-hmm.
Wesley Hogan: “You can't laugh. You've got to take this really seriously. You've got to do this thing and make it as real as possible, because when you're out there in Nashville, nobody's gonna be laughing.” So they kind of straighten up, and they try it out in these pairs. And then he brings them back together. They debrief, and it's a real physiological experience. There's a lot of kind of sweating, there’s sometimes crying. There's people who need to, like, go take a walk around the block and come back. They have to kind of get it out before they can try again sometimes. And, of course, there are people that realize, “I cannot do this. You know, this is not for me. I might be able to make signs, or drive people to an action, or staff the phone lines, but I can't do this.” And so they kind of sort themselves out, which he does for a couple of weeks with them.
Wesley Hogan: Then they try a group socio-drama. And that's way, way more intense. One group would act as the nonviolent—what would become the—sit-iners at the lunch counter. And another group would come in and act as the white thugs and call people out on their name, and push them, and try to get them out of their seats and so forth. And he would say, "All right, what are you gonna do if somebody punches your sister? What are you gonna do if somebody spits in your face?" And they would try out these scenarios. And then Lawson would kind of play freeze tag and have others walk around the outside of the role play, comment, analyze. And in that experience, they would gain confidence, try new things.
Wesley Hogan: There's a famous example where somebody gets so mad when they're spat upon, and they storm out of this church basement. And Lawson asks them to come back in after they've cooled down a bit. And he gets himself in the role play and asks the person to spit again. And he then calmly pulls himself upright a bit, takes a handkerchief out of his back pocket, hands it kind of surreptitiously over to the person who's been acting as the thug. And then he says to the person who was acting as the thug and just spat on him, "Sir, do you happen to have a handkerchief?" [laughs] And apparently this happened in real life. So, you know, for most of us, we just can't imagine having that kind of poise in a public space.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: When your life is on the line.
Wesley Hogan: But he deeply inspired these young people. And so they tried it out, and they did this for weeks, and weeks, and weeks, throughout 1959 in the fall. And through that gained a lot of confidence, mutual learning, and began to see that there was an alternative to self-defense. And as you know from your own work, there were people who saw nonviolence as a very useful tactic, and they used it when it was useful to them. But they never bought the sort of ethic of compassion—bringing forward the compassion in the other person—at the heart of his political ideal.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And would you say that that is the defining difference between, what some would term, the philosophical approach—this internalizing, this way of walking through the world nonviolently—and those who saw it just as a useful tactic?
Wesley Hogan: I do. I think there are situations where you might be able to draw forward that compassion from another. You can have the same two people in a public situation. One spits on the other. The person who's spat upon ask for a handkerchief, and the spitter gives it. And if it's in a public place, that shame of spitting on someone, you might be able to use the public nature of it to compel the rude spitter to hand it over. But you're on a cold road at 4:00 am and no one's seeing? The spitter not only has spit but has a nine-millimeter. I'm not sure you can compel that kind of civic relationship. In my own opinion, it's not a consistently reliable political theory.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Mmmm. Mm-hmm. And yet in Nashville, you know, after these trainings, and workshops and practices, they put it into effect—with great effect.
Wesley Hogan: They do. I mean, they use what he calls the non-violent anvil. He sees it as an absolutely, terrifically powerful, hammer to break up Jim Crow.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: What was the key to success in a place like Nashville?
Wesley Hogan: Yeah, it's fascinating. I mean, for me it seems like these workshops getting started early—before February 1st, 1960—are pivotal.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And what's February 1st, 1960?
Wesley Hogan: Yeah. So the students begin to sit-in in Greensboro, North Carolina, on February 1st, 1960. But in Nashville, Tennessee, they've been doing these workshops throughout the fall of 1959 and even a little bit earlier than that. There's some kind of beginnings of this in the fall of '58, spring of '59. They don't really get started until the fall of '59. So I think something that's really exciting for their success in Nashville is that long-term work that's been happening in these workshops that sustains this powerful “act, reflect, act again.” And what they realized through that experience and work, is that there's a situation in Nashville that's happening simultaneous to those workshops where Black women are telling their pastors, “You preachers don't have to face the same kind of realities that we do. We have to come downtown and shop. We have to bring our children with us. There's no place where we can rest our feet, get a cup of coffee, feed our kids.” And Lawson has this particularly powerful story that just kind of grates on his nerves. Harvey's department store is this very elaborate downtown department store. On the fourth floor, there's this beautiful children's carousel. Black children are forbidden to play on it. Their mothers aren't allowed to sit in the adjacent tea room, while white mothers can stop, rest their feet, their children play, blah, blah, blah.
Wesley Hogan: And they're just so absolutely enraged by this. And so is Lawson. Vivian Henderson, an economist at Fisk, is listening to this and just looks at some of their data on Tennessee and says, “You know, Black people are bringing $8 million a year to downtown Nashville. And if you look at this kind of 90-mile radius around Nashville, Black people have about $100 million of buying power annually in metro Nashville. So we know this is an important stress point. What if we really bring that to a halt?” Those kinds of things are what they're beginning to realize in the fall of '59—the workshops, this carousel situation—and then they go on winter break. When they come back from winter break, classes are just starting to get started again. And then in Greensboro, North Carolina, these four, young, first-year students sit-in near North Carolina A&T. And Douglas Moore, a Durham-based minister, calls his friend Jim Lawson and says, "Hey, can you start the sit-ins in Nashville?" And so by February 13th, they've started those sit-ins in Nashville. In that spring campaign, they're not only ready to go, but they know exactly how they're going to shut down that $8 million downtown economy. They know what the stress points are. They know how to navigate and negotiate with the Chamber of Commerce. And they have this central glue of a rigid adherence to nonviolent resistance.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Well, I want to back up for a second just to stress the point that, you know, we often think about—particularly during the high point of civil rights protests—that sit-ins and direct-action protests was often, if not always, spontaneous. And here we see in Nashville that contributing to its success was the fact that it was anything but spontaneous. These students were prepared. They were trained. They had a common set of objectives that they had studied—what to do and how to do it. Is that essential to the success of this kind of action and activity?
Wesley Hogan: It's an excellent question. I think there are definitely nonviolent direct actions that are spontaneous and can succeed. But nonviolent direct action campaigns are not. They are intentional, and they often have this kind of training behind them. Because as we talked about at the beginning, most of us are not ready for somebody to spit at us. We can't maintain our nonviolent posture in the face of somebody attacking us, or particularly, I think, attacking somebody that we care about. And so it is really important to have that kind of deeper exposure to the socio-drama, the role play; understanding how you yourself are going to respond under pressure; having some understanding of how the campaign is set up, what your goal is, what the strategy is, and who's going to be doing what within the campaign. There are some examples where you have people sitting in. Actually, the four young men in Greensboro are a good example. There wasn't a whole lot of thought that went into planning their action, but they had people coming behind them, like the Nashville group, that were ready and were able to sustain a much longer campaign.
