Charles E. “Charlie” Cobb Jr. wrote a book last year titled “This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible.” Quite an assertion from Cobb, a District native and former member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the civil rights group also known as SNCC.
Some black residents used guns to protect their neighborhoods and homes from attacks by the Ku Klux Klan.
“There was a time when you could kill blacks with impunity,” said Cobb, 71, who was a SNCC organizer in Mississippi from 1962 to 1967. “But the nighttime marauders were learning that the people they were shooting at were increasingly inclined to shoot back.”
These days, it appears that black people are being killed with impunity again but far more often by other black people.
Baltimore is a shockingly sad example. After a black man died while in police custody, local activists protested, some people rioted, and eventually six police officers were charged in connection with the death of Freddie Gray. In the weeks since then, homicides shot up in the city, with more than 30 in less than a month.
The deadly spectacle has presented a challenge that few activists seem able to meet.
“What I talk about” in the book, Cobb said, “is when a mother or father in a depressed neighborhood sends a child down the street for bread, they are more worried about the kid getting hit by a stray bullet than about the police.”
What is to be done? Although SNCC organizers seldom had to deal with internal threats to black communities that were greater than anything the Klan could muster, they did gain insight that could be helpful to this younger generation of civil rights activists.
“The great lessons of the Southern civil rights movement was that there is something more important for us to deal with than white supremacy,” Cobb said. He said that the lesson was personified by Fannie Lou Hamer, a civil rights icon and political organizer from Mississippi. “She was constantly challenging black people to ‘get up off your (behind) and do something,’ ” recalled Cobb, who left Howard University to join SNCC. “She believed that it was absolutely essential that we hold each other accountable, and that is still one of the most difficult things for us to do.”
Certainly the homicides of at least 30 black people in as many days ought to warrant more than a few words of exasperation. After all, the death of one man in the custody of police led to massive protests.
Cobb admittedly does not speak for SNCC, but he does sit on the board of SNCC Legacy Project — an emerging forum for young activists to draw on the hard-won experiences and wisdom of those who marched before them. In April, the project announced a partnership with Duke University to develop a digitized history of SNCC, complete with oral histories and a detailed look at organizing tactics.
Grass-roots organizing proved to be far more effective than protesting when it came to making institutional changes, and the project will offer examples at how it was done. The effort is being supported by a $604,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Courtland Cox, a former SNCC organizer and chairman of SNCC Legacy Project, said in a release announcing the partnership with Duke: “Our experiences have created a level of ‘informational wealth’ that we need to pass on to young people.” He went to say: “This unprecedented collaboration with Duke University hopefully will pilot a way for other academic institutions to re-engage history and those who make it.”
Just as important, the project will offer a forum for young activists to engage the former SNCC members and no doubt be inspired by the continuity of their struggle for civil rights.
SNCC veterans are already involved with civil rights groups being led by young people, such as Black Lives Matter, Moral Monday and Dream Defenders. But the digital history project will be far-reaching and help even more young activists get organized. With debates underway over changes in voting procedures that could reverse voting rights gains, providing such a resource could not be more timely.
And then there’s the most daunting task of all: violence toward and within the black community.
For while guns in the hands of courageous black people most certainly played a role in making the civil rights movement possible, as Cobb noted, guns in the hands of those who are being left behind continues to undermine that most precious of all civil rights — life itself.