“If you are not afraid, you can make a good leader. If you are scared of white folks you don’t make a good leader. That white man will beat your brains out.” — Clarence Chinn, Jr. to author
“We decided since we didn’t have protection from the law, by the law, we should organize a group to protect our peoples in the neighborhood… And we took up the job of self-defense… We never attacked anyone, but we would defend ourself against anybody at any time, anywhere, regardless of the price.” — Charles Sims, President Deacons for Defense and Justice, to Howell Raines, Bogalusa, Louisiana
Tough men and women and the weapons they sometimes used were essential to the southern Freedom Movement. And it seems remarkable that some of the most defiant survived in parts of the South where even in mid-20th century America some whites thought they had a God-given right to kill any black person showing discontent. One such unlikely survivor was C.O. Chinn. In his early forties and tall, dark, and muscular, Chinn was already a legend in Madison County, Mississippi, because of his unwillingness to bend to white power. David Dennis, then CORE’s Mississippi project director, recalls being in the courtroom of the county courthouse in Canton, Mississippi one morning in 1963, attending a bond hearing for a volunteer who had been arrested on a traffic violation, when C.O. Chinn walked in. Chinn was wearing a holstered pistol on his hip, which probably would not have raised an eyebrow if he had been white.
“Now C.O,” drawled the judge, “You know you can’t come in here wearing that gun.” Madison County Sheriff Billy Noble, was also in the courtroom; Chinn looked over at him, and responded, “As long as that S.O.B. over there is wearing his, I’m gonna keep mine.”
The enmity between Chinn and the sheriff was well known throughout the county and, half-expecting a shootout, Dave Dennis thought to himself, “We’re all dead.” But the judge spoke coaxingly to both men: “Boys, boys, no. Why don’t you put your guns on the table over here on the table in front of the bench. Let’s be good boys.” Both men walked to the table, and — eyeing one another “very carefully,” Dennis remembers — set their pistols down.
C.O. Chinn stands out among the men and women who were willing to provide armed protection to Freedom Movement workers in Mississippi. As Sheriff Noble himself once said, “There are only two bad sons of bitches in this county; me and that nigger C.O. Chinn.” Many whites in notoriously racist Madison County feared Chinn. CORE field secretary Mateo “Flukie” Suarez, who worked in Canton at this time, said of Chinn: “Every white man in that town knew you didn’t fuck with C.O. Chinn. He’d kick your natural ass.”
Chinn had earned his reputation early in life. He had grown up in a family of small, independent farmers, and although they did not have much money, he did not work for white people. One day, a white farmer approached his mother and told her that Chinn needed to find work with a white person or leave the county. When she told her son about it, he went to the farmer with a .38 pistol and told him to stay out of Chinn family affairs, thereby establishing his reputation as a “crazy Negro,” a “dangerous Negro.”
C.O. Chinn was one of the Movement’s most unusual stalwarts. He was an entrepreneur, and his business concerns included a 152 acre farm, Canton’s Club Desire (one of Mississippi’s major rhythm and blues nightclubs) a bootlegging operation and other enterprises that skirted and occasionally crossed the line of legality. Chinn, his daughter-in-law, Mamie Chinn, explains, “was always fearless.” She remembers her mother-in-law, Minnie Lou Chinn telling her years later, “My husband never been no nonviolent man. He’d fit [fight] the devil out of Hell if he had to.” C.O. Chinn’s son Clarence elaborates: “He was raised to believe that you were supposed to work hard, treat everyone right, respect everybody but take no mess off nobody, regardless of color.”
When Dennis first met Chinn (just a few months before the incident in the courthouse), it was also the first time he encountered the reality that guns were inescapably going to be part of his and CORE’s grassroots organizing projects. Although Dennis was never committed to nonviolence as a way of life, he had organized nonviolent CORE chapters and protests in his home state of Louisiana. As CORE’s project director for Mississippi, he had also sent organizers to Canton. On his first visit to Canton, George Raymond the project director Dennis had sent there, told him that he had a problem with Chinn bringing his guns around movement activities.
Nonviolence was more deeply embedded in CORE than in SNCC. CORE had roots in Christian pacifist activism that went back to World War I through the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and CORE’s local chapters were bound more tightly to their national headquarters than were SNCC field secretaries and the community organizations they developed. SNCC did not even develop chapters; there was no SNCC membership card, and unlike the NAACP, SNCC required no dues. SNCC had staff who were “field secretaries,” not members. “Nowhere was there a pamphlet stating authoritatively ‘this is what you must believe to be a SNCC member.’”
Most of the organizers in Madison County, including Raymond himself, had come over from the very strong CORE chapter in New Orleans at Dave Dennis’s request, and they were heavily invested in the idea of nonviolence. As with many of the other members of southern CORE chapters, key leaders of New Orleans CORE were trying to embrace nonviolence as a way of life. Some members fasted in preparation for nonviolent protest and followed CORE’s rules for action, pledging to “meet the anger of any individual or group in the spirit of good will.” They also pledged that they would “submit to assault and not retaliate in kind by act or word.” Except for the the Nashville, Tennessee group, this commitment was much stricter than anything found in most of the campus protest groups associated with SNCC.
Although as Chinn’s wife had noted, he “never been no nonviolent man” he admired the young civil rights organizers who had come to Madison County. As CORE field secretary Suarez remembers,
[Chinn] believed we were doing the right thing and felt he should be supporting us and providing us with a certain amount of protection. Everything he had was just put at our disposal. There was never a time you needed to go someplace that he didn’t assign somebody to go with you. He was his own man in his own mold. I don’t think there were many parts [of him] that came from somewhere else.
George Raymond, who was committed to nonviolence as a way of life, was uncomfortable with Chinn’s guns. So as a meeting at a local church got underway during Dave Dennis’s first visit to Canton, Raymond asked him to step outside and talk to C.O. Chinn. “‘Whenever we have a meeting,’” Dennis later remembered Raymond telling him, “‘C.O. Chinn sits outside with his guns. He won’t leave. He says he’s here to protect his people. Can you talk to him?’” So, Dennis recalled,
I went outside to talk to him. He’s sitting in the back of his truck with a shotgun across his lap and a pistol by his side. I introduced myself; told him about CORE’s nonviolent philosophy. He listened. Then, very calmly he told me: “This is my town and these are my people. I’m here to protect my people and even if you don’t like this I’m not going anywhere. So maybe you better leave.” I could tell he wasn’t a guy for any bull and I could tell he was there to do what he said he was going to do. I didn’t argue. I said, ‘yes sir’ and shook his hand then walked back into the church thinking, he’s got his job to do and I’ve got mine.
For Dennis, who — unlike Raymond — had not wholly committed himself to the philosophy of nonviolence, Chinn’s insistence on his right to defend himself and his community was reasonable enough. But, as more and more organizers like Raymond encountered local men and women like Chinn, their perspectives on armed self-defense slowly began changing.
[Excerpted with permission from This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible, by Charles E. Cobb Jr. Available from Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Book Group. Copyright © 2014.]