Wesley Hogan: They have a little piece of paper that they give to everybody who's going to do a sit-in that tells people exactly how to act. So when each group would go to sit in—either at a lunch counter or any other place in downtown Nashville—before they left they would have a meeting in that same small basement in Kelly Miller Smith's church in Nashville. And they would receive a small piece of paper, sometimes laminated, which would have a list of things that they all needed to adhere to. And it was pretty rigid. There wasn't a lot of room for flexibility. The things that it indicated were that under no conditions were people to strike back, either physically or verbally. The people who had expressed doubt about their ability to remain nonviolent should not participate in the specific demonstration, but could again do support, transportation, make sandwiches, paint the posters. And the rules were very clear. “Do not strike back nor curse if abused. Do not laugh out. Do not hold conversations with the floor walker. Do not leave your seat until your leader has given you permission to do so. Do not block entrances to stores outside nor the aisles inside. Do show yourself friendly and courteous at all times. Do sit straight. Always face the counter. Do report all serious incidents to your leader. Do refer information seekers to your leader in a polite manner.” Those who broke the rules were reminded that they would undermine the sacrifice of everyone else. And the list ended with a caution to remember the teachings of Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, that love and nonviolence is the way. And as he handed out the list of rules, Lawson would almost always add a verbal exclamation mark, "Remember this: violence of spirit is even worse than striking back."
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I'll tell you, when you read that list what strikes me is not that those who practice nonviolence had some incredible degree of cowardice, but just the opposite. You had to have this incredible degree of courage/discipline in order for it to be effective. And that's not something that we get. Or that's not something that is conveyed in the usual ways that we talk about nonviolence during the movement.
Wesley Hogan: Students always have a real respect for the people that did this. They can't believe the kind of discipline and fortitude it took. When somebody violates your space, comes into your space, messes with your body or your hair, or calls you out on your name, we have a very immediate response. And the willpower and the discipline that it took to not have that usual response is a very awesome power.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: It's hard. Being nonviolent is hard. Look, you think about the current moment that we're in where we've all for the most part been quarantining and social distancing. You let somebody get within six feet of you and how you're like, "Whoa! Back up off me," right? Like, forget about trying to spit on you, right? You breathing in my space.
Wesley Hogan: That’s right.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I mean, our bubble has expanded, right? Now imagine what it would be like to let people in that close.
Wesley Hogan: This is true.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: That's difficult. It is difficult. It requires discipline.
Wesley Hogan: It’s so true. So the sit-ins take about three months in the spring of 1960 to really take effect. One of the NAACP leaders in Nashville, Alexander Looby, his home is firebombed in April of 1960. And in response to that, there's a silent march across downtown Nashville. At the end of that march, the Reverend C.T. Vivian—who also just passed away this past July—is very angry and confronts Nashville's white mayor, Ben West, on the steps of city hall. And it kind of devolved into this shouting match. At that point, a 20-year-old Diane Nash steps forward. She's quite scared. She said, in fact, she wasn't sure she was going to go on the march that day, but made a deal with herself. She said, "I'll take five minutes. And I'm going to either put the fear out of my mind and do what I had to do, or I'm going to call off the march and resign." So she forces herself to go five minutes out the door and knows she's risking expulsion from Fisk. But she said she wanted a good America, "And I want it just a little bit more than I want a degree."
Wesley Hogan: So she gets herself on this march, and she's thinking, “You know, we're just children. We're weak. We have no police force, no judges, no cops, no money. But she sees Reverend Vivian and Mayor West sort of shouting at each other and she begins to feel differently. She feels like she can look him in the eye, this mayor, and starts to speak in this unbelievably calm, distinctly non-confrontational manner. It immediately changes the whole tenor of the interaction. And [laugh] you almost feel sorry for Ben West later because he describes what happened as a kind of soul searching. She says to him directly, "Mayor West, do you feel that it's wrong to discriminate against a person solely on the basis of his race or color?" And West kind of looks confused for a minute. He looks up. He looks down at the steps of city hall. He looks to the side. And then he says, "Well, I had to answer this question as a man and not a politician." And he says “It's morally wrong to sell someone merchandise and then refuse them service." Basically, three weeks later, Black people are served at Nashville's lunch counters. And within the next month—led by Black college youth at HBCs across the South— urban, Southern lunch counters are desegregated. So between February 1st, 1960, and the end of the spring semester, you see an astonishing change in the southern landscape.
Wesley Hogan: And it works, I think, for two reasons. Because white business owners want to keep bringing people to their downtown areas and purchasing goods, and because these young people were willing to put themselves and their literal bodies on the line in this very disciplined way. And that model in Nashville gets replicated, gets disseminated through chambers of commerce and business communities—San Antonio, Dallas, Atlanta, Memphis. These other cities rapidly desegregate lunch counters and other businesses.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Now during the civil rights era, we of course also have another form of nonviolent direct action, the Freedom Rides. Could you say a little bit about the Freedom Rides as nonviolent action, and how that connects to and continues the work of the sit-ins, perhaps?
Wesley Hogan: In the fall of 1960, the movement is looking for the next, you know, “how are we going to keep the momentum?” So they focus on desegregating interstate bus travel. The Supreme Court in 1960 declares clearly in Boynton v. Virginia that you cannot segregate interstate bus travel. And despite the court's ruling, when you're traveling from Washington, DC, down to Jackson, Mississippi, African Americans still had to ride in the back. And so in response to that, CORE basically resurrects a strategy that they'd first tried in '47. So you have interracial groups traveling on buses—African Americans sit in the front, Whites would sit in the back, or they might sit together in the front. And then at every rest stop, Blacks would enter the White waiting room, and Whites would enter the Black waiting room. And if they were asked to move, they would refuse.
Wesley Hogan: And there's an upcoming summit in Vienna with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev scheduled for June, 1961. And people who are in the movement know that there's sort of another big pressure point for the Kennedy administration. And they basically count on the racists of the South to create a crisis, so that the federal government would have to enforce the federal law or look like they were impotent in the face of this oncoming summit on the international level with Khrushchev. And so on May 14th, outside of Anniston, Alabama, a White mob firebombs the lead bus of the Freedom Riders and blocks the vehicle's exit. You can see this bus in the African-American History and Culture Museum in DC.
Wesley Hogan: SCLC leader Fred Shuttlesworth basically has to send a convoy of leaders from Birmingham to rescue the Freedom Riders and escort those who are injured to the hospital, because the police refused to do so. And the second bus gets boarded by the Klan. So you have people gravely injured. And these incidents basically mark this momentous clash of integrationists on the one hand and the white supremacists that that CORE had anticipated. No one from Greyhound is willing to continue on, to drive the buses to Montgomery. The head of CORE calls off the action, puts the rest of the riders on a plane to New Orleans. And what it looks like is—if you're willing to be a White supremacist violent person, you can defeat the freedom movement.
Wesley Hogan: And so at this point, Diane Nash, and John Lewis, and Jim Bevel and others in Nashville are watching this going, “Oh. No, not going to happen. We know that these people are not going to be able to withstand it, if we bring ourselves into the mix.” And so Lewis, who'd been on the initial Freedom Ride, takes himself from Alabama to Nashville and meets with Diane Nash, Bernard Lafayette and some others. And they realize that they're totally determined. You know, they basically say, “We cannot surrender in the face of this brute force. We've got to restart the ride, because people are going to realize that they can stop the movement if we don't.”
