Although [Charles Sherrod] had been leading nonviolent protests in Richmond, Virginia, he did not label himself nonviolent until [the April 1960 founding conference of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, at Shaw College in Raleigh, North Carolina]. Before then, nonviolence had just been a word to him. “I’d only heard about it because I read about [Martin Luther King] in newspapers” Sherrod recalled later. Before the conference, he had almost no philosophical concept of what nonviolence might mean as a way of life, but at Shaw he recognized a part of himself that had always been committed to nonviolence “because I was a Christian,” he explained, and nonviolence was “Christ in action. [With sit-ins and protest] I’m overcoming evil as the scripture says; scripture I’ve been nourished with all of my life.” The gathering at Shaw brought Sherrod into contact with the idea of nonviolence as a principle for day-to-day living as well as a tactic for social change.
Few in SNCC became more committed to nonviolence as a way of life than Charles Sherrod. Yet even for Sherrod, living it could be a challenge. In 1961 as a SNCC field secretary Sherrod moved to Southwest Georgia, one of the most dangerously antiblack regions of the South, and he found himself accommodating his belief in nonviolence to precautions he felt necessary for his family’s safety. The only thing that ever caused me to question my nonviolence was when I got married; especially when I became a father. What I did was get a dog — actually four big dogs; and I kept a dog until my children were grown.”
Although in the beginning the movement was largely made up of college students, it quickly attracted a wider spectrum of young people. In Birmingham, Alabama Annie Pearl Avery — another one of SNCC’s legendary figures — made her way into the Movement from a tougher life than usually found on a college campus. She brought both a knife and a gun to her first Birmingham protest. Her godmother who was also participating in the protest told her that she couldn’t have the weapons with her. So, says Avery, “I took the gun home. I came back and told my Godmother, ‘I still have this knife. I’ve got to take something.’ No, she said, and took my knife…. I was just hoping that nobody would get me — that’s all! I didn’t know how I would react. I was hoping that I would be able to restrain myself, but I wanted protection, just in case I couldn’t.”
Her attitude was not changed by her godmother’s confiscation of her weapons. On another occasion, Annie Pearl was arrested in Danville, Virginia and placed in solitary confinement. “One night a policeman came into my cell. Thinking he wanted to mess with me, I took off my shoe and beat him on the head until he left.”
Whether one had doubts about nonviolence, as Annie Pearl did, or believed in it fully, as did [Nashville student protest leader] Diane Nash, who was willing to have her child born in prison, commitment to the movement transcended commitment to any particular tactic. Observes Ivanhoe Donaldson, who in 1962 became one of SNCC’s most skilled field secretaries: “The civil rights movement was about civil rights, not about nonviolence. Nonviolence was a tool the movement used to create confrontation without hate, without force, without brutality. Yes, all the blood that was shed was ours [but] we accepted that for the greater good — the mission — and that was not about nonviolence but about change. I didn’t go to Mississippi to celebrate nonviolence; I went down there to fight for the right to vote.”
In the summer of 1964, Chuck McDew, who was no longer SNCC’s chairman, entered Natchez, Mississippi with two other SNCC workers: Dorie Ladner and George Green, both native Mississippians. But before going to that notoriously Klan-infested river city, “I got three guns from Mr. Steptoe down in Amite County — a .32 pistol, a Japanese luger and a .45 pistol. The .32 was for Dorie.” After they settled in the house where they had made arrangements to stay overnight, McDew showed Dorie how to aim and shoot the pistol. “We’d already been stopped by the cops coming into town. They knew where we were staying which meant the Klan knew we were in town and where we were staying.” Dorie was in a bedroom on the third floor. George and Chuck were downstairs in a first floor bedroom and McDew’s instructions to Dorie were explicit: “I explained that if Klansmen tried to get into the house she would probably hear some noise — shooting and stuff. If anybody comes up the stairs, unless it is me or George don’t open your door, just shoot. I repeated: Nobody can get in your room without coming through your door. If anybody you don’t know tries, just shoot-em; hit them anywhere. Just shoot!”
At the time, says McDew: “there really wasn’t any lengthy discussion [in SNCC or COFO] about this. Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were missing and we assumed they were dead. We also thought that there was a statewide plan to get rid of us all or at least to kill as many of us as they could get away with killing. Now I was not an advocate of going out and killing white people but I did know how to use a gun and when it came down to thee or me, you were going to die before me. I didn’t think about the effect on the organization (SNCC) — a ‘nonviolent’ organization. It was my feeling that some dumb-ass cracker is not going to catch me and shoot me down here in Natchez, Mississippi without me taking him and his friends along on that trip to the other side.”
Although no formal survey of movement veterans has been done, it is virtually certain that most Movement field workers shared Chuck McDew’s attitude toward guns. Most did not carry weapons on their person in their day-to-day work, but there were moments when organizers felt a gun it could be handy to have a gun.
Besides the disappearances of the three CORE workers [in Philadelphia, Mississippi], a host of other violent events occurred that summer and fall that reinforced organizers’ desire for protection. In September, Natchez mayor John Nosser — a native of Lebanon who had immigrated to the U.S. as a nineteen-year old — proposed discussions with the NAACP; the Klan bombed his home in retaliation. A few weeks earlier a bomb blast had demolished a black-owned tavern almost next door to the house Movement workers in Natchez had rented. “The fire chief said the bomb was meant for us,” says Dorie Ladner, “and the police chief said he was surprised that we hadn’t been killed already.”
Dorie Ladner was well-aquainted with the dangers of being black in Mississippi. As high school students she and her sister Joyce had been mentored by both Medgar Evers and their hometown NAACP leader, Vernon Dahmer, murdered in 1966 when his home was firebombed by Klansmen. However says Dorie, “I didn’t think about white people and violence when growing up because I wasn’t around them that much. Then I jumped into the Movement full time and saw how they really were.” Nonetheless, “it was strange to have a gun. I guess it was sort of like being given a plank to use for walking across the water if necessary.” There has been guns in her house when she was growing up; her father kept a shotgun above the front door. But lie many grown-up things in a young girl’s household, especially things associated with adult males, the shotgun had been unimportant to her. She did not know how to use it and had never tried to learn.
Dorie Ladner never had occasion to use the pistol Chuck McDew had given her. But she might have been willing to do so. “I am not a violent person, but I knew I was going into a very violent territory. I didn’t anticipate violence because if you did that all of the time, day-to-day, you couldn’t live that way; you might go crazy with fear. But when Chuck gave me the gun, in my own head I thought if somebody I didn’t know came up those stairs I was going to shoot them. I didn’t think about the ramifications or anything like that; it was save yourself, survive.”
[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.]