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The Spirit and the ShotgunArmed Resistance and the Struggle for Civil Rights$

Simon Wendt

Print publication date: 2007

Print ISBN-13: 9780813030180

Published to Florida Scholarship Online: September 2013

DOI: 10.5744/florida/9780813030180.001.0001

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Black Self-Defense and the Emergence of Nonviolent Protest

Black Self-Defense and the Emergence of Nonviolent Protest

(p.8) 1 Black Self-Defense and the Emergence of Nonviolent Protest
The Spirit and the Shotgun

Simon Wendt

University Press of Florida

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the relationship between racial violence, nonviolence, and gender by looking into the brutal history of the American South. The region’s violent nature stemmed from its longtime status as a frontier settlement as they battled with the various Native American tribes. Violence also became an important means of racial control. During the 1800s, plantation owners maintained their power over black slaves primarily through the threat of brutal punishment, suppressing any signs of unrest or rebellion. The Civil War marked the end of slavery, but white oppression continued as the government passed laws that mandated segregation. Alongside this was the terror posed by the Ku Klux Klan, who used lynching as a form of racial terror. Black self-defense became more than an attempt to protect one’s life. It also reflected black men’s determination to reclaim the respect denied them by whites.

Keywords:   American South, racial violence, nonviolence, gender, racial control, slavery, segregation, Ku Klux Klan

On the cold and dreary afternoon of December 1, 1955, black seamstress Rosa Parks watched the passing traffic through the window of the bus on which she regularly rode through Montgomery, Alabama. She tried to ignore the irate white bus driver who shouted orders that she vacate her seat for a white passenger. Calmly awaiting the police officers that she knew would soon arrive to arrest her for defying Jim Crow, Parks’s thoughts drifted back to her grandfather and the shotgun that he had kept to protect his family from the Ku Klux Klan.1 The black woman’s arrest triggered a 381-daylong boycott of Montgomery’s bus line, lauded by many as the beginning of the nonviolent civil rights movement.

But initially, local blacks were skeptical of nonviolent protest. Like Parks’s grandfather, some of them readied their shotguns when whites launched a wave of terror to stop the boycott. On January 30, 1956, blacks even pondered violent retaliation. That day, a powerful explosion shattered the house of the movement’s young leader, Baptist minister Martin Luther King Jr. Fearing for the lives of his wife, Coretta, and their young daughter, Yoki, King hastened home from a mass meeting just as hundreds of angry blacks armed with knives and guns gathered in front of the parsonage. After Coretta assured him that she and Yoki were unharmed, King stepped outside to calm the crowd. He urged them to take their weapons and go home.2 King reminded them of Jesus’s tenet that those who lived by the sword would perish by the sword, declaiming: (p.9) “I want you to love our enemies. Be good to them. This is what we must live by. We must meet hate with love.” Heeding King’s exhortations, the crowd gradually dispersed.3

The following day, his invocation of Jesus notwithstanding, King applied for a pistol permit at the county sheriff’s office. The rejection of his application together with another bomb attack, this time on the home of local NAACP leader E. D. Nixon, reinforced the resolve of King’s followers to protect the young pastor. Members of King’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church brought guns and ammunition to the parsonage, installed bright floodlights around the white wood-frame building, and began guarding the house in shifts.4 Veteran civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, who arrived in February to assist the nonviolent movement, later recalled that King’s home resembled “a virtual garrison.”5 Pistols, rifles, and shotguns lay scattered in the living room, while armed sentries stood guard outside.6

Prior to the Montgomery bus boycott, armed defense efforts against white violence constituted a bleak story of pyrrhic victories and numerous defeats. In the South, where white supremacy brooked no black dissent, let alone armed resistance, African Americans who repelled white aggressors with arms had not only been outgunned and outnumbered but also faced swift retaliation. The fact that some black men resorted to self-defense regardless of the consequences reflected more than a general concern for the safety of African American communities. For them, it also became a way to affirm their manhood in the face of white men’s disrespect. The power of such traditional gender norms partly explains the limited success of the Congress of Racial Equality’s attempts to convert black Americans to Gandhian nonviolence in the aftermath of World War II.

The obstacles that CORE faced in the 1940s foreshadowed the tensions between nonviolence and armed self-defense that confronted Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders in the 1950s and 1960s. The Montgomery bus boycott marked the beginning of a surge in black activism, which culminated in the nonviolent mass movement that CORE had envisioned. For this movement, Martin Luther King’s nonviolent philosophy was an essential strategy to legitimize black demands and to secure support from liberal white America. However, King’s widely disseminated message, which stressed reconciliation, forgiveness, and brotherly love, created a precarious dichotomy between nonviolence and armed resistance. This dichotomy was problematic because it falsely implied that nonviolence was based primarily on moral suasion—the idea that appeals to the conscience of white America alone would (p.10) bring about racial change—while in reality it constituted a pragmatic strategy that frequently depended on tactical coercion.

In addition, these binaries masked African Americans’ largely tactical commitment to nonviolence. In the 1950s, black activists in Montgomery; Little Rock, Arkansas; Birmingham, Alabama; and Monroe, North Carolina believed this tactic to be fully compatible with armed protection. The vicious and widely publicized debate that NAACP activist Robert F. Williams’s armed militancy triggered in 1959 indicated that civil rights leaders would make concerted efforts to uphold the movement’s nonviolent image to sustain white liberal support.

To fully understand the roots of this entangled relationship between racial violence, nonviolence, and gender, we have to probe the brutal history of the American South. In part, the region’s violent nature stemmed from its longtime status as a frontier settlement. Battles with Native American tribes coupled with a long tradition of extralegal vigilantism made white men comfortable carrying guns.7 Violence also reflected an important aspect of southern male identity. Antebellum notions of honor and chivalry created an idea of masculinity that subsequent generations learned, used, and reinforced primarily through violence. White men felt pressured to prove their manhood, and the skillful use of firearms and the willingness to defend one’s honor in duels frequently served this end. In antebellum southern society, these violent rituals could promote or devastate a man’s reputation.8

At the same time, violence became an important means of racial control. Antebellum plantation owners maintained their power over black slaves primarily through the threat of brutal punishment, suppressing any signs of unrest or rebellion. The Civil War marked the end of slavery, but white oppression continued. In the aftermath of the war, white terrorist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan launched a reign of terror that echoed the brutality of antebellum slave patrols. The end of Reconstruction in the 1870s marked both the success of white attempts to crush black political participation with violence and the emergence of lynching as a new form of racial terror.

Although lynching arose within an economic and political context, it became a significant tool to control race and gender relations. White men conceptualized lynching exclusively in terms of “protecting” white women from stereotypical black rapists. This form of ritualized murder allowed white men not only to maintain economic, political, and racial hierarchies; it also allowed them to assert their masculinity by proclaiming themselves guardians of southern white womanhood. While pledging to protect their wives and (p.11) daughters, white men abused African American women with impunity, continuing a form of sexual exploitation that had been institutionalized during slavery. If one follows anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss’s idea that men use women as signs to communicate with one another, white southerners clearly challenged black manhood. Masking the sexual exploitation and suppression of black and white women, white men’s “rhetoric of protection,” as Jacqueline Dowd-Hall has argued, primarily expressed a power struggle between men.9

It is difficult to comprehend the black response to white violence in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries without acknowledging this struggle over manhood. Black self-defense became more than an attempt to protect one’s life. It also reflected black men’s determination to reclaim the respect denied them by whites. Consequently, as historian Jim Cullen has noted, the end of the Civil War marked a “watershed for black manhood.”10 The ability of freedmen to protect themselves and their families from former masters was an important transformation of their perception of themselves as men. The right to bear arms and the ability to defend oneself against white attacks became a powerful symbol of this new freedom.11

In the face of an unabated wave of racial terror in the 1880s and 1890s, a new generation of militant black editors began to invoke such gendered symbolism in their condemnations of black men’s passivity. While Booker T. Washington, the most visible black leader during this era, publicly advocated accommodation, patience, and economic self-reliance, these intellectuals vociferously denounced white terror and called for manly resistance. In numerous articles and editorials, they countered white southerners’ “rhetoric of protection” with their own “discourse of protection.”12

One of these militant authors was Ida B. Wells, a graduate of Fisk University who became a militant antilynching activist in the 1890s. As historian Patricia A. Schechter has pointed out, Wells clearly understood that lynching was more than terrorist violence against the black population. It also became “a particular assault on black males and black ‘manhood.’”13 Ida B. Wells’s blunt critique of black men’s cowardice was harsh. In an 1892 pamphlet, she declared that nothing was “to be gained by a further sacrifice of manhood and self-respect.” She believed that only the determination of armed blacks to defend themselves would ultimately deter the white mob.14

T. Thomas Fortune could not have agreed more. By the end of the nineteenth century, the owner and editor of the New York Age was a renowned black spokesman in the North. Bolstering his militant reputation, Fortune vehemently condemned the federal government’s failure to protect southern (p.12) blacks and urged his people to use arms to counter white terrorism. “We do not counsel violence,” he wrote in one editorial, “we counsel manly retaliation.” Fortune insisted that armed resistance was necessary for blacks “to assert their manhood and citizenship.”15

In the early twentieth century, W.E.B. Du Bois became another vocal advocate of armed protection. In 1909, the Harvard-educated sociologist and civil rights activist had cofounded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Though the NAACP battled lynching with publicity campaigns and legal action, Du Bois also published scathing condemnations of black timidity in the organization’s magazine, the Crisis. A particularly uncompromising critique appeared in October 1916. Commenting on a recent lynching in Gainesville, Florida, Du Bois scorned the black community’s submissiveness. In Du Bois’s eyes, blacks had “acted like cowardly sheep” when they surrendered a man who had injured two white police officers in a nighttime altercation. Noting that blacks had outnumbered the mob two to one, he accused them of allowing whites to harass and attack innocent men and women. Du Bois concluded that lynching was going to stop only “when the cowardly mob is faced by effective guns in the hands of people determined to sell their souls dearly.”16

No one could accuse the combative editor of failing to practice what he preached. During the Atlanta riot of 1906, Du Bois, then professor of sociology at Atlanta University, rushed back to the city to protect his wife and young daughter. After buying a Winchester double-barreled shotgun and plenty of ammunition, he took position at the front porch of his house. “If a white mob had stepped on the campus where I lived,” he later reflected in his memoirs, “I would without hesitation have sprayed their guts over the grass.”17 Numerous black Atlantans were similarly prepared, forcing back white invaders with volleys of buckshot. It is conceivable that many of these men preferred a manly fight—even if fought in vain—to what Wells, Fortune, and Du Bois derided as passive submission.18

But prior to the civil rights era, only a minority of blacks was able to put such militant appeals into organized action. During Reconstruction, former black Union soldiers founded paramilitary organizations to defend their community against the Ku Klux Klan and other terrorist groups. These black militias were unable to stop entirely the reign of terror that whites launched in the aftermath of the war, but on several occasions they successfully drove back white vigilantes with force.19 In 1899, blacks in McIntosh County, Georgia, prevented the lynching of a man whom whites accused of rape. In what came to (p.13) be known as the “Darien Insurrection,” almost one hundred black men armed themselves and stood guard in front of the local jail.20 In Mississippi, some allblack communities were notorious for their armed resistance, fighting several pitched battles with white invaders. In 1906, in the town of Wiggins, for example, blacks traded more than five hundred shots with a white mob that had vowed to lynch a member of the black community.21

The NAACP’s Walter White suggested in 1929 that such resolve to repel white attacks had contributed to a decline in mob violence. Yet the available evidence suggests that armed black resistance more frequently provoked mob violence. In a society where a white man could murder an African American for brushing up against him on the sidewalk, wounding, let alone killing, a white man in self-defense meant almost certain death.22 On numerous occasions, black sharecroppers killed their white employers in violent arguments over a perceived lack of racial deference. During the short period that passed until a lynch mob gathered, few black communities were able to come to the victim’s rescue. Cases like the one of a black tenant in Wileox County, Georgia, were common. In 1912, the man’s white employer attacked him for his seeming reluctance to go to work. The tenant fought back, killing the planter in self-defense. Shortly thereafter, a group of whites seized him, hanged him to a tree, and emptied their guns into his dead body.23

As late as 1944, Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal reached the discouraging conclusion that southern blacks could do little to protect themselves. “They can, of course, strike back,” he wrote, “but they know that that means a more violent retaliation, often in an organized form and with danger to other Negroes.”24 Supported by local police or militias and condoned by southern politicians, white mob violence crushed most black attempts to fight back.25 Tulsa, Oklahoma, where the arrest of an alleged black rapist triggered a white attack on the city’s black neighborhood, was a case in point. Black attempts to halt the invasion during the night of May 30, 1921, led to the obliteration of the entire black community.26

While such examples of black militancy might have been deemed futile by many, some African Americans nevertheless continued to protect their communities against white aggression. In the aftermath of World War I, especially black soldiers, who had hoped that their courage in the trenches of France would translate into better treatment at home, refused to tolerate the wave of violence that greeted them upon their return. In cities across the country, disillusioned veterans met southern black migrants, whose dream of finding equality and prosperity outside the South had been similarly shattered. The (p.14) result was a rising spirit of defiance that exploded into racial violence in the aftermath of the war. Sometimes, as in the Houston Riot of 1917, this militant mood turned into aggressive violence. Constantly mistreated by white police, almost one hundred black soldiers mutinied against their white officers, seized rifles and ammunition from an army depot, and provoked a furious gun battle that left dozens dead on both sides. Predictably, the leaders of the revolt suffered swift and violent punishment by white authorities.27

But far more often, as during the “Red Summer” of 1919, black Americans simply attempted to protect their communities from white attacks. Among the thirty-seven racial clashes that the New York Times counted that year, the one in Chicago was the most brutal.28 In few places, according to historian William M. Tuttle Jr., was blacks’ willingness to fight back “more evident than in Chicago during the city’s race riot.”29 During the days of violence, which had been triggered on a hot day in July by an alleged breach of the color line at one of Lake Michigan’s segregated beaches, a few black veterans used their army training to organize the defense of black neighborhoods. Guarding strategically located street corners with submachine guns and rifles, these men repelled white invaders with gunfire. When the smoke from burning buildings had cleared, sixteen blacks and fifteen whites lay dead.30

Even in the Deep South, where state and local authorities suppressed any signs of resistance with brutal force, some blacks openly challenged white supremacy with arms. According to historian Rupert Lewis, some branches of black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) organized paramilitary units to protect its members and their meetings from racist aggression. And in July 1923, armed blacks guarded a hospital for black veterans in Tuskegee, Alabama, after whites had threatened to remove the hospital’s new black leadership. In most cases, however, such acts of resistance were confined to individual incidents of self-defense in violent confrontations with white employers or police officers.31

In the 1920s, NAACP lawyers worked hard to defend this right in the courts. Southern juries rarely exonerated African Americans who defended themselves in an altercation with whites. For that reason, blacks welcomed the NAACP’s efforts to take up the cause of those who injured or killed their white attackers. In the aftermath of the 1919 race riot in Elaine, Arkansas, for example, over one hundred blacks who had protected a secret union meeting with arms faced trial. White authorities had charged seventy of them with murder or attempted murder. By 1925, NAACP lawyers had managed to free all defendants.32

Two years later, the organization won another important victory in the (p.15) North. In 1925, the organization widely publicized the case of Dr. Ossian Sweet, a young black physician who was accused of killing a white man while defending his Detroit home against a hostile crowd that sought to preserve residential segregation.33 NAACP assistant secretary Walter White had no doubts as to why Sweet had been arrested. “Dr. Sweet and the other defendants are in jail not because they have committed a crime,” he wrote in a memorandum, “but because they are Negroes and dared defend their home and their lives against a mob.”34 To White’s mind, a conviction of Sweet would deal a major blow to the NAACP’s argument that African Americans had the same right as whites to defend themselves against such attacks.35 At least in a northern court, the legitimacy of such demands could no longer be denied. In 1927, after two trials, all charges against Sweet were dropped.36

Despite such legal victories, armed black resistance in the South of the 1930s confronted the same predicaments that had prevented effective protection in previous decades. Across the region, individual self-defense efforts against white sheriffs or white employers continued, but organized resistance remained rare.37 Still, Socialist labor organizers who attempted to bring about a union movement in Dixie during the Great Depression were astonished to find local sharecroppers and tenants in armed readiness. Harry Haywood, who after defending black neighborhoods during the Chicago riot of 1919 became a field-worker for the Communist Party, recalled in his memoirs that few of the blacks who attended union meetings in Alabama in 1933 came unarmed. “There were guns of all kinds,” he wrote, “shotguns, rifles and pistols. Sharecroppers were coming to the meetings armed and left their guns with their coats when they came in.” A year earlier, black labor activists in the region had engaged in several shoot-outs with police officers who sought to put an end to their organizing efforts.38

Members of the interracial Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union (STFU) likewise came armed to rallies. White activist Howard Kester recounted in his history of the union that when rumors of an imminent white attack spread, few black members left their homes without guns.39 But the stfu soon realized that armed protection remained a risky venture. Eventually, the union’s members removed the weapons to reduce the potential of provocation.40 Confronted with white violence and economic hardship, both attempts to organize African American protest and organized protection efforts gradually fizzled.

Although the preconditions for black mass protest seemed less than ideal in the late 1930s, World War II initiated and accelerated structural changes that provided critical groundwork for future activism. The booming war (p.16) industry provided jobs for thousands of black southerners who swelled African American communities in northern and western cities. Increasing resources in these communities meant larger black churches and colleges, independent newspapers, and powerful political organizations, all of which strengthened the vital social networks of black America. Moreover, blacks outside the Deep South emerged in the 1940s as an important voting block in national politics, frequently providing the winning margin in presidential elections. Finally, America’s promise to defeat racist dictatorships in Europe and Japan to establish genuine democracy abroad, while nearly 10 percent of its citizens suffered political, economic, and social discrimination, struck friend and foe alike as rank hypocrisy. In the looming Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union, race would become a serious liability in American foreign affairs.41

The war years also saw important legal decisions that eroded traditions of white supremacy at the same time that black activism was growing to maturity. The NAACP had challenged segregation and disfranchisement in the courts for several decades, but one of the most significant victories came in 1944. That year, in its Smith v. Allwright decision, the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed the white primary, a tool designed by southern Democrats to exclude blacks at an early stage of the political process. Now able to vote in states of the Upper South in addition to those in the North, blacks gained additional political weight. Similarly encouraging, civil rights organizations experienced unprecedented growth. By 1946, the NAACP’s membership had soared tenfold to five hundred thousand in over one thousand chapters around the country. While the NAACP was busy sending out application forms, the black Pittsburgh Courier launched its Double-V campaign, loudly demanding victory over both Adolph Hitler abroad and Jim Crow at home.42

But neither realignments in national and international politics nor legal victories would have affected race relations in the least had not African American citizens attempted to challenge white supremacy at the local level. Black soldiers were at the forefront of these efforts. Already during their training at segregated military facilities in the South, some of the over nine hundred thousand black draftees clashed with white officers and local whites over discrimination and segregation. In January 1942, for example, over five hundred black soldiers from Louisiana’s Camp Livingston and nearby Camp Claiborne revolted in the town of Alexandria, defending a black private who had been clubbed by a white policeman. The violent melee left dozens of whites and blacks wounded.43 One and a half years later, black soldiers at Camp Stewart, Georgia, rose up against constant mistreatment, killing a white mp and (p.17) wounding four others. In 1943 alone, 242 racial clashes erupted in forty-seven cities across the United States. After the bloodiest disorder of that year in Detroit, twenty-five blacks and nine whites lay dead.44

Unlike black leaders and editors, who tended to tone down their militant rhetoric toward the end of the war, black veterans were no longer willing to wait for social change.45 Upon their return, many of them took it upon themselves to challenge the racial status quo in their own communities. Across the South, these men launched voter registration drives and political campaigns. In January 1946, for example, some one hundred uniformed black veterans marched in double-file formation through downtown Birmingham, Alabama, to the Jefferson County Courthouse, demanding that their names be added to the voter rolls.46 In some southern towns and cities, returning soldiers became the first black registered voters since Reconstruction, organizing new NAACP chapters and voters leagues to enroll others. By 1950, almost twenty thousand southern African Americans had added their names to the registration books. In the words of civil rights historian John Dittmer, black veterans became “the shock troops of the modern civil rights movement,” their military service the catalyst of black activism.47

One of these men was A. Z. Young from Bogalusa, Louisiana. Before the war, Young had never given much thought to civil rights or to what lay beyond the boundaries of his native state. But his military training in the North and 168 days on the front line in Europe profoundly altered his views and sparked his career as political activist. “I felt to believe a this point as I was returning … to America,” he confided to an interviewer in the 1960s, “whether it be Bogalusa, or New York, or Los Angeles that the same privileges executed by whites should be executed by me because there is no more that a man can do than to risk his life for his country.” For Young, “this is where the turning point actually came in my life, where I was willing to stand up and to fight not only for myself but for my people wherever they be.” Back in Bogalusa, Young did just that. Becoming a labor organizer in the local paper plant in the 1950s, he later joined the civil rights movement and helped found the Deacons for Defense and Justice, a black self-defense organization that protected civil rights activists from the Ku Klux Klan.48

For David Matthews from Sunflower County, Mississippi, World War II also changed everything. The war “gave us a broader outlook and view of life in that we were traveling in various places across the United States and overseas,” he recalled decades later. He and his friends “felt that once we come out of this, we deserved the right to be citizens.”49 Like Young and Mathews, many black (p.18) soldiers refused to adhere to the traditional racial etiquette when they returned to their hometowns. On southern buses and trains, veterans deliberately defied segregation laws, which they found difficult to bear after defending American democracy on Europe’s battlefields. Government reports warned that black exsoldiers might be willing to use violence to secure their rights, while rumors spread in the South that blacks plotted to massacre the white population.50 Although black veterans were far from plotting an armed rebellion, it became obvious that they were no longer willing to acquiesce in white aggression.51

Amidst a brutal war abroad and racial clashes at home, a small band of pacifists from Chicago talked about launching a nonviolent revolution. Since the fall of 1941, several black and white college students had met regularly to discuss the problem of American racism. They all were members of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), a pacifist organization that was founded in 1914 and strove to create a colorblind society in a world without war.52

In part, these young activists were inspired by the Protestant Social Gospel. This moral reform movement emerged in the late nineteenth century and was a reaction to the catastrophic effects of urbanization and industrialization on the poor. Determined to alleviate their plight, the Social Gospel movement advocated social justice, brotherhood, and Christian love.53 The teachings of Indian nationalist and anticolonial activist Mohandas Gandhi were another major influence on the students’ thinking. Spending hours discussing how Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence could be adapted to the United States, they believed that the Social Gospel’s ideal could be accomplished only through nonviolent protest.54

Black theology student James Farmer wanted the group to do more than merely talk about social action. He envisaged an interracial organization that would use nonviolent protest to attack segregation and discrimination across the United States. Farmer had meticulously studied Gandhi during his years at Howard University Divinity School and was deeply committed to racial justice. Rather than serve in a segregated Methodist congregation after his graduation in 1941, he refused ordination to work as a for race-relations secretary. In discussions with A. J. Muste, the white president of for, he promoted his dream and eventually secured Muste’s support. Several months later, in April 1942, a group of fifty young pacifists from the Chicago area gathered to found a group that they named the Committee of Racial Equality (CORE). In May 1942, while the United States still mobilized for war, CORE activists launched what according to James Farmer was the first nonviolent sit-in in American history.55

(p.19) Of course, black Americans had experimented with nonviolent protest before. As early as 1841, blacks in Massachusetts launched boycotts against segregated railroad cars. When southern state legislatures enacted a flood of Jim Crow laws in the late nineteenth century, boycotts against segregated streetcars erupted in over twenty-five cities in every state of the former Confederacy. Some of these boycotts lasted over a year, but they ultimately failed to halt the advent of segregation. What CORE proposed, however, was more than mere noncooperation with the unjust system of racial discrimination. Grounded in Gandhi’s teachings, its pacifistic message insisted that only “loving” nonretaliation that directly confronted segregationist injustice would topple white supremacy. Like Richard Gregg and other white pacifists who began to study and promote Gandhi’s teachings in the 1920s, CORE believed that the Gandhian protest strategy had the potential to achieve extensive social change in the United States.56

News of CORE’s successful “sit-down” campaigns in 1942 and 1943 against segregated restaurants in downtown Chicago spread rapidly among pacifist circles. Soon similar groups formed in Detroit, New York, and Syracuse. During CORE’s first national conference in 1943, delegates from a handful of local CORE chapters established a loose federation of autonomous affiliates, each of which pledged to fight discrimination in restaurants, movie theaters, amusement parks, and other public places. James Farmer became the organization’s first national chairman. One year later, activists adopted Congress of Racial Equality as the permanent name of the organization. By the end of the 1940s, CORE had affiliates in fifteen northern and midwestern cities.57

Most of CORE’s founding members had thoroughly studied Gandhi’s complex philosophy. The Indian activist’s concept of Satyagraha, or “Truth-Force,” was rooted in his struggle against anti-Indian prejudice in South Africa in the second decade of the twentieth century. After his return to India in 1917, Gandhi helped launch a nonviolent mass movement against British colonial rule. Ahimsa (the refusal to do harm) was the central idea of his teachings. According to Gandhi, no one could expect to find truth (Satya) without applying the principles of Ahimsa. Self-sacrifice and voluntary submission to violence would become the “weapon of the weak” against the seemingly omnipotent British enemy. In Gandhi’s fusion of Indian spirituality and Western thought, nonviolence became both the end and the means of the struggle.58

Satyagraha roughly followed four stages. After thoroughly investigating the injustice, activists attempted to win over their opponent through reason. Following this, Satyagrahis appealed to the conscience of the oppressor by (p.20) dramatizing the injustice through their own suffering. Finally, they used tactics of nonviolent coercion such as noncooperation and civil disobedience. Gandhi insisted that Satyagraha was not passivity but an active form of nonviolent resistance that required courage and, ultimately, the willingness to die. Still, goodwill toward those who inflicted violence, along with ascetic self-suffering, was essential to the success of the struggle. In the minds of many, Gandhi’s famous 241–mile Salt March to the Indian seacoast in 1930 epitomized his philosophy. The demonstration focused on the injustice of the British salt law as a symbol of the unpopular foreign government that was unrepresentative of the Indian people. Gandhi’s example inspired hundreds of thousands to engage in similar acts of civil disobedience to protest British colonial rule.59

Although African Americans largely ignored CORE’s experiments with Gandhian principles, they were familiar with the Indian freedom struggle and the idea of nonviolent protest. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, black newspapers and journals had reported extensively about the Indian movement. As a result, several black leaders traveled to India to learn more about the struggle and its famous leader, sharing their experiences with others upon their return. Militant pacifists, such as Richard Gregg, and like-minded organizations, most notably the American Friends Services Committee and the War Resisters League, also publicized Gandhi’s ideas in the United States. In addition, Gandhians such as Krishnalal Shridharani, one of Gandhi’s disciples who had participated in the Salt March, visited the United States to acquaint black college students and intellectuals with the principles of Satyagraha. Pondering the parallels between the Indian freedom movement and the African American struggle for civil rights, some black editors began to call for “a black Gandhi” in the United States.60

One possible candidate, longtime labor and civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph, while a commanding figure, was unable to match the Indian activist’s ascetic charisma. Yet his all-black March on Washington Movement (MOWM) clearly foreshadowed the potential of nonviolent mass protest. Founding his organization in early 1941, Randolph threatened to bring one hundred thousand African Americans to Washington, D.C., to protest against blatant discrimination in the defense industry. The international implications of the looming march promised utter embarrassment for the U.S. government in its avowed struggle to defend democracy against racist Nazi Germany. Thus pressured, President Franklin D. Roosevelt yielded to Randolph’s demands, issuing executive order 8802, which ended discrimination in the defense industry and established the Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC). In the (p.21) following years, despite the weaknesses of the FEPC, thousands of black Americans found lucrative jobs in the roaring war industry.61

Randolph’s insistence that blacks had to use “extraordinary, dramatic and drastic” methods to win their freedom proved visionary, but prior to the civil rights era black support for the Gandhian’s strategy was far from unanimous.62 In the 1930s, critics stressed that the obvious differences between the two countries would make the success of nonviolent protest highly unlikely. Indians, they argued, vastly outnumbered British troops while African Americans constituted only 10 percent of the population. Similarly, Indians fought against a foreign occupation force, while blacks would oppose fellow citizens. Some of these skeptics were certain that civil disobedience would inevitably lead to racial slaughter.63 It came as no surprise, therefore, that the Pittsburgh Courier attacked Randolph in 1943 for his “irresponsible talk about suicidal civil disobedience and mass marches which never materialize.”64

When CORE activists attempted to introduce Gandhi to Americans in the 1940s, they ran into similar resistance. To many of those whom CORE sought to recruit, nonviolence seemed at best bizarre; some thought it outright laughable. Writing in 1942, for member Bayard Rustin conceded that few blacks were able “to conceive of a solution by reconciliation and non-violence” in the charged atmosphere of the war years.65 “The idea of non-violence has gotten to be something to be ridiculed everytime it is mentioned,” activist Mary Klein similarly concluded four years later about her frustrating efforts to discuss Gandhi’s teachings.66 James Farmer recalled in his memoirs that the idea that “violence could be greeted with love generally evoked only contempt.” “You mean that if someone hits you, you’re not going to hit back? What are you, some kind of a nut or something?” was a common response by perplexed listeners.67

Even within CORE, the support for Satyagraha was not undivided. In 1946, pacifist and nonpacifist members of the organization’s Chicago branch clashed on the question of whether armed self-defense against white terror was justified. During the war, tensions had intensified in the midwestern city, which had become a magnet for thousands of southern migrants. Some African Americans began to look for affordable homes in traditionally all-white neighborhoods. White people feared an erosion of the traditional color line, and racist groups burned crosses in front of black homes, attacked blacks on the street, and launched a wave of bombings to halt black migration. White police did little to stop the violence.68 Confronted with this reign of terror, members of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) who had joined the Chicago CORE (p.22) chapter discussed and approved a resolution in August 1946 that called for a system of armed black sentries to combat racial violence. In the September issue of the branch’s newsletter, CORE and swp member Berry Bessler declared, “CORE has put itself on the record as being in favor of the formation of defence squads to guard Negroes living in ‘tension’ areas who are in danger of attack.” Prepared to be called upon at short notice, these defense groups would patrol and protect black neighborhoods.69

Although Chicago CORE never implemented these plans, the chapter’s unexpected stance reflected fundamental disagreements about the interpretation of nonviolence among its members. Pacifist Robert Gemmer reported in December 1946 to CORE’s white national executive secretary George Houser: “At each meeting, practically, much time is spent with the violent vs [sic] the nonviolent approach being discussed.” Gemmer doubted that CORE’s Socialist members would remain passive during peaceful picketing campaigns and insisted that activists “act in a spirit of non-violence or they should not remain in CORE.”70 George Houser was similarly disturbed by these reports and briefly pondered expelling the Chicago branch from the national organization if it continued its ambiguous policy.71

Such debates were not confined to the Chicago branch. Among the leadership of the national organization, the question of tactical versus philosophical nonviolence aroused controversy as well. Of course, CORE’s pacifist founders had adopted Gandhi’s teachings as their way of life and believed in the power of moral suasion. “The goal of the early organization,” James Farmer explained in 1965, “was to change the hearts of those who discriminated; if the group succeeded in changing practices and not the hearts, they had something less than success.”72 Yet even among these apostles of pacifism, some members questioned their belief in such idealistic principles. CORE’s first chairperson, Bernice Fisher, a white theology student whom James Farmer described as a “passionately committed religious pacifist,” lay bare her doubts in a letter to George Houser in 1944.73 “Despite a temperamental trend toward absolutes,” she wrote, “I am on constant guard against establishing any.” The same was true of her thoughts about nonviolence. “I’d hesitate very much to say that I have a right to decide that taking another[’]s life is justified in a cause in which I am interested,” Fisher ventured, “but can I make it an absolute rule?” Fisher had no solution for her dilemma.74

Houser objected to Fisher’s reasoning for both moral and tactical reasons. As an avowed pacifist, CORE’s executive secretary abhorred all forms of violence. During the Depression, he first learned about pacifism in Christian (p.23) youth groups. In 1940, he spent a year in prison for refusing to register for the draft.75 His personal convictions aside, he argued pragmatically that black violence would only invite retaliation by the white majority. Houser also felt that endorsing any form of violence would confuse the moral dimension of their goals in the public mind. Outlining CORE’s future in a memorandum on mass protest, Houser stressed that nonretaliation would be crucial to the success of civil rights activism. When attacked, blacks should “absorb the physical punishment” rather than respond in kind, possibly “changing the hearts of the opposition” through their actions.76

James Farmer knew that few blacks would join CORE because of the speculative prospect of changing the heart of a white man. They would join because the nonviolent technique produced tangible results, such as the desegregation of restaurants or movie theaters. “The masses of Negroes will not become pacifists,” he conceded in a discussion with for president A. J. Muste. “Being Negroes for them is rough enough without being pacifists, too.”77 Rather, he planned to forge an alliance between pacifists and nonpacifists, an alliance that might be transformed into an interracial mass movement against Jim Crow in the years to come. Prior to the 1960s, however, CORE remained a northern elitist organization that consisted of predominantly white middle-class pacifists.78

Over two decades after the attempts of CORE and other pacifists to bring Gandhi to America, the Montgomery bus boycott finally catapulted nonviolence into the national spotlight. On November 14, 1956, after almost one year of sacrifice and white intimidation, the U.S. Supreme Court finally affirmed the unconstitutionality of segregation on the city’s bus line. That night, thousands of blacks crammed into Holt Street Baptist Church to celebrate their victory. Speaking to his followers about the difficult prospect of returning to the integrated buses, the movement’s young leader, Martin Luther King, evoked the symbols of Gandhi and Jesus. “With understanding, goodwill, and Christian love,” he said, they should now return to the buses. He was certain that their nonviolent suffering would not only redeem African Americans but could also change the prejudiced hearts of white racists.79

King’s words reflected both his deep roots in the religious tradition of black America and his impressive rhetorical ability to identify with multiple audiences. While instilling black listeners with hope, pride, and courage, King’s references to Christian traditions were equally comprehensible to a majority of white Americans. As Richard Lischer has pointed out, King’s goal “was the merger of black aspirations into the American dream,” which required him (p.24) to “convince black Americans that his methods represented their best interests” and “to convince white Americans that his vision was consistent with their heritage and in their best interests as well.” King’s nonviolent philosophy proved a significant asset in reconciling this need to nurture commitment to civil rights activism among black audiences with the necessity to enlist white moral and financial support for the emerging civil rights movement.80

But King’s journey toward becoming one of the movement’s most skillful nonviolent tacticians was neither static nor preordained. Only during the Montgomery movement did the twenty-six-year-old pastor begin to ponder the significance of spiritual nonviolence and its strategic implications.81 Bayard Rustin, who had come to Alabama to assist the local struggle, was shocked to find King’s house guarded by armed black men. The living room resembled a minor armory. Rustin’s friend, black journalist William Worthy, almost sat on a pistol that lay on his chair. King assured the two baffled men that the weapons were only defensive precautions against white attacks.82 When recounting the early days of the boycott movement to the War Resisters League in March 1956, Rustin lauded its potential for nonviolent protest but noted “considerable confusion on the question as to whether violence is justified in retaliation to violence directed against the Negro community.”83

In response to these shortcomings, Rustin and for activist Glenn Smiley, a white Methodist minister from Texas, began to tutor King in the philosophical nuances of Gandhi’s Satyagraha. An enthusiastic Smiley noted in a report to the for that the young Baptist minister seemed to be profoundly influenced by the Indian’s philosophy. He speculated that King might become a future “Negro Gandhi” if he could “really be won to a faith in non-violence.”84 By Rustin’s account, King’s ultimate conversion came in March 1956, when a white telegram delivery boy parked his bike across the street from the parsonage and, hiding behind a nearby bush, answered an urgent call of nature. As the relieved teenager suddenly emerged, one of King’s armed guards confused him with an intruder and nearly killed the boy.85 Only after this incident, as Rustin later recalled, did King become receptive to the spiritual side of nonviolence, banning guns from his house and developing an Afro-Christian interpretation of Gandhi’s teachings.86

Of course, Montgomery blacks heard familiar lines when King clad Gandhi in the language of Jesus. His biblical references to redemptive suffering invoked traditional themes within African American religion, which frequently likened blacks to Christian prophets and martyrs.87 Despite a general familiarity with such ideas, however, there continued to be those who found (p.25) nonviolence nonsensical. Even Rosa Parks, etched in public memory as the symbol of the Montgomery boycott, conceded in her memoirs that she and others remained skeptical about the Gandhian technique.88 As a result, some African Americans complemented the boycott with armed protection. College teacher and local activist Jo Ann Robinson recalled in her autobiographical account of the movement that a number of black men, faced with constant threats and bomb attacks, took their guns and “placed them conveniently near their beds.” One of the main organizers of the early boycott, Robinson too acquired a pistol and ammunition. She was afraid to shoot the pistol, since she was unfamiliar with the handling of guns, but, as she remembered, “it was a comfort to have it.”89

Confronted with such examples of armed precautions, King agreed with Rustin’s assessment that the movement’s leaders would have to accomplish a “tremendous educational job.”90 King and Glenn Smiley worked hard to convince local people of the tactical merits of nonviolence, explaining its principles at virtually every mass meeting. Using nonviolent workshops, pamphlets, and appeals to Christian traditions, pacifists such as Smiley sought to dissuade local blacks from retaliating against white provocation.91 According to King, these efforts proved successful. In late September 1956, he enthusiastically reported to Rustin of “a growing commitment to the philosophy of non-violence on the part of the Negro community.” “Even those who were willing to get their guns in the beginning,” he wrote, “are gradually coming to see the futility of such an approach.”92 While local African Americans may not have adopted nonviolence as a way of life, many of them seemed to have recognized its tactical potential in the fight against Jim Crow.

Despite the victory over bus segregation in Montgomery and similar protests that were springing up across the South in the ensuing years, the NAACP’s executive secretary, Roy Wilkins, remained skeptical of the new method. He and fellow NAACP leaders initially feared that the Montgomery model would lead only to a series of unsuccessful boycotts. A staff member since 1931, Wilkins was a staunch supporter of his organization’s traditional legal strategy, which sought to expand the protection of black civil rights by securing favorable legislation and court decisions. The Association’s widely acclaimed victory in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case, which declared school segregation unconstitutional, undoubtedly confirmed the general belief in the superiority of legal tactics.93

Despite the NAACP’s jubilations, however, the Brown decision not only failed to integrate southern schools but also triggered a wave of massive white resistance. (p.26) In 1955, Mississippi businessmen founded the White Citizens’ Council, which vowed to thwart racial integration by “respectable” means such as economic reprisals against the black community. One year later, the organization boasted almost 250,000 members. Others intimidated the black population with violence. Racist extremism also flourished among southern politicians, who condoned racial terrorism in the name of white supremacy.94

In Little Rock, Arkansas, where Governor Orval Faubus led the state’s resistance movement against school desegregation, this fanatic atmosphere exploded into violence in the fall of 1957. Soon after word of the impending integration of Little Rock’s Central High School had spread, white residents mobilized, attacking the nine black teenagers who had enrolled there. Faubus’s refusal to ensure the safety of the new students enraged President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who, while being no champion of racial equality, brooked no insubordination. In an action unprecedented since Reconstruction, Eisenhower dispatched federal troops to Little Rock to quell the disorder and to protect the black youths.95

In the minds of many, the federal government seemed to live up to its democratic ideals. But Daisy Bates, the local leader of the integration efforts in Little Rock and president of the Arkansas NAACP, knew better. “The phone rang constantly with threats,” she recalled of the dangerous aftermath of the school crisis. “They broke the window with rocks. They burned crosses in the yard all the time. Huge ones. And they set the house on fire.”96 Since neither federal soldiers nor local police officers responded to her requests for protection, friends and neighbors began to guard the Bates residency with shotguns and pistols. Well armed, the volunteers took positions at windows in bedroom, living room, and kitchen. In a similar fashion, the grandmother of Melba Patillo, one of the nine black students who had integrated Central High, on one occasion stood guard with a shotgun to defend Melba and her family against potential racist attacks.97

Once Governor Faubus ordered out the National Guard, local police felt even less responsibility to protect Bates. This prompted her guards to redouble their defense efforts, which culminated in the formation of a “volunteer guard committee.” Black men also installed bright floodlights at the front of the building to detect white attackers more easily. Later, they added heavy steel screens in front of the windows to shield Bates and her husband from rocks, bricks, and buckshot. By 1958, the building was protected around the clock.98

White police officers seemed intent on thwarting such private protection efforts by arresting Bates’s friends on concealed weapons charges. In a desperate

(p.27) plea for protection to President Eisenhower in August 1959, Bates recounted the campaign of terror and bitterly complained that police harassment left her allies “defenseless before those who constantly threaten our lives.”99 But such appeals fell on deaf ears. The Eisenhower administration provided no assistance to combat white aggression.

In Monroe, North Carolina, meanwhile, black NAACP activist Robert F. Williams had long given up hope that the federal government would come to the aid of African Americans. Born and raised in Monroe, Williams was a veteran of the U.S. Marines and had reorganized the town’s defunct NAACP chapter in 1955. He felt inspired by the Montgomery movement and soon initiated his own nonviolent campaign to desegregate Monroe. Still, Williams was no admirer of King’s philosophy. “I had just come out of the Marine Corps,” he recalled years later, “and I had been in the Army, and I didn’t believe in the pacifist document.” Nevertheless, Williams did believe that African Americans “should use or utilize any method that brought results.” In his mind, these methods included both nonviolent protest and what he called “armed selfreliance.”100

In 1957, Williams launched nonviolent stand-ins and picket lines to integrate Monroe’s local swimming pool. Soon the revived North Carolina Ku Klux Klan launched a campaign of harassment and intimidation, staging nighttime parades through the black neighborhood. Led by the local police chief, a procession of cars manned with hooded men slowly drove down the neighborhood’s main road, throwing rocks and bottles at houses and firing their pistols into the air. The home of local black physician Dr. Albert E. Perry became the night riders’ primary target. Shotgun attacks on Perry’s house became a common occurrence. Confronted with this unprovoked wave of violence, Williams and several black army veterans formed a defense organization that guarded the black community with pistols, machine guns, and dynamite. When another car convoy of Klansmen approached the home of Dr. Perry in early October 1957, black men, fortified in trenches around the building, put the hooded men to flight with volleys of gunfire. This incident together with a hastily passed local ordinance against motorcades in reaction to the shoot-out marked the end of Klan harassment in Monroe.101

A similar defense group emerged in Birmingham, Alabama, where charismatic minister Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth led the city’s black freedom movement. Although the black pastor urged his followers to remain nonviolent, he readily accepted their efforts to protect him and his church with arms. In 1957, after Shuttlesworth had miraculously survived a bomb attack that virtually (p.28) obliterated the parsonage, members of his Bethel Baptist Church established a selfdefense group that became known as the “Civil Rights Guards.” Led by Colonel Stone “Buck” Johnson, one of Shuttlesworth’s most loyal followers, armed sentries guarded the front and rear of the church from a provisional guard station in two nightly shifts.102 Birmingham’s flamboyant civil rights leader later stressed the defensive character of the guards. “We didn’t want anybody to get shot,” he recalled, “but we did wonder if anyone was going to throw any more dynamite…. I said to the men if you got to shoot, shoot a man in the foot[;] don’t try to kill anyone.”103 In spite of repeated attempts by Birmingham police officers to disarm them, the guards stood their ground. In the following four years, they prevented further bomb attacks on the church and Shuttlesworth’s home.104

In the meantime, Martin Luther King had begun to put into action the idea of Bayard Rustin and other activists to build an organization that would promote nonviolent protest across the South. During a meeting in New Orleans in February 1957, some one hundred southern black ministers agreed to establish the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), an umbrella organization that would consist of local affiliates in a loose alliance. Stressing Christian principles and Gandhian nonviolence, SCLC’s stated goal was to secure full citizenship for African Americans and their integration into American life.105 The organization’s constitution echoed King’s emerging Christian-Gandhian philosophy, vowing to refuse “to cooperate with evil,” and to appeal “to the conscience of man.” Most important, SCLC reiterated its commitment to the “spirit of good will and non-violence” to achieve its ultimate goal: the “beloved community.”106

In Monroe, however, many blacks felt that goodwill would do precious little to topple Jim Crow’s reign of terror. In particular, the lynching of Emmett Till in 1955 and the brutal murder of Mack Charles Parker three years later had disillusioned Robert Williams and his followers. Hopes of securing racial justice were dashed once more in the spring of 1959, when all-white juries acquitted two local white men who had been accused of raping and harassing black women. Williams, who had dissuaded Monroe’s black men from retaliating against the white community, was devastated.107 On May 5, 1959, the day on which the second acquittal was announced, a furious Williams told news reporters who covered the trial that blacks themselves would have to take action. Since they could not rely on the government for justice and protection, he said, African Americans would have to “meet violence with violence” and “be (p.29) willing to kill if necessary.” If it required lynching to stop lynching, Williams burst out, blacks would have no choice but to retaliate in kind.108

The following morning, as newspapers across the country published verbatim quotes of Williams’s statement, a fuming Roy Wilkins telephoned the North Carolina activist. Wilkins interrogated Williams, first asking whether the statement that he had read in the newspapers was correct. Not only was it correct, a belligerent Williams retorted, but he intended to make the very same statement on national tv that afternoon.109 Wilkins had heard enough. Only a few hours later, he informed Williams of his suspension as president of Monroe’s NAACP chapter. His “meet violence with violence” statement, Wilkins explained in a letter to Williams, was “in direct violation of the national policy of the NAACP” and jeopardized “the position and the effective functioning of the Association.”110 Wilkins simultaneously issued an official repudiation of Williams’s utterances. In a press release, the Association’s executive secretary conceded that the apparent “double standard of justice” angered many African Americans, but he averred that his organization had “never in its history advocated the use of violence.”111

A few days later, a much calmer Williams clarified his emotional remarks in the media, explaining that he was far from calling upon African Americans to “go out and attempt to get revenge for mistreatments or injustice.” Rather, since blacks could not rely on the Constitution for protection against mob violence, they should “defend themselves on the spot whenever they are attacked by whites.”112 But in the mind of the NAACP’s board of directors, these belated attempts to clarify his outburst were not sufficient to spare him from disciplinary measures. During a meeting on May 11, 1959, the board upheld the suspension of Williams.113

Contrary to the impression of Williams, neither Wilkins nor the national NAACP opposed the right to armed self-defense. Speaking at a fund-raising dinner in Chicago on June 12, 1959, Wilkins stated: “Of course, we must defend ourselves when attacked. This is our right under all known laws.” Wilkins found the assertion that his organization refuted this right preposterous.114 Indeed, the NAACP’s tireless efforts to provide legal council to Ossian Sweet and other African Americans who faced prosecution for protecting themselves from white aggression had established its reputation as a steadfast champion of the right to self-defense.

What Wilkins did object to was what he believed to be the use of violence as a deliberate strategy. Accordingly, he was determined to protect the NAACP (p.30) from any accusations that it favored such tactics. Journalist Robert Penn Warren would later note the “vein of hard realism in Mr. Wilkins’ thinking.”115 The Williams controversy was a reflection of this realism. Rather than stemming from disagreements over a black man’s right to protect himself, the prompt suspension of Williams was an example of the Association’s hardheaded public relations policy. Already in the early 1950s the NAACP had put its reputation for reasonableness before supporting those activists who questioned the conservative consensus. During a period that was overshadowed by anti-Communist hysteria, the NAACP quickly distanced itself from leftist members such as veteran activist W.E.B. Du Bois and prominent singer Paul Robeson.116 As historian Manfred Berg has pointed out, these efforts to disprove allegations that Communists had infiltrated the organization were rather opportunistic but helped the Association survive an era that virtually paralyzed civil rights activism well into the mid-1950s.117

Robert Williams uttered his militant statement at a time when the NAACP continued to suffer from the fallout of this anti-Communist onslaught. The previous year, moreover, Roy Wilkins had officially pledged that his organization would use every weapon except violence to win the struggle for civil rights.118 As journalist and Williams supporter Julian Mayfield rightly concluded in 1961, supporting Williams would certainly have cost the Association credibility, political influence, and financial contributions from white sympathizers.119 Particularly in 1959, when the NAACP prepared for its fiftieth anniversary celebration in New York City amidst continued charges of Communist infiltration from southern segregationists, this support seemed essential.

The Williams controversy also highlighted lingering class differences within the hierarchical organization, which black nationalist Marcus Garvey once mocked as the “National Association for the Advancement of Certain People.”120 Like Garvey, Williams and his followers accused Wilkins and the NAACP of being “just interested in a few Negroes, not the masses of Negroes.”121 Wilkins was aware of such grassroots opposition and grew concerned that NAACP dissidents would use the Williams case to challenge both his leadership and the organization’s hierarchy. The specter of losing power only heightened his personal animosity toward the militant North Carolinian. To him, Williams was “a tragic sort of stubbornly resentful David, convinced that the Light and Call have struck him and him only of all the prophets and crusaders on this question down through the decades.”122 As long as he was in command, Wilkins would brook no dissent.

(p.31) In the realm of public relations, Wilkins’s handling of the Monroe story had the desired effect. The white media unanimously praised his decision to reprimand the militant North Carolinian. The Charlotte Observer found that the “the N.A.A.C.P. moved wisely in suspending Robert Williams as president of its Union County chapter.”123 The Winston-Salem Journal Sunday and Sentinel editorialized that “law-abiding citizens of both races can applaud the prompt action of NAACP leaders in disassociating themselves from Mr. Williams’ alarming statements.”124 Northern newspapers similarly approved of Wilkins’s actions. For example, the Newark Evening News stated that Wilkins had “reinforced his own and his organization’s position by his prompt repudiation and suspension of the chapter president.”125 In short, Wilkins’s forceful condemnation of Williams had won the NAACP a major public relations victory.

Wilkins skillfully used the NAACP’s fiftieth anniversary convention in July to settle both the Williams debate and the looming challenge to his leadership once and for all. Lobbying the delegates to affirm the suspension of Williams, the Association’s executive secretary distributed a pamphlet entitled “The Single Issue in the Robert F. Williams Case” among the delegates. In the leaflet, Wilkins reminded readers of “the orderly legal, legislative and educational procedure the NAACP” had “successfully pursued for half a century.” The Monroe case, he insisted, was not about self-defense or free speech but only about Williams’s “call for aggressive, premeditated violence.”126

During the tumultuous convention, the “Lancelot of Monroe,” as Wilkins once derided Williams, attempted to sway the delegates, reiterating that he had never called for more than self-defense. But Williams faced overwhelming odds. The Association’s powerful executive secretary had secured the support of an array of renowned black speakers who unanimously denounced Williams’s call to arms.127 Most prominent among them was Martin Luther King, who joined Wilkins in portraying Williams as a dangerous agitator. According to King, who spoke on the evening of July 17, “to privately or publicly call for retaliatory violence as a strategy during this period would be the gravest tragedy that could befall us.” He warned that black violence would not only cost the movement white support but would also invite brutal retaliation by racist southerners, who might use such incidents as an excuse for murdering African Americans.128 The other speakers voiced similar criticism, accusing Williams of violating King’s nonviolent ideal. Even Daisy Bates, who continued to rely on armed guards for her safety, condemned the militant activist.129 In the end, Wilkins’s lobbying efforts paid off. The delegates unanimously affirmed the (p.32) suspension of Williams, endorsing the board’s verdict that his statement implied “violence as a means of redress of wrongs and not in self-defense of rights of person or property.”130

In many ways, the scathing criticism of Wilkins, King, and other civil rights leaders was a tactical concession to the political realities of civil rights protest. As King had argued, praising or condoning Williams’s stance would certainly have alienated many white supporters. Williams might have been aware of such strategic considerations, but he did not feel that they justified the NAACP’s harsh disciplinary measures. Feeling misjudged and insulted, Williams responded to his critics in the September issue of the pacifist magazine Liberation. In “Can Negroes Afford to Be Pacifists?” Williams argued for “diverse tactics and philosophies” in the civil rights struggle and impugned the merits of Martin Luther King’s philosophy. Clearly simplifying Gandhi’s teachings, he argued that nonviolence was “a very potent weapon when the opponent” was “civilized.” But King’s “turn-the-other-cheekism” could be “no match or repellent for a sadist.” Since whites would answer philosophical nonviolence only with “brutal attack on cringing, submissive Negroes,” African Americans across the South needed to prepare for armed self-defense. Refuting King’s argument that resistance would provoke white retaliation, Williams contended that armed actions actually lessened racial tensions by deterring white attackers.131

His blistering attacks did not go unanswered. A month later, Liberation published a rejoinder by both Roy Wilkins and King. Wilkins’s assessment of the issue had changed little. He insisted that Williams’s statement “spread the false impression that the NAACP supports lynching and mob violence,” which would have endangered “the effectiveness of the NAACP” across the country.132 By contrast, King’s carefully crafted article titled “The Social Organization of Nonviolence” provided a thorough discussion of the debate’s divergent positions. He readily admitted that few blacks would follow his abstract philosophy and conceded that self-defense remained a legitimate concept that not even Gandhi would have opposed. But King strongly condemned what he believed to be Williams’s “advocacy of violence as a tool of advancement, organized as in warfare, deliberately and consciously.” Not only would this fail to rally people to join the movement, King argued, it also implied that there was “no effective and practical alternative.” The SCLC’s president averred that wellorganized nonviolent protest such as boycotts, sit-ins, and mass demonstrations would be much more effective than what Williams had in mind.133

Although the Williams controversy was largely confined to movement circles, the dispute was highly significant because it indicated that King’s (p.33) philosophy of nonviolence was well on its way to become the movement’s official credo. In part, this was a consequence of King’s rising fame in the national media. By 1957, as Peter Ling has pointed out, the young minister “was already a star, more famous for being famous and for his words than for his current actions.”134 Although King had not led any major civil rights campaign in the years after the Montgomery bus boycott, his evolving ideas on nonviolent protest coupled with the founding of SCLC had caught the public’s attention. The Williams debate highlighted some of the same themes that King stressed in his speeches and public statements. Thus nonviolence, reconciliation, and love—rather than diverse tactics and armed self-defense—began to emerge as the dominant points of reference for the American media. Consequently, given the ambiguous connotations of armed force against white aggression, movement leaders found it increasingly difficult to endorse black militancy publicly.

CORE’s internal debates on the Williams case illustrate the pragmatism that characterized the politics of nonviolence. As a result of the growing popularity of King, CORE’s meager finances had experienced a major boost in the aftermath of the Montgomery bus boycott. Unlike the NAACP, whose funds consisted of both membership dues and financial gifts, CORE was largely dependent on individual contributions from sympathetic whites. With King’s help, who frequently lent his name to the organization’s fund-raising efforts, CORE nearly doubled the number of its contributors between 1954 and 1957.135

In a discussion on the use of the “meet violence with violence” controversy for fund-raising purposes, acclaimed southern author Lillian Smith, one of CORE’s longtime allies, argued that emphasizing a strong commitment to Gandhian principles might raise additional funds.136 Smith was dissatisfied with a fund-raising letter that CORE’s executive director James Robinson had asked her to sign. Robinson’s original draft joined in the public condemnation of the NAACP firebrand’s call to arms. “I was alarmed when one Southern Negro leader recently declared that Negroes should meet violence with violence,” the letter began. Unless CORE received generous financial support to train blacks in the art of nonviolent protest, Robinson predicted, the “spread of bitterness” among blacks would “almost inevitably” lead “to violence and bloodshed.”137

Smith disapproved of the way in which Robinson exploited Williams. “To say that a southern Negro leader had advocated violence (for me to say it),” she explained, “would shock many southern Negro leaders.” Smith also suspected that Robinson’s wording would terrify white supporters and bolster the (p.34) position of white racists.138 After revising Robinson’s draft, Smith was certain that she had “put the pressure on where it counts: People are afraid of violence.” If CORE’s appeal could assure readers that “their five dollars or ten or fifty can help keep down violence they are more likely to send it—even those who do not understand what we mean by the philosophy of nonviolence.”139 In the end, CORE mailed fifty thousand copies of Smith’s letter to potential contributors.140 Smith’s fund-raising concept, while clearly distorting the realities of the southern freedom struggle, clearly illustrates how movement leaders sought to mute debates on armed militancy while highlighting an unwavering commitment to Gandhi to sustain white support.

The Monroe story had already vanished from newspaper stands when on February 1, 1960, four African American students from the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College in Greensboro triggered a nonviolent sit-in movement against segregated lunch counters, which spread like wildfire across the South. Within a mere two months, black students had launched protests in fifty-four cities in nine southern states, reviving the stagnating freedom movement and forcing Woolworth and other national companies to integrate their diners and lunch counters in many parts of the region.141 The method that the students used—occupying all available seats at the counters and accepting white harassment and beatings as well as arrest without retaliation—echoed CORE’s campaigns against segregated restaurants in the 1940s. Seeing its pioneering technique practiced across Dixie, CORE was the only organization with enough expertise and manpower to assist the emerging student movement. Immediately after the sit-ins began, CORE workers fanned out to black college campuses, offering workshops in nonviolent resistance and organizing new affiliates. Long considered a “never-never land,” the South soon boasted numerous new CORE chapters.142

Not only CORE hoped to benefit from the unexpected surge in student activism. Martin Luther King and Roy Wilkins also intended to infuse their organizations with fresh blood and youthful enthusiasm. Veteran activist Ella Baker, however, after experiencing the restrictive hierarchies of both the NAACP and SCLC, encouraged the young activists to remain independent. During a student conference that Baker organized in Raleigh, North Carolina, on April 16, 1960, she exposed some 120 delegates to her vision of conducting “spadework”— developing local leadership in southern black communities.143

Besides Baker, Martin Luther King and James Lawson, a thirty-one-year-old black Methodist divinity student at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, were the main speakers. In their remarks, both men stressed the importance (p.35) of nonviolence as a way of life and encouraged the young activists to adopt Gandhi’s teachings. The large student delegation from Nashville dominated the following discussions. Most of them were black ministerial students who, under the guidance of devout pacifist Lawson, had become dedicated Satyagrahis.144 The passionate speeches of King and Lawson generated an enthusiasm for nonviolent activism among all delegates. In the end, the young activists chose to found their own organization: the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Marion Barry, a black chemistry graduate student from Fisk University in Nashville, became its first chairman.145

The new group’s statement of purpose seemed to reflect a deeply felt commitment to nonviolent principles. “We affirm the philosophical or religious ideal of nonviolence as the foundation of our purpose, the presupposition of our faith, and the manner of our action,” it read. SNCC pledged to strive for “a social order of justice permeated by love,” which would remain “loving and forgiving even in the midst of hostility.” Echoing King’s rhetoric, SNCC vowed to appeal to the conscience of men, and thereby create an atmosphere of justice and reconciliation.146

But these idealistic words, which had been penned by Lawson, reflected the author’s religious pacifism rather than the new organization’s unanimous acceptance of King’s teachings. Founding member Charles “Chuck” McDew, a student from South Carolina State University who would succeed Barry as chairman in 1961, later recalled that most students “saw nonviolence as a viable sort of method” but were far from embracing it as a philosophical imperative. According to McDew, devout Gandhians remained “a distinct minority.” He and his fellow students from South Carolina “took the position that it was totally inconceivable that we would accept nonviolence as way of life.”147 In fact, except for the students from Nashville, the majority of SNCC’s founding members viewed nonviolence merely as a tactic.148 But in the early 1960s, such minor notes of discord could not dampen the students’ enthusiasm.