Wesley Hogan: They go back to Birmingham, and they've got 10 volunteers—basically six Black men, two Black women, one White man and one White woman. Even Shuttlesworth, who's, you know, known as the absolutely most fearless of all the SCLC's ministers, warns Diane Nash. "Are you sure you want to come? You might get killed." And she looks at him and says, "If they stop us with violence, the movement is dead. The students have decided. We just want to know if you can meet us." And so Shuttlesworth comes and meets them. And those young people from the Nashville movement—girded by this incredible experience they've had in the fall of 1959, two years later in the spring, in May of 1961—restart the Freedom Rides and force the federal government—Robert Kennedy in particular—to protect the riders and open a path from Alabama to Mississippi. And from then on, pretty much everybody in the movement is known as a Freedom Rider, and they basically show that they can go anywhere to challenge the Southern caste system. They show that they can try to live as if democracy actually existed, anywhere in the South.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: This season of Teaching Hard History is based on the book Understanding and Teaching the Civil Rights Movement. And this podcast is produced in partnership with the University of Wisconsin Press—publishers of this collection of essays, which I edited. From now until the end of the year, they are offering a 30 percent discount to listeners who order this collection. You’ll find a link to purchase the book at Tolerance.org/podcasts. Just use the promotional code: CIVILRIGHTS—all one word. Now let’s continue our conversation with Wesley Hogan.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You've given us two excellent examples during the height of Black protest in the civil rights era, where nonviolent direct action really works and makes a difference—Nashville, Freedom Rides. Was it always as successful as it was in those two instances?
Wesley Hogan: Hell, no. No, no. No.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Where didn't it work?
Wesley Hogan: I think one example is Kwame Ture, Stokely Carmichael, who used nonviolence extremely effectively as a young person. He would use it where he felt it was going to serve the movement. He realized very quickly that it didn't help you when it was four a.m. and you were trying to canvass sharecroppers, getting them ready to register to vote. So if you are on that lonely, cold road in the middle of Alabama, or Georgia, or Mississippi and some night riders come after you with a fast car and weapons, it's very hard to call people into their higher level of citizenry. As many of the elders within the movement, local volunteers, local civic actors that supported SNCC, brought SNCC into their communities and supported voter registration work, were armed, had been armed, this was a real challenge for SNCC workers who were organizing in those communities. Many of them, up until 1964, had pledged to remain nonviolent and not be armed. But they were relying on local movement veterans who were armed and protecting them. So that's one example of where, in order to canvass safely, they often traveled late at night or early evening or early morning with elders in the movement who were armed because they just couldn't rely on the opposition to remain decent.
Wesley Hogan: And I think another example where we saw very clearly that it didn't work was, you know, John Lewis himself sitting on the floor of Congress with some of his colleagues in June, 2016, after the Pulse nightclub shooting. They were demanding that gun control legislation be brought to the floor of the House. He was a sitting member, and what he was trying to do there was, of course, force other sitting members to do what he wanted them to do. But he couldn't withhold his participation without punishing his constituents. And he didn't have something his opponents wanted, the way the Nashville students were preventing their opponents from continuing to have commerce downtown. Maybe another good recent example is when the media simply doesn't pay enough attention, or politicians and the media don't pay enough attention. We saw a pretty unbelievable example at Standing Rock on November 20th in 2016, a confrontation between nonviolent direct action protesters or water protectors as they call themselves, young people at Standing Rock, standing in 25-degree temperature up to their waist in cold water, trying to prevent an oil pipeline from going in. And local law enforcement, state law enforcement and private law enforcement paid for by the energy company, using rubber bullets, and pepper spray, and water cannon against them. The footage is equally horrifying to Selma, but virtually no one paid attention. And so you see very little coming out of that as a result. Certainly no kind of legislation. So, there are definitely examples where it doesn't work.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: How should we teach nonviolence to students?
Wesley Hogan: I think it's really important to frame it—instead of ‘in opposition to self-defense’—as one of many tools that are available to anybody who cares about justice. It often has been portrayed as one or the other, self-defense or nonviolence. I think it's really important to see it as one of many tools. I mentioned The Butler. There's this eight-minute scene from that 2013 film, which is really useful for students to see. I think the 2000 film Freedom Song has an excellent job showing both a nonviolent workshop on how [chuckle] how students get prepared for something like that, as well as what it actually looked like when people went into a small town and tried to carry one out. That same film does such a good job showing the basics of community organizing for the vote, and the role that self-defense sometimes had to play in that.
Wesley Hogan: There's photographs from workshops. There's oral histories from the Nashville people. I think another really interesting thing that I found recently is a book that's from 2012, but it's studied in a kind of nerdy political science way, but a very effective way, the 25 largest resistance campaigns that happened in the 20th century. Of those 25 largest campaigns, 20 of them were nonviolent. Five were violent. The nonviolent campaigns were 70 percent successful. And the five violent campaigns, only two were successful, so they were only 40 percent successful. And the rest of the book looks at ‘Why were the nonviolent campaigns so much more successful?’. And one of the things that they come up with is that it's really scary to participate in a violent resistance. You have to be even better trained than nonviolent resisters. And you have to be ready for a much higher price to pay than many people who participate in nonviolent direct action.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Why do you think we're so—and by we, I mean society as a whole—so obsessed with framing the civil rights movement as being centrally a nonviolent struggle?
Wesley Hogan: I think the traditional top-down model gets a lot more palatable to people and toothless, if we can portray it as a couple of marches that were nonviolent, led by Black people. And the nice white people in power saw these marches, understood that it was bad, and signed a few bills and everything got better. We don't need to acknowledge structural racism. We don't need to acknowledge economic wealth disparity. We don't need to acknowledge the systemic violence in our society when that narrative is continually perpetuated. And nonviolence is useful in that way. That's why why the I Have a Dream speech and Rosa Parks sat down is what everyone can remember from K-12 civil rights class. But it's not the kind of nonviolence that's empowering. It defeats people and it makes them feel like, “You're a sucker if you're participating in it.”
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Which is, I think, the way I responded to it when I was introduced to it as a youngster.
Wesley Hogan: Me too.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And so you actually, by sort of focusing on that particular way of studying the movement, you actually lose students. I would imagine you push them away because they can't see a way of connecting to it.
Wesley Hogan: Absolutely. I mean, I think it's actually better to start with teaching them about self-defense, and economic boycotts and the ways that they can feel agency directly in ways that are visible to them first, even though sequentially you have nonviolence coming earlier in the movement. If your goal is to empower young people, it's more helpful to give them the tools early on that make them feel empowered. And I agree that the way nonviolence has been taught has made us feel very much like it's just for suckers.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: If there was one thing that you could make sure that students remembered about nonviolence from learning about it in the classroom, the one thing that they were able to take with them from the classroom, from this lesson on nonviolence, what would that be?
Wesley Hogan: I think what is the most powerful example to me of young people taking their own lives into their own hands is. I cannot tell you how many young people—I mean, they weren't young when I interviewed them, but they were young when they did it—said, you know, “It wasn't some lawyer, or judge, or teacher, or big person in the legislature who made the change. It was me. It was little old, 17-year-old me. I went to the beach, or the church, or the music hall, or the restaurant or the voting booth. And I sat in. I acted “as if democracy really existed in my country.” And in doing that, I made the world a little bit better. I think it's really important for young people to know that today, that it doesn't take just the actions of people who are already in positions of power, high up in institutions. But there is absolutely a long tradition of young people taking the reins themselves, and acting “as if.” And that they, if they choose to do that, are part of a tradition. And these sit-in people were part of a tradition. And it stretches back in time, as Lawson says, through many different parts of the world and certainly previous generations of Americans.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I'm going to work hard at trying to remember that myself. Wesley Hogan, thank you so much for joining us and for sharing these vital insights.
Wesley Hogan: Thanks, Hasan. And thanks for the work you're doing here. It's so important.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: For sure.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Music was vital to the civil rights movement, and continues to be critical to global freedom struggles today. In this installment of “Movement Music,” historian Charles Hughes brings us two songs that explore nonviolent resistance and armed self-defense, by examining the threats facing Black America from the civil rights era to today. Here’s Charles.
Charles Hughes: In 1977, funk legends Parliament released “Bop Gun (Endangered Species)”, an eight-minute track that mixed their signature futuristic dance-floor anthems with a hard look at the dangers facing Black America.
Charles Hughes: Co-written by group mastermind George Clinton, bassist and bandleader Bootsy Collins, and guitar wizard Gary Shider, “Bop Gun” is a startling entry in their essential catalog. Atop a pulsing groove, the background singers implore listeners to be “on guard” and “defend yourself,” while lead singer Glenn Goins warns “don’t let your guard down.” And the chorus reminds us that Black people remain an “endangered species” in a racist nation.
Charles Hughes: “Bop Gun” understands the vulnerability of Black life and the importance of armed self-defense as a means of protection. Parliament promises to shoot back, not with a firearm but with a spirit-altering “Bop Gun” that turns the enemy into dancing members of the party. With a vision of individual safety and communal transformation that relies, in part, on staying “on guard” because they’re “closing in on you.”
Charles Hughes: They chant “We Shall Overcome” alongside calls for self-defense. They repeat “got to get over the hump” with the insistence of marching music and freedom songs. They don’t reiterate stereotypes about either weapons or peaceful protests. Instead, “Bop Gun” dances along a line that links the two, putting the party and the politics together.
Charles Hughes: When teaching the ambiguities of violence and nonviolence in the freedom movement, “Bop Gun’s” lyrics helps us illuminate the reasons for—and relationship between—competing strategies, presented in co-equal co-existence, rather than opposition.
Charles Hughes: The myths of violence in the Civil Rights Movement sprang, of course, from long-held misconceptions about African Americans' supposedly violent tendencies. These falsehoods and fears not only demonized the movement, but also obscured the reasons activists needed multiple tactics—including the ones that struck outsiders as unreasonable or overly militant.
Charles Hughes: The future shock of “Bop Gun” motivated much political hip-hop that followed. LA gangsta legend Ice Cube even remixed “Bop Gun” into his own song “Endangered Species.” Another powerful example is the bluesy, confrontational 2001 DMX hit “Who We Be.” In his trademark growl, DMX lists the trials and troubles facing young Black people—the core of hip-hop culture.
Charles Hughes: His litany of “What they don’t know” accusations includes unjust policing, miseducation, economic disparities, and other causes of ongoing civil rights struggle. DMX, like Parliament decades before, also takes aim at the historical misrepresentation of militancy and armed self-defense within the community.
Charles Hughes: DMX demands that listeners face facts, remain on guard, defend themselves and push toward a time where we shall overcome. We can hear in “Bop Gun” and “Who We Be” a way to go beyond simplified narratives and into the complex, funky reality of the history. All we need to do is keep listening.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: What?! Who had DMX on their podcast bingo card? Because if you did, you win. You know, "Who We Be" up in this podcast, we be the people who are exploring all of, not just the hits, but the deep meaning behind the hits that really connect movement music, broadly defined, to what it is that we're trying to understand about the civil rights movement. Be sure to listen to our latest Spotify playlist. Dr. Hughes has curated dozens of songs that amplify even more ideas raised in this episode. Just follow the link in the show notes at Tolerance.org/podcasts. What?! That's the New Yorker in me.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And now, let's begin our conversation with Christopher Strain.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I'm really excited to welcome to this episode of Teaching Hard History my good friend, my colleague, my man, Chris Strain. We go back more than a decade, we've been talking about not only civil rights, but also self-defense and armed self-defense. So when I was going to have this subject in the book, when I was going to talk about this in the podcast, I knew that there was one brother who I needed to have on with me. That's Chris Strain. Chris, thanks so much for joining us. I'm glad you're here. Let's get into it.
Christopher Strain: Thank you, Hasan. Glad to be here.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Over the years, as we have been talking about self-defense and the civil rights movement, I really like the way that you have explained the way most people approach, talk and teach the civil rights movement. And you talk about it in terms of these dichotomies: Martin versus Malcolm, integration versus separation, and of course, violence versus nonviolence. I wonder if you could explain to us what is the impact of learning about the movement through these dichotomies, this bifurcated lens.
Christopher Strain: The civil rights movement is often taught is in terms of these—of these dichotomies, right? As you said, Martin versus Malcolm, integration versus separation, violence versus nonviolence. We do the same thing with the 1960s, right? Whether it's peace and war, or hippies and straights, right? It's normal and natural to learn through dichotomies, this sort of either/or, this or that framework works really well when you're first trying to understand something.
Christopher Strain: But I think that understanding violence and nonviolence in the civil rights movement is about more than studying the tactics and strategies of civil rights leaders. It's more than studying the philosophies and approaches of different leaders in the struggle for Black equality. I think it's really about nothing less than reframing the civil rights movement.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Now I want you to elaborate, okay? Why specifically does the violence-nonviolence binary not work when you want to do a deep dive?
Christopher Strain: One of the reasons is this sticky issue of self-defense and armed self-defense, because it exists in one of these gray areas between dichotomies. It's not black and white. It exists in a kind of liminal space. Self-defense is a unique kind of violence, in that it's often justified. I think that maybe a more nuanced view considers the civil rights movement in three different ways. And at this point, we're beginning to talk and think like historians, right? A more nuanced view considers the civil rights movement contextually, that is in a historical framework. It considers it constitutionally, in terms of rights and liberties. And it considers it confrontationally, as a gesture of protest—rather than through this either/or lens of violence versus nonviolence.
Christopher Strain: When we first learn about the civil rights movement, we learn about Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We learn about Rosa Parks. We learn about Montgomery, and Birmingham, and the sit-ins and the Freedom Rides. We learn about particular organizations like the SCLC, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which was the organization that Dr. King and his fellow pastors founded in the late 1950s. We learned about the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, right? These younger activists, many of whom were college students who came together to effect change. And students learn in that framework about nonviolence and nonviolent direct action as a kind of default method of protest in the civil rights movement.
Christopher Strain: And then they learn about Malcolm X, the Nation of Islam. They learn about Stokely Carmichael in SNCC. They learn about Black power, right? This sort of post-1965 transition away from nonviolence and nonviolent direct action. They'll learn about the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in Oakland, California, who spread to other chapters across the United States. And they learn about these individuals and organizations as sort of violent counterpoints to that first grouping of Dr. King and Rosa Parks in Montgomery and Birmingham. So there's our dichotomy.
Christopher Strain: And then, if you take it to sort of a third level of understanding, some students may delve deeper. They may start to read memoirs, secondary texts by historians and learn about Robert F. Williams, who was an activist in North Carolina. They learn about the Deacons for Defense and Justice, which was an armed self-defense unit active in Louisiana in the mid-1960s. They learn about maybe Gloria Richardson, who led the movement in Cambridge, Maryland. And these were all activists who championed self-defense in various ways, none of whom fit that violent-nonviolent dichotomy.
Christopher Strain: And I think that rather than being sort of outliers and aberrations, these latter figures actually point to an ambiguity within the civil rights movement that affords a richer, deeper understanding of the movement and the people who moved it. So to understand these seeming aberrations, and outliers and counterexamples, we have to begin to interrogate the master narrative of the civil rights movement itself. This familiar story that children learn at a young age in the United States, a familiar tale of slow but inevitable triumph over Jim Crow segregation on the one hand and disenfranchisement on the other. And this leads into some really interesting places about what the civil rights movement was actually all about. What did it accomplish? What did it not accomplish? What was at stake? Why were activists doing what they did? In the words of Dr. King, "Where do we go from here?" Or what is the legacy of the civil rights movement? So we begin to interrogate the narrative. We try to understand the civil rights movement in these three ways, right? Contextually, constitutionally and confrontationally.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I like this framing that you're offering us: contextually, constitutionally and confrontationally. If you were to suggest to a teacher to look at this particular aspect of the movement contextually, how would you suggest that they approach that aspect of the movement in the classroom?
Christopher Strain: People like to cherry pick, right? They like to say Martin Luther King Jr. believed this or Malcolm X believed that. And that's not really the way it works, right? The views and the ideas of public intellectuals are constantly changing and evolving. And to understand these views and ideas, you have to study particulars and you have to zero in on context. You have to pay attention to specific times and places. I think to understand the civil rights movement, you have to start to think like an historian. You and I are historians, and historians are typically interested in two things, right? We're interested in causality, and we're interested in change over time. Historians ask questions like, "What caused this event to happen? How did things change as a result? What has changed between point A and point B? What hasn't? And why?" And once you begin to think like an historian, you can unlock some complicated happenings and ideas which are not static. People's beliefs and their sort of intellectual architecture undergo an evolution, right? A kind of rolling Hegelian synthesis. It's always changing and evolving. And to understand those beliefs and to look into that architecture, you have to insert yourself at particular places, at particular moments in time.
Christopher Strain: We have to ask, "When did King think this?" Or, "Where was Malcolm when he asserted that?" This kind of analysis is much tighter and more nuanced. And I think the resulting understanding is a lot richer. Because the goals and aims and tactics and strategies of the movement changed over time. They were not static. And what began as a battle for civil rights evolved into a war against white supremacy. The civil rights movement started as a reform movement, as a way to sort of leverage inclusion of African Americans in the American body politic. But by the late-1960s, early- to mid-1970s, it had evolved into something much bigger than a movement for civil rights.
Christopher Strain: So this effort to include African Americans in the United States by dismantling Jim Crow and securing voting rights, became over time an assertion of Black personhood, and it became an assault on institutionalized racism. Really, nothing short of that. That's interesting. And so now we're beginning to think about the movement contextually. One of the dichotomies that exists in civil rights studies is this sort of pre-1965 and post-1965 dichotomy, right? Before 1965, the movement was nonviolent. It was led by organizations such as SCLC and then SNCC. After 1965, the Panthers become involved. There was a lot more, quote-unquote, "militant rhetoric," a lot of discussion of violence, and toward armed self-defense in certain camps.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: It's the difference between John Lewis and Stokely Carmichael, right? John Lewis pre-'65, Stokely Carmichael after '65. That's the good civil rights versus the bad Black power.
Christopher Strain: Correct.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: But both are coming out of the same tradition, right? So both literally are born of the same struggle.
Christopher Strain: Right. So when we look at this contextually, right? When we look at the civil rights movement in the context of a wider struggle for Black equality that goes earlier into the 20th century, and into the 19th century and earlier, this seeming move toward armed self-defense in the latter 1960s actually aligned much more squarely with older trends in African-American history, right? So in this understanding, it was nonviolence that was the anomaly, not self-defense. And you can trace that through all different sorts of markers, right? You can look at Frederick Douglass during the Civil War and his break with his mentor, William Lloyd Garrison, who was vested in this notion of moral suasion. And Douglass was like, "No, we're going to have to fight a civil war over this issue of slavery."
Christopher Strain: You could look at Ida B. Wells Barnett, who was an activist in Memphis, Tennessee, who said that a Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every Black home. And this was her response to lynchings there, lynchings of people she knew in Memphis. It's only when you narrow down to the 1950s and 1960s that nonviolence seems like a default method of protest. That's really interesting. And now we're kind of complicating our understanding of the movement in, I think, helpful ways.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And I think the point that you make and the contrast that it draws is really an important one. We teach for the most part that nonviolence is the default form of activism. But what you just laid out—and I think it's absolutely correct—is that self-defense is actually the default, is what Black folk have historically turned to. And that nonviolence—at least philosophical nonviolence—is the aberration, is the anomaly. And so, in a way, we're actually teaching it backwards. And I think when you do that, what comes after 1965 suddenly looks like a radical break rather than a return to something that was much more traditional.
Christopher Strain: I couldn't say it better myself. Black power resonated with older themes in African-American political and social thought. It may have, in fact, been a return to older notions of economic and political empowerment and again, self-defense and affirmations of Black personhood. So now we're talking about the movement contextually. We can also think about it constitutionally, right? I think the civil rights movement should be understood not only in terms of civil rights, but also civil liberties, and human rights, and a phrase that I have borrowed from you and made my own, this notion of "freedom rights" that you talk about in your book, Bloody Lowndes.
Christopher Strain: Let's define these terms. Civil rights is something that we use that term all the time. But what are they? What does it mean? Civil rights are things like the right to vote, due process. These are rights that are guaranteed and protected not only by the US Constitution, but also by Congress. And so political theorists talk about civil rights as positive rights that require action. In other words, they exist by virtue of a person's relationship to the state. They're bestowed upon us as citizens. And they're different from civil liberties. Civil liberties are things like freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly and these other rights that are protected in the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights. They're individual rights protected by law from government interference. And political theorists talk about them as negative rights because they exist independent of state action, right? The state does not bestow these rights upon you. You've just got them.
Christopher Strain: We often call these civil liberties human rights. Human rights can be slightly different, but they're very much related. So when we begin to look at different kinds of rights, when we think about the civil rights movement constitutionally, it becomes really important because different activists, at different stages, emphasized different rights. When people were focused on voting, and voter registration and re-enfranchising African Americans across the South, civil rights were really important. But to other activists—people like Robert F. Williams, who championed self-defense—civil rights were less important than these human rights that they emphasized. Malcolm X was the same way.
Christopher Strain: So it may make sense to move away from this notion of civil rights alone toward what you've termed "freedom rights," and I love tha phrase, this sort of amalgam of civil rights and civil liberties and human rights and property rights and these assurances of safety and security in describing the goals and aspirations of African Americans in the 1960s. For many African Americans, self-defense was an essential, non-negotiable human right that was really at the heart of their struggle for equality.
Christopher Strain: So we've talked about two ways to understand the civil rights movement: contextually, constitutionally. The third way I would argue that we can understand the movement is confrontationally. The civil rights movement is often taught in elementary school as a nice story, in which African Americans finally got what they deserved. That familiar story of slow but inevitable triumph over these twin evils in the American South: segregation and disenfranchisement. But it was a deadly uphill struggle. And you can't lose sight of that fact in thinking about it, particularly with your older students. It was by no means foreordained or inevitable. There might still be segregation in the American South today if civil rights activists had not done what they did in the 1950s and 1960s. We don't know, right? That's what we call counterfactual history. We don't know. We can't say for sure. But it's possible, because the opposition in the South, these rabid segregationists and Klansmen were violent, they were vested in an entrenched, multi-generational social order that seemed intractable to them.
