Armed self-defense (or, to use a term preferred by some, “armed resistance”) as part of black struggle began not in the 1960s with angry “militant” and “radical” young Afro-Americans, but in the earliest years of the United States as one of African people’s responses to oppression. This tradition, which culminates with the civil rights struggles and achievements of the mid-1960s, cannot be understood independently or outside its broader historical context. In every decade of the nation’s history, brave and determined black men and women picked up guns to defend themselves and their communities.
Thus the tradition of armed self-defense in Afro-American history cannot be disconnected from the successes of what today is called the nonviolent civil rights movement. Participants in that movement always saw themselves as part of a centuries-long history of black life and struggle. Guns in no way contradicted the lessons of that history. Indeed, the idea of nonviolent struggle was newer in the black community, and it was protected in many ways by gunfire and the threat of gunfire. Simply put: because nonviolence worked so well as a tactic for effecting change and was demonstrably improving their lives, some black people chose to use weapons to defend the nonviolent Freedom Movement. Although it is counterintuitive, any discussion of guns in the movement must therefore also include substantial discussion of nonviolence, and vice versa.
The southern Freedom Movement of the 1960s was broad in its objectives and its strategies, which helps explain the seemingly paradoxical coexistence of guns and nonviolence within it. As noted in 1964 by Robert P. “Bob” Moses, director of the Mississippi project of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC): “It’s not contradictory for a farmer to say he’s nonviolent and also pledge to shoot a marauder’s head off.” A story that Former SNCC chairman Stokely Carmichael liked to tell was of bringing an elderly woman to vote in Lowndes County Alabama — “she had to be 80 years old and going to vote for the first time in her life…. [T]hat ol’ lady came up to us, went into her bag, and produced this enormous, rusty Civil War-looking old pistol. ‘Best you hol’ this for me, son. I’ma go cast my vote now.’”
The 1955-1956 bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, the student sit-in movement that began in 1960, and the Freedom Rides of 1961 all persuasively demonstrated that nonviolent resistance was an effective way of fighting for civil rights. These were not acts of hate or brutality toward white people, who were themselves ignorant of their imprisonment by a system that led them to believe in white supremacy. They were, instead, aggressive confrontations that challenged the system, and recognizing this refutes the notion that nonviolence was a passive tactic. Nevertheless, it was startling to see the willingness of southern civil rights activists to put themselves in harm’s way and their refusal to respond with violence when assaulted. Almost immediately nonviolent resistance was criticized as dangerous foolishness that reflected weakness, even cowardly submission. Writing in 1957 about the Montgomery bus boycott, W. E. B. Du Bois expressed great skepticism about nonviolence: “No normal human being of trained intelligence is going to fight the man who will not fight back but suppose they are wild beasts or wild men? To yield to the rush of the tiger is death, nothing less.” Six years later Malcolm X, then a leader of the Nation of Islam, showed greater hostility and less restraint than Du Bois: he denounced Martin Luther King Jr. as a modern Uncle Tom subsidized by whites “to teach the Negroes to be defenseless.”
Their reactions suggest that neither Du Bois or Malcolm X could grasp the fact that nonviolence — although risky, as any challenge to oppression always is — was not passive, that it provided an effective means of directly challenging white supremacy with more than rhetoric. Acts of nonviolent resistance contributed mightily to ending the mental paralysis that had long kept many black people trapped in fear and subservient to white supremacy, reluctant to even try to take control over their own lives despite the fact that slavery had ended roughly a century earlier. The principled, militant dignity of nonviolent resistance also won nationwide sympathy for the idea of extending civil rights to black people.
Early proponents of nonviolence — such as Bayard Rustin, Pauli Murray, or James Farmer, founder of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) — embraced its dynamism and militancy. By the 1960s others did too, for these reasons as well, especially students attending historically black colleges and universities, giving the southern Freedom Movement new force. Stokely Carmichael, because of his 1966 Black Power speech, is not usually associated with pacifism or nonviolence. Yet in his autobiography, he credits nonviolent activism for marking the path he followed from Howard University into political engagement: “[It] gave our generation — particularly in the South — the means by which to confront an entrenched and violent racism. It offered a way for large numbers of [African Americans] to join the struggle. Nothing passive in that.” Extending this thought, historian Vincent G. Harding, who worked closely with Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) he founded, emphasizes,
Few involved with the southern Freedom Movement would deny that nonviolence was a creative and proactive way of challenging the status quo, or that it succeeded in making change even if every problem was not solved. By no means, however, were most in the black community committed to nonviolence as a way of life. To be sure, in a significant portion of the southern black community, nonviolent resistance tapped deeply into a vein of righteousness that was rooted in Afro-Christian values and provided moral guidance in a political struggle where hate and anger could easily blind and become overwhelming. But an idealized acceptance of the kind of redemptive love and suffering expressed in the New Testament is the closest black people have come to embracing the philosophy of nonviolence en masse. Black Christians, however, have also readily embraced the Old Testament, with all its furies and violence. A pre-Civil War black spiritual that has always been sung hopefully, even exuberantly, in black churches and by black gospel groups vividly illustrates this: