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Shotgun behind the door: how black southerners fought for civil rights
Most history students never learn that even Martin Luther King Jr.—arguably history’s greatest spokesperson on behalf of nonviolence—had armed guards stationed outside of his home and a pistol tucked in his sofa in 1955 when he emerged as the leader of the bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala.
But he did.
As time went on, he came to trust in the philosophy of nonviolence in his personal life as much as he believed in its power politically, and eventually got rid of both the guards and guns. At some point, though, we glossed over this complexity and began to think of nonviolence as preordained and as a natural outgrowth of the movement.
We don’t teach our children about the training civil rights activists had to endure in order to prepare their minds and bodies for nonviolent protests. And we don’t often think about how the movement functioned in rural places, far from the glare of the spotlights of network news cameras. Outside of the national gaze, what might check the violence of white segregationists who resisted every attempt by black citizens to assert their right to vote and to organize politically? How did the movement work in the face of the violence in rural Union County, N.C.; Lowndes County, Ala.; or Sunflower County, Miss.?
That’s the story masterfully told by Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee field secretary and now journalist Charles Cobb in his challenging and important new narrative, This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible, which adds to a growing list of important histories that expand what we know about the way organizing had to work in rural communities.
Historically, black citizens had to arm themselves; they hunted and, more important, they maintained their homes and the safety of their families against anyone who might challenge it. After all, black families who owned land, ran businesses or sought an education for their children did so in spite of Southern white supremacists who often employed violence to try to assert superiority over and displeasure with any sign of black achievement.
It didn’t mean that most black Southerners were violent or did not believe in the tactical power of nonviolence grounded in Christian ethics. But Cobb’s narrative reminds us that many black Southerners believed in both nonviolence and self-defense, and they didn’t see them as ideas that had to be at odds with each other.