Christopher Strain: So activists got some desired results after much bloodletting and self-sacrifice. And once you begin to look at the movement as a confrontation, you realize that activists were doing what they did to leverage the movement as a mechanism for creating full inclusion in American life. People got hurt. People gave up their lives. People gave up their livelihoods. People gave their lives over to activism in order to achieve these reforms.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: So when we're talking about self-defense, one of the ways I like to complicate this dichotomy if you will, is to focus on the Deacons for Defense. Could you share a little bit about the history of the Deacons and also how do they stand in that gap between violence and nonviolence?
Christopher Strain: So the Deacons for Defense and Justice go back to Jonesboro, Louisiana, in 1964, where young CORE workers—CORE is the Congress of Racial Equality, right? One of those seminal civil rights organizations—came to town to organize desegregation and voting registration efforts there. And when these CORE workers arrived in 1964, local white thugs showed up at the CORE headquarters and threatened these young activists from out of town. But what happened was older, local, Black men gathered with guns to protect these civil rights activists. And the men called themselves the Deacons. The full name was the Deacons for Defense and Justice. But this name, Deacons, was a name that reflected not only their religious background, but also their self-perception as servants of the community. They became much better known in Bogalusa. Bogalusa was, in the mid-1960s, a paper mill town, and it was a Klan stronghold where the civil rights struggle was particularly violent and bloody. And the local men, who became involved in the civil rights struggle, were older, working-class men, many of them veterans of World War Two and the Korean War. They were tough, no nonsense fighters. Guys like Charles Sims, who was 42-years old, I believe, when he began to lead and to organize the Bogalusa chapter of the Deacons for Defense and Justice.
Christopher Strain: So we have this perception that it was younger, impatient hot-headed activists who were pushing the civil rights movement in more militant directions in the mid-to-late 1960s. But what happened in Jonesboro, and Bogalusa and Monroe, North Carolina, where Robert F. Williams was active that complicates this familiar narrative. The Deacons on more than one occasion chased Klansmen out of what was called The Quarters, the Black neighborhood in Bogalusa. They did it in July 1965. And they pledged themselves to protect nonviolent civil rights activists who came to Louisiana. Which is really interesting, right? Because it was nonviolent direct action that was effecting so much change on the national level in all kinds of locales across the South, but the Deacons were saying, "If you come here, we got your back," right? “We will protect you.” And so this was kind of weird and interesting. It was a kind of self-defense by proxy, right? A kind of transferable self-defense that they were talking about. You do your thing. You do your civil rights protests, your marches, your demonstrations, your pickets, whatever you have to do. We will watch and make sure that nobody tries to harm you in the course of that.
Christopher Strain: The Deacons talked about activism in different terms, right? Oftentimes, they talked about dignity and respect and manhood. And they saw self-defense as this important part of the struggle for Black equality, right? They felt that Black personhood, again, was at stake. They played a really pivotal role in the Meredith March Against Fear, also known as the Greenwood March in 1966. This is when James Meredith, who had desegregated the University of Mississippi—Ole Miss—back in 1962, took off on his own on this one-man march across the South. He was shot and hospitalized, and civil rights activists from all over the country came in to finish what he had started and continue this march. And the Deacons stepped in to provide protection for Martin Luther King Jr. and these other marchers. And it was a really, really interesting moment where King and others debated, you know, what place did these guys have in what they felt was their movement in some sense. And you can look at Dr. King's papers and look at his published works, and he seemed kind of ambivalent. He admired these guys, and he appreciated the fact that they were there, at the same time that he was still championing nonviolence as not only a tactic in the movement, but as a way of life.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And I think he really understood. King understood, just like those CORE activists understood, that the willingness of the Deacons to resort to "violence," quote unquote, to use armed self-defense, the willingness to pick up guns, actually made it possible for King and those CORE activists to be nonviolent. I mean, that's the irony. But they understood that the two actually worked together, as opposed to working against one another.
Christopher Strain: Absolutely, right? There was this sort of symbiosis. And again, that's what makes this dichotomy so interesting in these sort of spaces in between. The Deacons faded rapidly after 1966, but not before they were marked for disruption and neutralization by the FBI. You can go back with your students and look at how the FBI was keeping tabs on various activists and organizations. And the Deacons were at the top of their list, just at the same time that they were sort of fading from the scene. There's still a lot of mystery surrounding the Deacons, who were a kind of semi-secret organization. You know, how many numbers were there? How many members were there? Where did they exist? You know, we don't know. Charles Sims, Ernest Thomas, some of these other men—who were leaders in the Deacons—claimed that they were active across the entire South and had chapters everywhere. And so it created this unknown, formidable organization. You know, the crazy thing is that in that sense, they kind of paralleled the Ku Klux Klan, which was the other semi-secret organization that infiltrated the whole South during this time, right? Not to say that the Deacons were a Black Klan, but there was a lot of mystery. And they used that mystery to their advantage, right? Because they didn't publish their rolls. They didn't say, you know, who in each community belonged to the Deacons. The Deacons were everywhere and nowhere all at once. They were ghosts. They were this specter that hovered over the nonviolent movement as a kind of a counterpoint, right? If you don't pay attention to these nonviolent activists then, you know, the Deacons will—the Deacons will get you.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: One of the things that we see with the Deacons—many of whom were veterans—that they they do in fact deploy is what you just described, the psychological warfare, purposefully hiding the numbers and keeping it mysterious so that not only their adversaries, these militias, these terrorist organizations, the Klan and the like, which operated in these—as you pointed out, Bogalusa and Jonesboro—these mill towns that were majority white but had large Black populations, but also to throw off the government, the police, as well as the FBI. The Deacons understood that White folk were afraid of Negroes with guns.
Christopher Strain: I think that these subtleties and nuances, looking at these individuals and these organizations, trying to understand the movement contextually, constitutionally, confrontationally, all complicate our understanding of the civil rights movement in healthy ways. And they really help to interrogate that master narrative. And once you start to deep dive into these issues and into these individuals and these organizations, you have to start to ask bigger questions, right? About how we teach the movement and how we understand the movement and how we present it to our kids in the classroom and to our children, right? What was it all about? Was the civil rights movement about civil rights? It's in the name. Was it about justice? Was it about peace and love? Was it about dignity and respect? On some level, it was about all of these things and those things were more important in varying degrees to different individuals at different moments in time. But I think it's important to ask those questions and to think about these bigger issues.
Christopher Strain: So in thinking about this dichotomy of violence and nonviolence, it's ultimately not really about tactics and strategies of civil rights leaders, it's about fundamental issues of change in the 1950s and 1960s and 1970s and '80s and beyond. What was it all about? What was happening, what was accomplished, what was left unfinished? And I think that history is best understood in these gray areas between black and white, where these sort of blurred boundaries illuminate our understanding better than brightened boundaries, right? Between these sort of extremes and dichotomies. So that's why I think these individuals and organizations like Robert F. Williams, and like the Deacons for Defense and Justice and like Gloria Richardson are so vital and important. They're not aberrations, and outliers and counterexamples. They're fulcrums for better understanding of the master narrative of civil rights itself, and how it's taught and how we understand it.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Well, Chris, I think you hit the nail on the head. And it's especially instructive for us as teachers that—that those—that that area, that gray area, not the stark lines, but that gray middle is where we really need to be focusing our attention, bringing in those organizations, organizers and events that for too often we have ignored and seemingly marginalized, treated as aberrations as you said, when in fact they are representative and central to the struggle that we're trying to study and trying to teach. Chris, I can't thank you enough for joining us and for sharing your wisdom and these insights. You've given us a lot of food for thought, as well as some areas to focus, to teach this history accurately and effectively. Thanks so much, Chris.