Like the sit-in movement, the Freedom Ride of 1961 became a demonstration of the power of nonviolent direct action. CORE’s plan to test the recent Boynton v. Virginia Supreme Court decision, which had declared segregated waiting rooms and restaurants in interstate travel unconstitutional, echoed its first national campaign, the Journey of Reconciliation. In 1947, interracial teams of activists had traveled the Upper South to test a Supreme Court ruling that had outlawed segregation on interstate buses and trains. Although black veterans had to rescue the activists from an angry white mob in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the media virtually ignored the Journey.149

(p.36) By contrast, the Freedom Ride led activists into the Deep South, the very heart of white supremacy. CORE rightly suspected that few reporters would be able to ignore the massive violence that they expected to encounter in Alabama and Mississippi. The campaign, then, was a calculated risk to draw federal and public attention to racial segregation. But this time, the stakes were much higher. When the integrated group of thirteen activists boarded two buses in Washington, D.C., on May 4, 1961, few of them expected to make it back alive. As Gandhi had pointed out, nonviolent direct action required both discipline and courage to the point of accepting death as a witness to the brutal injustice of Jim Crow. Contrary to Robert Williams’s claim in Liberation, the Freedom Riders could hardly be called submissive cowards.

The violence that greeted the protestors in Anniston, Alabama, on May 14, when an angry mob of white people bloodied the Freedom Riders and bombed one of the buses, made front pages around the world. More racist attacks in the following days promised utter embarrassment for the United States in the eyes of international audiences, which impelled President John F. Kennedy to dispatch troops to protect the activists. On May 24, after a round of negotiations with the Kennedy administration, a cordon of police cars as well as a helicopter accompanied the activists from Montgomery to their next stop, Jackson, Mississippi. Despite their arrest in Jackson, the Freedom Riders had won a major victory. Pressured by the White House, the Interstate Commerce Commission eventually issued official regulations to enforce the desegregation of interstate travel facilities.150

As evidenced by the Freedom Ride, nonviolent protest, by deliberately provoking a violent white response, not only drew national and international attention. More important, the crisis that racist attacks against black activists created compelled the federal government to protect the lives of civil rights protestors and to assist in the enforcement of integration in interstate travel. Yet it is doubtful that the movement’s white supporters fully grasped the coercive qualities of nonviolent protest. One moderate probably spoke for many when he commended the Freedom Riders for their “practice of nonviolence and love toward those that hated you and brought violence against you.”151 From this perspective, activists from CORE and SNCC assumed the role of passive martyrs who appealed to the conscience of ruthless white racists.

A group of mainly white civil rights activists who traveled to Monroe, North Carolina, to assist Robert Williams in his struggle against racial segregation learned that nonviolent campaigns that drew no national media attention would compel no one to protect the movement against white (p.37) aggression. Williams, whose suspension as president of the local NAACP chapter had not dashed his spirit, welcomed their help, but he simultaneously viewed their presence as an opportunity to prove “that what King and them were preaching was bullshit.”152 In Negroes with Guns, a brief account of the Monroe movement, the former marine stressed that he was far from opposing King’s philosophy per se but rather believed that the movement “shouldn’t take the attitude that one method alone is the way for liberation.”153

In August 1961, Williams’s young visitors were quickly disabused of the notion that their protest would have an immediate impact on the entrenched traditions of white supremacy. A spontaneous picketing campaign against segregation did not desegregate Monroe but triggered a violent race riot that forced Robert Williams to flee the city after rumors circulated that local police, National Guardsmen, and Ku Klux Klan forces planned to invade the town’s black neighborhood. After a perilous odyssey from North Carolina to Canada, while being hunted by the FBI for allegedly kidnapping a white couple who had strayed into the black neighborhood during the riot, Williams eventually managed to reach Cuban exile.154

Now branded a gun-toting militant, a Communist, and a kidnapper, Williams became a serious liability in the eyes of black civil rights leaders. In the aftermath of the Monroe debacle, for example, CORE was at pains to avoid the impression that it approved of the militant North Carolinian. When James Farmer received a call for funds from the Committee to Aid the Monroe Defendants (CAMD), an organization that had been formed by white supporters to assist in the legal defense of several activists who, like Williams, had been charged with kidnapping, CORE’s National Action Committee refused to support the CAMD’s cause.155

A year after CORE’s successful efforts to stay clear of the potentially damaging effects of supporting Williams, SCLC’s protest campaign in Birmingham, Alabama, once more proved the effectiveness of organized nonviolent direct action. One year prior to the Alabama project, King had suffered a humiliating defeat in Albany, Georgia, where local sheriff Laurie Pritchet parried SCLC’s demonstrations with a nonviolent strategy of his own. Together with activists’ failure to realize that a general attack on all aspects of segregation would soon exhaust the local movement’s momentum, Pritchet’s policy of restraint earned the police chief praise by whites and frustrated SCLC’s efforts to dramatize the injustice of Jim Crow in the media.156

In Birmingham, therefore, King’s organization focused on the economic aspects of segregation, launching a boycott against the city’s discriminatory (p.38) white merchants. In addition, SCLC’s carefully staged nonviolent demonstrations provoked a violent white response that led to the breakdown of public order and focused the world’s attention on the injustice of segregation. The tactical advantages of the nonviolent strategy were obvious: the SCLC’s carefully staged morality play, in which violence was aimed solely at peaceful protestors, put both southern segregationists and national authorities on the defensive. In the eyes of national and international audiences, it was impossible to deny the legitimacy of black demands. Consequently, it became increasingly difficult for white authorities to justify delays in yielding to these demands. Moreover, neither city administrations nor federal authorities were eager to struggle with a sustained breakdown of public order. Finally, the economic leverage that blacks wielded through sustained boycotts forced white merchants to learn an important lesson: if one followed the logic of capitalism, maintaining racial discrimination was simply unprofitable.

Yet, despite these tactical benefits of nonviolence, maintaining discipline at Birmingham’s demonstrations proved difficult. To many local blacks, remaining peaceful in the face of attack seemed simply implausible. SCLC staffer Andrew Young remembered years later: “Everybody looks at the Birmingham demonstration and thinks that there was some sort of miracle performed, but it was a lot of hard work.” “Birmingham,” he said, “was not a nonviolent city….

[it] was probably the most violent city in America, and every black family had an arsenal.”157 A number of African Americans brought their weapons to the demonstrations. As one activist recalled, SCLC organizers “used to have to run people home, because they would bring their guns and that kind of thing.”158 Before some marches, King’s aides collected trash cans full of knives, razors, and other weapons, urging people not to hit back when attacked.159

Unsurprisingly, the patience of those blacks who were not directly involved in the local movement was wearing thin even more rapidly. In May, armed protection gave way to violent protest. During the night of May 11, 1963, a powerful dynamite blast destroyed the hotel room of Martin Luther King, while another bomb damaged the house of King’s brother, A.D. Both men were absent when the bombers struck, but shortly after the two blasts had roused Bir-mingham’s residents from their sleep, thousands of angry blacks surged into the streets. During the turmoil that followed, bricks and bottles rained down on police officers, while a group of black men overturned a car and set it afire. Hastily called in state troopers struggled to quell the upheaval until after dawn. The New York Times considered the riot “without a doubt one of the worst racial explosions seen in the South in years.”160

(p.39) The fact that the movement’s nonviolent image remained intact despite such examples of black rage was a result of both civil rights leaders’ rhetorical strategies and the media’s tendency to neglect certain incidents of black violence. As Jenny Walker has demonstrated, both conservative and moderate journalists had reason to downplay events that challenged the movement’s nonviolent reputation. Some liberal white journalists did so out of concern that such reports might undermine the effectiveness and moral power of the nonviolent movement. Conservative southern pundits frequently opted not to report about black violence because they felt that nonviolent protest already drew enough negative attention to the South’s white supremacist traditions. Some black newspapers, on the other hand, remained largely silent on black violence because they frequently faced economic reprisals and violent threats if they published accounts about such incidents.161

Probably in part because of the media’s multilayered agendas, the efforts of some Birmingham blacks to organize for self-defense in the face of a new wave of racist terrorism in September 1963 went largely unnoticed. On Sunday, September 15, 1963, a women’s Sunday school class was discussing the topic “The Love That Forgives” in Sixteenth Street Baptist Church when a powerful explosion shook the building. Between scattered plaster and other debris that covered the floor of the destroyed basement, four little black girls lay dead, while fourteen others crawled out of the ruins injured and shocked. Black residents were outraged at the crime, and thousands of them assembled in the streets, throwing stones and bottles at the police. Throughout the day, sporadic gunfire echoed in the black section of town. At the end of the day, two other black teenagers had fallen victim to racial violence—one shot by a police officer, the other boy slain by a local segregationist. These murders further aggravated the city’s volatile atmosphere.162

Once the first wave of anger had passed, African American residents organized the protection of their community. In a black upper-class neighborhood that was known as “Dynamite Hill” because it had become one of white bombers’ favorite targets, residents set up a guard system with observation posts and communications networks to prevent further attacks. Armed blacks regularly patrolled their neighborhood and searched churches and other buildings for explosives.163 As in Montgomery, armed protection became a largely invisible means of support for the nonviolent movement.

While Martin Luther King may have been personally troubled by such examples of armed militancy, he clearly understood that most African Americans adopted nonviolence as a tactic, not as a way of life. “I think it is still true that (p.40) people by and large are using it as a technique and not following it as a philosophy,” King conceded in an interview in November 1963. “But I think that most of the students and adults who have engaged in nonviolent demonstrations have felt that nonviolence is the best practical technique for the Negro … and they have followed it for that reason.” Nonviolence was so powerful, the civil rights leader said, “because it can bring about these meaningful changes, it can rally people, and it works.” Like CORE’s James Farmer in the 1940s, King did not intend to convert a majority of black Americans to Satyagraha. Rather, he planned to convince them of the practical necessity to resort to the nonviolent strategy.164

At the same time, King was a skillful politician who was well aware that the movement was dependent on white support. His pledges to inculcate in African Americans a deep commitment to the philosophy of nonviolence reflected these tactical entanglements. Already in his first book, Stride Toward Freedom, written shortly after the Montgomery bus boycott, King argued that blacks had to “meet the forces of hate with the power of love” and insisted that nonviolence did “not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding.” Coupled with his exhortations that activists would have to abjure “not only external physical violence but also internal violence of the spirit,” such statements reinforced connotations of passiveness and clearly implied that blacks ought to adopt nonviolence as a way of life.165

SCLC, too, hammered home the message that means and ends were inseparable. “Only through nonviolence,” one pamphlet quoted the organization’s constitution, “can reconciliation and the creation of the beloved community be effected.”166 In a manifesto penned during a nonviolent workshop in 1959, SCLC pledged “to adhere to the best of our ability to the practice of Christian love and nonviolence, not simply as a tactical measure, but always moving towards it as an all embracing rule of conduct.”167 In a similar fashion, a brochure on the genesis of nonviolent protest explained that activists would launch direct action only if “actual love” was felt for their adversaries.168

If white America was hopeful that an increasing number of blacks would adopt King’s teachings, King and SCLC appeared determined to meet such expectations. In his message to SCLC’s annual convention in 1963, for example, King warned against the “great temptation to accept nonviolence solely as a strategy.” One of SCLC’s chief aims therefore was “to broadly disseminate …

the heart of nonviolence, that our commitment to nonviolence will not only be a technique, but shall become for us a way of life with love and redemption as its center.”169 One year later, delegates supported a resolution that reiterated the (p.41) need “to inculcate in others the philosophy of nonviolence” as SCLC’s “prime responsibility.”170

King’s second book, Why We Can’t Wait, which was published in 1964, echoed such idealistic pledges. Not only did he claim that African Americans had broken with America’s “eye-for-an-eye philosophy.” He also averred that the teachings of Gandhi and Jesus enabled the black man to “transmute hatred into constructive energy, to seek not only to free himself but to free his oppressor from his sins.”171 Disseminated and amplified by the mass media, King’s message probably reassured white liberal Americans that their financial contributions as well as their moral support were invested in a cause worth fighting for.