Christopher Strain: Hasan, thank you so much. I really appreciate your time and I'm just thrilled to be a part of the podcast. Thank you.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: This is Teaching Hard History. Along with this podcast, we’ve prepared a detailed page of show notes just for you. It includes a complete transcript with links to materials mentioned in this episode, along with other resources for teaching about the civil rights movement at Tolerance.org/podcasts.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: In his book We Will Shoot Back, activist and scholar Akinyele Umoja shares a history of armed resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement. We've asked Dr. Umoja to share some of his insights about the Southern freedom struggle from the many interviews he conducted during his research. To begin, we need to understand the levels of violence that Black people in Mississippi were facing when they attempted to exercise their rights as equal citizens under the law.
Akinyele Umoja: In teaching about Mississippi, you should understand that this subordination of Black people after Reconstruction was accomplished with terrorist violence, basically. Mississippi was one of the states that had the most amount of lynchings doing what historians called the nadir period—after Reconstruction, where not only voting rights and disenfranchisement of Blacks occurred, but segregation was implemented. Lynchings were pretty much a common feature of American political culture. And it wasn't just lynching, but just this threat of violence, this disarmament of Blacks, and this violence against Black political leaders and this fear and intimidation that kept Black people under control on the plantations as sharecroppers and things of that nature. You know, basically agrarian peonage took place.
Akinyele Umoja: And without violence, these things couldn't have been accomplished. Violence that was utilized to keep Black people away from the polls. Violence that was used to keep Black people servile, working on the plantation. Violence that kept Black people from being able to compete economically. Because, you know, you have cases of Black entrepreneurs, Black farmers who were successful being threatened through terrorist violence at that time. So it becomes a major obstacle to Black people and created the type of intimidation that made Black people not even want to try to register to vote. You know, if you could be registered, to even want to go to the polls and try to vote, particularly in places where Black people had a majority. To keep us away from the polls, to keep us from having political power and thus being able to have representation and some form of democratic rights in society,
Akinyele Umoja: Nonviolence is really introduced in Mississippi, in the Mississippi movement in 1961, when you had a first organizer of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Bob Moses comes to the state of Mississippi and began to organize. Prior to that, you had a movement in Mississippi to develop from the 1950s on, particularly in the Mississippi Delta. You had a group called the Regional Council for Negro Leadership, and that group pretty much practiced armed self-defense. But it wasn't a strong public advocacy of armed self-defense with nonviolence coming through the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, it still wasn't a public advocacy of nonviolence, even though Black people were practicing it and oftentimes protecting the nonviolent activists. And that was from 1961 through 1964, Freedom Summer. So you still have Black people protecting the nonviolent advocates, and rarely was there tension. Oftentimes the nonviolent activists, particularly people engaged in a voter registration, would accept the protection they received from indigenous Black communities because that was only protection they were really going to receive because the federal government and, of course, local governments were oftentimes tied to local White power structures and involved in White supremacist activity. But the federal government was oftentimes unable or unwilling to provide adequate protection for activists from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee or the Congress of Racial Equality, who were the bulk of the field workers in Mississippi at that time. Many Black people in Mississippi for just things like going to register to vote, became targets of violence.
Akinyele Umoja: The best two examples I could think of is, number one, Hartman Turnbow was a Black farmer in a place called Tchula, Mississippi, in Holmes County, a Black majority county.
Akinyele Umoja: And in 1963, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee comes and they began to recruit people to go register to vote. And to just put it in the minds of your students and describe it, during that time you had to go to the county courthouse, usually in the center of a small town and rural area, and during that time there was a lot of intimidation for Black people to go into that building. You would have to take a literacy test. Oftentimes the questions were subjective, and you had to satisfy the registrar. So they would organize enough people. They would do a lot of orientation for them to help them pass the tests. And even though oftentimes even educated Blacks, literate Blacks, people with PhDs couldn't pass those tests, because it was to the satisfaction of the registrar. Hartman Turnbow was in a group of people, I believe was 14 people, who were recruited in his community to go try to attempt to register to vote.
Akinyele Umoja: And word got out—probably through informants in the Black community—that this group was coming.And so when they got down to the county courthouse, the sheriff was there with a bunch of police officers to confront them and say, "Well, what do you N-words want? And why are you here?" And people were a little bit, you know, frazzled by that. And so Hartman Turnbow, who just was a member in the group, was the leader, wasn't the organizer. He said, "Sir, all we want to do is to Redish to vote," not register, because he wasn't a lettered man. He spoke in community parlance, if you will. And, you know, he just said, "We want to redish to vote."
Akinyele Umoja: And just so happened that day, the Justice Department was there observing. They allowed Mr Turnbull and the others to go in to register to vote. None of them were successful in being registered. But then that following day, the local newspaper printed the article that these Black people will go register to vote, and they said Mr. Turnbull was the leader. That really, during that time, was like to out them in a way—to say to these Black people had enough gumption to go challenge the rules and try to register. And with in a couple of weeks, nightriders came to Mr. Turnbull's house and threw a firebomb in the house. They were waiting for him and his family to come out, and we assume they were going to try to kill him. But Mr Turnbull surprised him by jumping out with his rifle and peppering them up a bit, if you will. And it allowed his wife and daughter to get out of the back of the house. And the nightriders came. They didn't intend on fighting him. They either wanted to kill him or scare him, but they got in their car and got the hell out of there. But unfortunately, the next day, rather than coming to support him after this terrorist attack, the local police came and arrested him and accused him of setting fire to his own house. But there was a lot of support from SNCC and other organizations, and he was ultimately released. And he became even more active in the movement.
Akinyele Umoja: He was known to come to the meetings with a briefcase, as Julian Bond mentioned. But he said, "Mr. Turnbull didn't have books in a briefcase. He would have a 45 Handgun. And Dr. King asked him about the incident. And he told Dr King, he said, "Sir, I wasn't being non-nonviolent. I was just defending my wife and family." He's just trying to survive in his community. In other words, he's not bloodthirsty.
Akinyele Umoja: And as a woman by the name of Jenny Brewer—An 86-year old woman, grandmother, was a widow, owned s farm with a couple of hundred acres plus, in a place called Tallahatchie County, Mississippi. Tallahatchie County is the same county nine years earlier where Emmett Till would be lynched.
Akinyele Umoja: There's a young woman who comes to her community by the name of Margaret Block. And Margaret Black was an organizer for SNCC, came here in January 1964, but things got so dangerous in Tallahatchie County that Margaret Block was forced to leave because there are just so many death threats. You know, if it was me and I've been run out of Tallahatchie County in 1964, I might not have came back. But just like Harriet Tubman went back in the slave territory after she had escaped from slavery, Margaret Black went back to Tallahatchie County and began to organize some more. She worked with Mrs. Brewer, and they built a strong base of support. So by the time summer came, you had students that came, particularly from Howard University, to support organizing a voter registration project.