While it is difficult to determine how white movement supporters perceived the message of King and other civil rights leaders, there is some evidence to suggest that the movement’s pledges had the desired effect. During the Birmingham crisis, for example, hundreds of letters from sympathetic whites inundated SCLC’s headquarters in Atlanta, commending King and his followers for their “peaceful” campaign. One white man from Chicago was “especially impressed by the extreme degree of patience and passiveness that you and your fellow workers have shown in light of the dastardly acts of white people without a conscience.”172 Another admirer from Madison, Wisconsin, expressed her hope that King and SCLC would continue their “non-violent and passive resistant [sic] technique.”173

Yet, while King’s abstract philosophy was essential to the success of the movement, it circumscribed the ability of national civil rights leaders to talk about nonviolence in tactical terms, let alone to justify black self-defense. As white terrorists continued to bomb churches, burn crosses, and shoot at activists in the Deep South, the movement’s predicaments grew in direct proportion to the media’s attention to black self-defense efforts. In Tuscaloosa, Alabama, however, where armed resistance became an integral part of the local freedom movement, African American activists managed to keep the media’s interest focused on nonviolent protest.


(1.) Parks, Rosa Parks, 30, 115.

(2.) Garrow, Bearing the Cross, 60–62; Branch, Parting the Waters, 165.

(3.) Martin Luther King Jr., Stride toward Freedom, 131.

(4.) Garrow, Bearing the Cross, 62; Abernathy, “The Natural History of a Social Movement,” 161.

(5.) Quoted in Jo Ann Ooiman Robinson, “Diary 6/21/64–6/26/64,” entry 6/25/64, box 2, folder 1, Robinson Papers.

(6.) Rustin, “Montgomery Diary,” 8; Raines, My Soul Is Rested, 53; “Interview with Bayard Rustin, March 28, 1974,” box 58, folder 4, Meier Papers.

(7.) Franklin, The Militant South, 24, 30–31; Cash, The Mind of the South, 43.

(8.) Rotundo, American Manhood, 1–9; Franklin, The Militant South, 18, 35, 44; Cash, The Mind of the South, 73; Wyatt-Brown, Southern Honor, 352–53, 369.

(9.) Gilmore, “Murder, Memory, and the Flight of the Incubus,” 73–94; Hall, Revolt against Chivalry, xxvi; Hall, “‘The Mind That Burns in Each Body,’” 332, 335.

(10.) Cullen, “‘I’s a Man Now’” 77.

(11.) Litwack, Been in the Storm So Long, 428. Across Dixie, African Americans purchased rifles, shotguns, and pistols, considering the right to use them an undeniable privilege of American citizenship. See Litwack, Been in the Storm So Long, 428; Fleming, Documentary History of Reconstruction, 90; and Vandal, “Black Violence in Post–Civil War Louisiana,” 62.

(12.) I have borrowed the term “discourse of protection” from Griffin, “Black Feminism and Du Bois,” 28–40.

(13.) Schechter, “Unsettled Business,” 295.

(14.) Ida B. Wells, “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases,” in Wells, On Lynchings, 23.

(15.) Quoted in Thornbrough, “T. Thomas Fortune,” 22, 23. See also Thornbrough, T. Thomas Fortune. John Mitchell of the Richmond Planet similarly viewed self-defense as a manly duty. Framed by gun advertisements, his editorials urged African Americans to confront white murderers. “Defend your homes against the midnight assasin [sic],” Mitchell urged, “above all protect your women.” Quoted in Rabinowitz, Race Relations in the Urban South, 234. For a biography of Mitchell, see Alexander, Race Man.

(16.) Du Bois, “Cowardice,” Crisis 12 (October 1916): 270–71.

(17.) Du Bois, The Autobiography of W.E.B. Du Bois, 286.

(18.) See Dittmer, Black Georgia in the Progressive Era, 126–30.

(19.) Formwalt, “The Origins of African-American Politics in Southwest Georgia,” 211–22; Williamson, After Slavery, 260–62; Shapiro, “Afro-American Responses to Race Violence during Reconstruction,” 158–70; Escott, Slavery Remembered, 157–58.

(20.) Brundage, “The Darien ‘Insurrection’ of 1899,” 234–53.

(21.) McMillen, Dark Journey, 225–26. For other examples of black resistance to lynch mobs in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, see Wright, Racial Violence in Kentucky, 162, 172; Litwack, Trouble in Mind, 423; Ginzburg, 100 Years of Lynching, 9–10; “Crime,” Crisis 1 (March 1911): 10; “Crime,” Crisis 11 (February 1916): 168; “Ghetto,” Crisis 13 (January 1917): 147; Chicago Defender, June 19, 1915.

(22.) Walter White, Rope and Faggot, 189, 191; “Crime,” Crisis 7 (December 1913): 64.

(23.) “Crime,” Crisis 4 (August 1912): 167. For other examples of white retaliation against blacks who resorted to self-defense, see Ginzburg, 100 Years of Lynching, 9–19, 62–63, 88, 109–10, 139–40, 142, 197.

(24.) Myrdal, An American Dilemma, 559.

(25.) Ibid., 560; Litwack, Been in the Storm So Long, 427–28; McMillen, Dark Journey, 226.

(26.) Ellsworth, Death in a Promised Land, 46–66.

(27.) For a comprehensive study of the riot, see Haynes, A Night of Violence.

(28.) New York Times, October 5, 1919.

(29.) Tuttle, Race Riot, 210.

(30.) Ibid., 239; Haywood, Black Bolshevik, 81–82.

(31.) Rupert Lewis, Marcus Garvey, 68; Daniel, “Black Power in the 1920s,” 377–78; Woodruff, American Congo, 4, 137–39.

(32.) Cortner, A Mob Intent on Death, 15, 184.

(33.) Schneider, We Return Fighting, 301–10. For a detailed account of the Sweet case, see Boyle, Arc of Justice.

(34.) Walter White, “Memorandum to Mr. Seligman,” October 22, 1925, group I, series D, box 86, NAACP Papers.

(35.) Assistant Secretary to Editor of the Nation, December 19, 1925, group I, series D, box 86, NAACP Papers.

(36.) Weinberg, A Man’s Home, A Man’s Castle, 65–68; Secretary to Clarence Darrow, Esq., July 21, 1927, group I, series D, box 87, NAACP Papers.

(37.) Fairclough, Race and Democracy, 26–28; De Jong, A Different Day, 58; Litwack, Trouble in Mind, 424–25.

(38.) Kelley, Hammer and Hoe, 45; Haywood, Black Bolshevik, 401–2, 399; Rosengarten, All God’s Dangers, 296, 306–13.

(39.) Kester, Revolt among the Sharecroppers, 62.

(40.) Ibid., 62, 63; “The Elaine Massacre,” 9–10.

(41.) Morris, “A Man Prepared for the Times,” 37–47. The literature on civil rights and foreign affairs has been growing extensively in recent years. Some of the most recent studies are Plummer, Window on Freedom; Borstelmann, The Cold War and the Color Line; and Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights.

(42.) W. P. Bayles to Walter White, April 20, 1942, group II, series A, box 239, NAACP Papers; Sitkoff, “African American Militancy in the World War II South,” 77.

(43.) Pittsburgh Courier, January 24, 1942.

(44.) Chicago Defender, June 12, 1943; Sitkoff, “Racial Militancy and Interracial Violence in the Second World War,” 661–81. See also Shapiro, White Violence and Black Response, 305; Tyson, “Wars for Democracy,” 253–76.

(45.) Finkle, “The Conservative Aims of Militant Rhetoric,” 692–93.

(46.) Chicago Defender, February 2, 1946.

(47.) McMillen, “Fighting for What We Didn’t Have,” 95; Lawson, Black Ballots, 114; Dittmer, Local People, 9.

(48.) A. Z. Young interview.

(49.) Matthews interview.

(50.) Wynn, The Afro-American and the Second World War, 112; de Jong, A Different Day, 139; Odum, Race and Rumors of Race, 96–100.

(51.) One example of this new militancy is Columbia, Tennessee, where black veterans joined to defend the black neighborhood against an expected white attack in February 1946. See O’Brien, The Color of the Law, 7–29; and Beeler, “Race Riot in Columbia, Tennessee,” 49–61.

(52.) DeBenedetti, The Peace Reform in American History, 95.

(53.) On the Social Gospel movement, see Paul Allen Carter, The Decline and Revival of the Social Gospel; Ronald C. White Jr., Liberty and Justice for All.

(54.) George M. Houser, “CORE: A Brief History,” 1949, box 3, folder 3, Meier-Rudwick Collection.

(55.) Raines, My Soul Is Rested, 27; Houser, “CORE: A Brief History.”

(56.) Meier and Rudwick, “The Boycott Movement against Jim Crow Street Cars in the South,” 756–75; Meier and Rudwick, “The Origins of Nonviolent Direct Action in Afro-American Protest,” 307–404. On the significant influence of Richard Gregg on nonviolent activism, see Kosek, “Richard Gregg, Mohandas Gandhi, and the Strategy of Nonviolence.”

(57.) Houser, “core: A Brief History.”

(58.) Bondurant, Conquest of Violence, 8, 16, 23, 25, 34; Shridharani, War without Violence, 6.

(59.) Bondurant, Conquest of Violence, 8, 25–28; Mary King, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., 62–66.

(60.) Mays, Born to Rebel, 153–56; Kosek, “Richard Gregg, Mohandas Gandhi, and the Strategy of Nonviolence,” 1327–40; Kapur, Raising up a Prophet, 2–7, 40, 120.

(61.) On Randolph and the MOWN, see Pfeffer, A. Philip Randolph; and Garfinkel, When Negroes March.

(62.) A. Philip Randolph, “A Reply to My Critics,” Chicago Defender, June 26, 1943.

(63.) Kapur, Raising up a Prophet, 44, 57. As early as 1924, black sociologist E. Franklin Frazier had warned black leaders in the Crisis that love alone would not solve America’s race problem. He was convinced that Gandhian protest would provoke “an unprecedented massacre of defenseless black men and women in the name of Law (p.206) and Order and there would scarcely be enough Christian sentiment in America to stay the flood of blood.” E. Franklin Frazier, “The Negro and Non-Resistance,” Crisis 27 (March 1924): 213–14; E. Franklin Frazier, “The Negro and Non-Resistance,” Crisis 28 (June 1924): 59. In the 1930s, even prominent black political scientist and later diplomat Ralph J. Bunche disapproved of Gandhi’s approach. See Bunche, “A Critical Analysis of the Tactics and Programs of Minority Groups,” 308–20.

(64.) Pittsburgh Courier, May 8, 1943. See also Garfinkel, When Negroes March, 137; and Pfeffer, A. Philip Randolph, 61.

(65.) Bayard Rustin, “The Negro and Non-Violence,” reprinted from Fellowship (October 1942), reel 17, frame 01030, Rustin Papers, microfilm.

(66.) Marie [Klein] to George Houser, September 15, 1946, series 3, box 6, folder 9, CORE Papers. See also George Houser to Marie Klein, October 16, 1946, series 3, box 6, folder 9, CORE Papers.

(67.) Farmer, Lay Bare the Heart, 109. See also “Interview with James Farmer, Washington, D.C.-October 14, 1970,” box 56, folder 6, Meier Papers.

(68.) Chicago Defender, February 2, 1946; R. B., “Terror Hits Again!” Chi-CORE News, September 15, 1946, 2, series 3, box 6, folder 9, CORE Papers.

(69.) Berry Bessler, “Defend Negro Homes!” Chi-CORE News, September 15, 1946, 1. See also “CORE-Agenda,” Chi-CORE News, September 15, 1946, 3.

(70.) Robert Gemmer to George M. Houser, December 15, 1946, series 3, box 6, folder 9, CORE Papers. See also George M. Houser to Gerald Bullock, January 9, 1946; A. J. Muste to George Houser, May 14, 1946, all in series 3, box 6, folder 9, CORE Papers.

(71.) George Houser to Marie Klein, October 16, 1946, series 3, box 6, folder 9, CORE Papers.

(72.) “N.A.C. Meeting-December 31, 1965–Jan. 2, 1966,” box 2, folder 5, Meier-Rudwick Collection.

(73.) Farmer, Lay Bare the Heart, 67.

(74.) Bernice Fisher to George Houser, July 12, 1944, reel 11, frame 00921, CORE Papers, microfilm.

(75.) “George Houser, Interview–Sept. 6, 1967,” box 56, folder 8, Meier Papers.