Akinyele Umoja: And just like in Holmes County with Mr Turnbull, they organize people to go down to the county courthouse in Tallahassee and begin to register people to attempt to vote. And so when they get to the county courthouse, just as in Holmes County, the informants let the power structure know that Black people were going to try to come in mass and attempt to register to vote. And so the delegation comes downtown. They're harassed. People attempt violence against them. And then after their attempts to register to vote, they head back from downtown to Mrs. Brewer's house or to our compound, I should say, because, again, she lives on hundreds of acres of land where our children and grandchildren live. And not only do they harass them back to her compound, but they come for days and they harass Mrs. Brewer's family, And the following week, Margaret is kind of concerned about going back, but Mrs. Brewer had a plan, so they go back and they attempt to register to vote again. And they harassed and met with violence at the courthouse.
Akinyele Umoja: So when Margaret Block and her delegation return back from downtown and go into to the rural area and approached Mrs. Brewer's compound, they see Black people lined up on both sides of the road with rifles and shotguns. The White supremacists who see them, they wanted to either kill them or intimidate them. They're not there for a toe-to-toe fight. They stop and hit a U-turn and head back down the road. But Mrs. Brewer knew that this wouldn't be the end, that she knew they were coming back at night. They're what? Nightriders. So that was the time they generally come in for their most devastating attacks.
Akinyele Umoja: And so Mrs. Brewer organizes her children and grandchildren. They arm them, and they send them out to the cotton fields and wait for them, in the evening. They got with the nonviolent folks who were there to help. And she said, you got to be where we are tonight. They give them rifles and shotguns and they send them to the cotton fields, and then, Mrs. Brewer is in our house making Molotov cocktails. The humorous part of this story. Margaret Block is like very concerned because Mrs. Brewer, at 86, our hand wasn't steady. And she's pouring gasoline all over the table and on the floor.
Akinyele Umoja: And Margot saying, "Oh, hell, we're going to die tonight, but it won't be because it's the Klu Klux Klan. It'll be from Mrs. Brewer." But they didn't die. And as Mrs. Brewer planned, when the night riders approached the house. I want the listeners to imagine—this is Mississippi, a rural area. It's jet Black, is dark, and then they flashed this big flood line on them, which disorients them. And then the people come out with their rifles and shotguns. And then Mrs. Brewer, this 86-year old grandmother, comes to the porch with her Molotov cocktail and throws it at them. And they see that, and they had a U-turn, [to] get the hell up out of there.
Akinyele Umoja: These are clear examples of Black people who have no defense from the state, have no defense oftentimes from the federal government, definitely don't have it from local officials. In fact, it was the sheriff who led the night riders into Tallahatchie County that night and had to be warded off. He was the head of a posse of night riders who attacked Mrs. Brewer's house. And so, they had to use their own means and were oftentimes able to repel, as Mrs. Brewer did in that case. Here again, we see some cooperation that many of the activists who practiced non-violence were practical, and they would depend upon their host—you know, local Black farmers, local Black workers—who housed them, protected them, fed them, gave them resources. They will work with them to protect the entire Black community as well as the movement at that particular time.
Akinyele Umoja: You know, my family's from Mississippi, from the Delta. My father left that community to get an education, to leave the plantation. He was a sharecropper. You know, life for many people was living under fear and intimidation. My father had witnessed a Black man's body hanging from a water tower. You know, so many Black people chose to leave. But the people who stayed, many of them, really embrace and survive by protecting themselves.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Akinyele Umoja is a professor and former chair of the Department of African-American Studies at Georgia State University. He is the author of We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance and the Mississippi Freedom Movement from NYU Press. And he is also the co-editor of the Black Power Encyclopedia.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Christopher B. Strain is professor of American studies at the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College of Florida Atlantic University. He is the author of Pure Fire: Self-Defense as Activism in the Civil Rights Era from UGA Press. And more recently, The Long Sixties: America, 1955-1973.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And Wesley Hogan is the director of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, and a Research Professor at the Franklin Humanities Institute and in the Department of History. Her most recent book, On the Freedom Side, from UNC Press, draws a portrait of young people organizing in the spirit of Ella Baker since 1960. Dr. Hogan is also a co-facilitator of the SNCC Digital Gateway.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Teaching Hard History is a podcast from Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center—helping teachers and schools prepare students to be active participants in a diverse democracy. Teaching Tolerance provides free teaching materials about slavery and the civil rights movement that include award-winning films and classroom-ready texts. You can find these online at Tolerance.org.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Most students leave high school without an understanding of the civil rights movement and its continuing relevance. This podcast is part of an effort to change that. We began by talking about slavery for two seasons. And now we’re tracing that legacy of oppression and resistance into the present day.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Thanks to Doctors Umoja, Strain and Hogan for sharing their insights with us. This podcast is produced by Shea Shackelford. Russell Gragg is our associate producer. Mary Quintas is our technical producer. And “Movement Music” is produced by Barrett Golding. Gabriel Smith provides content guidance. And our interns are Miranda LaFond and Amelia Gragg. Kate Shuster is our executive producer.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Our theme song is “The Colors That You Bring” by Damon Locks Black Monument Ensemble, who graciously let us use it for this series. Additional music is from their album Where Future Unfolds. And from Wendel Patrick's JDWP Tribute.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: If you like what you’ve heard, please share it with your friends and colleagues. And let us know what you think. You can find us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. We always appreciate your feedback.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I’m Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries, associate professor of history at The Ohio State University, and your host for Teaching Hard History.
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- C-Span, Congressman John Lewis Funeral Service in Atlanta, Georgia
- American Radio Works, Stokely Carmichael: From Black Power to Pan-Africanism
- The Washington Post, What Bill Clinton got ‘exactly wrong’ about Stokely Carmichael’s role in the Black freedom struggle
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- SNCC, Stokely Carmichael
- SNCC, Meredith March
- Eyes on the Prize, Interview with Stokely Carmichael; Interview with Kwame Toure
- Dr. Christopher Strain, Florida Atlantic University
- Akinyele Umoja, African American Studies, Georgia State University
- Wesley Hogan, Director, Center for Documentary Studies, Duke University
- James Lawson Institute, History
- SNCC, Jim Lawson conducts nonviolence workshops in Nashville
- King Institute, Mohandas K.Gandhi
- The Guardian, Diane Nash: 'Non-violent protest was the most important invention of the 20th century'
- Learning for Justice, Jim Crow, Lynching and White Supremacy
- American Civil Liberties Union, Diversity and Dissent in Lee Daniels' The Butler
- Smithsonian Magazine, The History of the Greensboro Lunch Counter Sit-In
- Wikipedia, Vivian Wilson Henderson
- The Washington Post, Douglas Moore, provocative presence in civil rights and D.C. politics, dies at 91
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- SNCC, Gloria Richardson
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- Hasan Kwame Jeffries, Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt
- The Advertiser, In Bogalusa LA, Deacons for Defense and Justice fought violence
- Akinyele Umoja, We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement
- Wesley C. Hogan, On the Freedom Side: How Five Decades of Youth Activists Have Remixed American History
- Christopher B. Strain, Pure Fire: Self-Defense as Activism in the Civil Rights Era
- Christopher B. Strain, The Long Sixties: America, 1955 - 1973
- Akinyele Umoja (co-editor), Black Power Encyclopedia: From "Black is Beautiful" to Urban Uprising