(76.) George Houser, “Nonviolently Speaking,” June 1945; George Houser, “Memo on a Mass Non-Violent Interracial Movement,” 1945, both in series 3, box 6, folder 6, CORE Papers.

(77.) Farmer, Lay Bare the Heart, 94, 111.

(78.) Farmer, Freedom When? 56.

(79.) Martin Luther King, “Address to mia Mass Meeting at Holt Street Baptist Church,” in Carson, The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., 3: 424, 426, 429, 430, 431.

(80.) Lischer, The Preacher King, 142.

(81.) David L. Lewis, Martin Luther King, 35; Hanigan, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Foundations of Nonviolence, 156; Garrow, “The Intellectual Development of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” 10; Garrow, Bearing the Cross, 41, 43.

(82.) Raines, My Soul Is Rested, 53; “Interview with Bayard Rustin, March 28, 1974”; Fairclough, To Redeem the Soul of America, 25.

(83.) Bayard Rustin, “Report on Montgomery Alabama,” published by the War Resisters League, March 21, 1956, reel 17, frame 01140, Rustin Papers, microfilm.

(84.) Smiley interview, 35; Smiley quoted in Fairclough, To Redeem the Soul of America, 25.

(85.) “Interview with Bayard Rustin”; Jo Ann Ooiman Robinson, “Diary 6/21/64-6/26/64,” entry 6/25/64, Robinson Papers.

(86.) Raines, My Soul Is Rested, 53; “Interview with Bayard Rustin”; Smiley interview, 35; Martin Luther King Jr., Stride toward Freedom, 134; Coretta Scott King, My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr., 133.

(87.) Raboteau, A Fire in the Bones, 71; Burns, “Overview: The Proving Ground,” 23.

(88.) Parks, Rosa Parks, 30, 66–67, 174–75.

(89.) Jo Ann Gibson Robinson, The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It, 110.

(90.) Rustin, “Report on Montgomery Alabama.”

(91.) Smiley interview, 35; Rustin, “Montgomery Diary,” 8; Abernathy, And the Walls Came Tumbling Down, 152; Morris, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement, 158–60.

(92.) Martin Luther King Jr. to Bayard Rustin, September 20, 1956, reel 3, frame 00054, Rustin Papers, microfilm.

(93.) Garrow, Bearing the Cross, 78; Wilkins, Standing Fast, 237.

(94.) Klarman, “How Brown Changed Race Relations,” 82, 91. For a history of the Citizens’ Councils, see McMillen, The Citizens’ Council.

(95.) For a detailed history of the Little Rock movement, see Kirk, Redefining the Color Line.

(96.) Quoted in Summers, I Dream A World, 73.

(97.) Wilkins, Standing Fast, 247; Bates, The Long Shadow of Little Rock, 94, 96; Beals, Warriors Don’t Cry, 28–29.

(98.) Bates, The Long Shadow of Little Rock, 111, 162.

(99.) “Statement by Mrs. L. C. (Daisy) Bates, Arkansas State President National Association for the Advancement of Colored People,” August 13, 1959, box 3, folder 5, Bates Papers; Bates, The Long Shadow of Little Rock, 168; Clyde Own Jackson to Dwight D. Eisenhower, August 14, 1959; Mrs. L. C. (Daisy) Bates to Dwight D. Eisenhower, August 13, 1959, both in box 2, folder 2, Bates Papers.

(100.) Tyson, Radio Free Dixie, 80–83; Robert F. Williams interview by Mosby, 50.

(101.) Tyson, Radio Free Dixie, 84–89.

(102.) Manis, A Fire You Can’t Put Out, 110, 117–18; Eskew, But for Birmingham, 141.

(103.) Shuttlesworth interview, 18.

(104.) Manis, A Fire You Can’t Put Out, 169–70.

(105.) Fairclough, To Redeem the Soul of America, 29, 32–33.

(106.) “Constitution and By-Laws of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference,” 5, series 5, box 26, folder 1, CORE Papers.

(107.) Tyson, Radio Free Dixie, 141, 148–49.

(108.) Quoted in New York Times, May 7, 1959.

(109.) “Telephone Conversation between Mr. (p.208) Wilkins in New York and Mr. Robert Williams in Monroe, North Carolina, May 6, 1959 at 11:04 A.M.,” group III, series A, box 333, NAACP Papers.

(110.) Roy Wilkins to Robert F. Williams, May 8, 1959, group III, series A, box 333, NAACP Papers.

(111.) Quoted in New York Times, May 7, 1959.

(112.) Quoted in “The Robert F. Williams Case,” 326.

(113.) “National Association for the Advancement of Colored People: Board of Directors Meeting, May 11, 1959,” group I, series A, box 14, naacp Papers; New York Times, May 12, 1959.

(114.) “Address of Roy Wilkins … at the Freedom Fund Dinner of the Chicago Branch, Morrison Hotel, Chicago, Ill., June 12, 1959, 7:00 p.m.,” 10, group III, series A, box 303, naacp Papers.

(115.) Warren, Who Speaks for the Negro? 148.

(116.) Cedric Belfrage, The American Inquisition, 82; Marable, Race, Reform, and Rebellion, 27–28; Berg, The Ticket to Freedom, 208–25. See also Berg, “The Ticket to Freedom”: The NAACP and the Struggle for Black Political Integration.

(117.) Berg, The Ticket to Freedom, 217, 225; Berg, “Schwarze Bürgerrechte und liberaler Antikommunismus,” 382–84.

(118.) New York Times, May 18, 1958.

(119.) Advocating “Williams’s position,” Mayfield wrote in Commentary, “would have exposed the NAACP to widespread criticism from many of the people who now warmly support it.” Mayfield, “Challenge to Negro Leadership,” 299.

(120.) Quoted in Levine, “Marcus Garvey and the Politics of Revitalization,” 133–34.

(121.) “Telephone Conversation between Mr. Wilkins in New York and Mr. Robert Williams in Monroe, North Carolina.”

(122.) Roy Wilkins to P. L. Prattis, May 28, 1959, group III, series A, box 333, NAACP Papers.

(123.) “A Racial Zealot Goes Too Far,” Charlotte Observer, May 9, 1959, clipping in group III, series A, box 333, NAACP Papers.

(124.) “Proper Repudiation,” Journal Sunday and Sentinel, May 10, 1959, clipping in group III, series A, box 333, NAACP Papers.

(125.) “Curbing Violence,” Newark Evening News, May 8, 1959, clipping in group III, series A, box 333, NAACP Papers.

(126.) National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, “The Single Issue in the Robert F. Williams Case,” July 1959, group III, series A, box 333, naacp Papers.

(127.) New York Times, July 18, 1959.

(128.) “Address by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the NAACP 50th Annual Convention, New York Coliseum, New York City, Friday, July 17, 1959–8:30 P.M.,” group III, series A, box 10, NAACP Papers.

(129.) Tyson, Radio Free Dixie, 164.

(130.) Current, “Fiftieth Annual Convention,” 408–9; “naacp 50th Annual Convention Resolutions, July 13–19, 1959, New York, New York,” 24, group III, series A, box 10, NAACP Papers.

(131.) Robert F. Williams, “Can Negroes Afford to Be Pacifists?” 5, 6, 7.

(132.) Wilkins, “The Single Issue in the Robert Williams Case,” 8.

(133.) Martin Luther King Jr., “The Social Organization of Nonviolence,” 6.

(134.) Ling, Martin Luther King, Jr., 58.

(135.) James R. Robinson to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., December 22, 1959; James R. Robinson to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., December 30, 1959, both in series 5, box 34, folder 9, CORE Papers; Martin Luther King Jr. “Give to CORE,” Baltimore Afro-American, May 23, 1959. See also Morris, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement, 135–36; and Meier and Rudwick, CORE, 78.

(136.) Lillian Smith to George M. Houser, September 24, 1946; Lillian Smith to Marvin Rich, December 1, 1961, both in series 5, box 35, folder 4, CORE Papers; Loveland, Lillian Smith, 222–23.

(137.) James R. Robinson to Dear Friend, July 27, 1959, reel 30, frame 00044, CORE Papers, microfilm.

(138.) Lillian Smith to James R. Robinson, July 20, 1959, series 5, box 35, folder 4, CORE Papers.

(140.) James R. Robinson to Lillian Smith, July 28, 1959, series 5, box 35, folder 4, CORE Papers.

(141.) Chafe, Civilities and Civil Rights, 99, 114.

(142.) “Interview with Gordon Carey, December 13, 1963,” 1, box 56, folder 3, Meier Papers; Rudwick and Meier, CORE, 98, 113, 126.

(143.) Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, 67, 85, 93, 101.

(144.) Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, “Report of the Raleigh Conference,” series 5, box 26, folder 4, CORE Papers; Sellers, The River of No Return, 35; Carson, In Struggle, 13, 22.

(145.) Carson, In Struggle, 24.

(146.) “Statement of Purpose,” box 1, folder 14, Zinn Papers.

(147.) McDew interview, 57, 59, 60.

(148.) Stoper, The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, 27; McDew interview, 60; Cobb interview by Rachal, 29. Writing in 1971, sociologist Allen Matusow also pointed out that most of the students who participated in the sit-ins “accepted King’s teachings more out of convenience than conviction and respected his courage more than his philosophy.” Matusow, “From Civil Rights to Black Power,” 136.

(149.) New York Times, April 28, 1947; Scales, Cause at Heart, 27; Anderson, Bayard Rustin, 118–19.

(150.) Jim Peck, “Freedom Ride,” CORE-Lator 89 (May 1961): 2–3, Scholarship, Education and Defense Fund for Racial Equality Records, box 30, folder 79, SHSW; Garrow, Bearing the Cross, 156–61, 167.

(151.) Stephen D. Pfeiffer to Dear Freedom Riders, May 17, 1961, reel 25, frame 00041, CORE Papers, microfilm.

(152.) Quoted in Tyson, Radio Free Dixie, 266.

(153.) Robert F. Williams, Negroes with Guns, 120.

(154.) Tyson, Radio Free Dixie, 262–86

(155.) “NAC Meeting, March 23, 1962 Minutes,” box 1, folder 1, Meier-Rudwick Collection.

(156.) Garrow, Bearing the Cross, 216.

(157.) “An Interview with Congressman Andrew J. Young,” in Schulke, Martin Luther King, Jr., 66.

(158.) Transcript of an interview with Andrew Marrisett, in Raines, My Soul Is Rested, 148.

(159.) Fairclough, To Redeem the Soul of America, 138.

(160.) New York Times, May 12, 1963.

(161.) See Walker, “A Media-Made Movement?” 50–52.

(162.) Branch, Parting the Waters, 889; New York Times, September 16, 1963.

(163.) McWorther, Carry Me Home, 118; George Lavan, “Armed Birmingham Negroes Conduct Own Safety Patrols,” Militant, September 23, 1963, 1, 5; Eskew, But for Birmingham, 322.

(164.) King interview. Adam Fairclough similarly argues that King was not as naïve as his religious rhetoric implied. Fairclough, To Redeem the Soul of America, 53.

(165.) Martin Luther King Jr., Stride toward Freedom, 81, 96, 97.

(166.) Southern Christian Leadership Conference, “This is SCLC,” part 3, reel 4, frame 00703, SCLC Papers, microfilm.

(167.) “Manifesto: Institute for Nonviolent Resistance to Segregation, July 22–24, 1959,” series 5, box 26, folder 1, CORE Papers.

(168.) Ed Clayton, ed., “The SCLC Story in Words and Pictures,” 1964, part 3, reel 4, frame 00642, SCLC Papers, microfilm.

(169.) “Seventh Annual Convention: Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Sept. 24–27, 1963, Richmond, Va.,” part 3, reel 8, frame 00503, SCLC Papers, microfilm.

(170.) “Summary of Eighth Annual Convention, Sept. 29–Oct. 1964, Savannah, Georgia,” part 3, reel 8, frame 00530, SCLC Papers, microfilm.

(171.) Martin Luther King Jr., Why We Can’t Wait, 22, 28.

(172.) Staunton O. Flanders to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., April 23, 1963, part 1, reel 5, frame 00019, SCLC Papers, microfilm.

(173.) G. C. McCallum to Dear Dr. King, May 31, 1963, part 1, reel 6, frame 00465, SCLC Papers, microfilm.