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Collection Civil Rights History Project

Nonviolent Philosophy and Self Defense

The success of the movement for African American civil rights across the South in the 1960s has largely been credited to activists who adopted the strategy of nonviolent protest. Leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Jim Lawson, and John Lewis believed wholeheartedly in this philosophy as a way of life, and studied how it had been used successfully by Mahatma Gandhi to protest inequality in India. They tried to literally “love your enemies” and practiced pacifism in all circumstances. But other activists were reluctant to devote their lives to nonviolence, and instead saw it as simply a tactic that could be used at marches and sit-ins to gain sympathy for their cause and hopefully change the attitudes of those who physically attacked them. Many interviewees in the Civil Rights History Project discuss their own personal views of nonviolence and how they grappled with it in the face of the daily threats to their lives.

When the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was founded at a conference for college students in 1960, members debated whether the group should adopt nonviolence as a way of life or as a tactical strategy for its mission. Courtland Cox remembers the debates at this meeting: “One of the things that the nonviolent people’s philosophy – those people, they felt that, you know, you could appeal to men’s hearts. You know, my view, and which I’ve said to them, was that you might as well appeal to their livers, because they’re both organs of the body.  There was nothing to that.  You did not – you engaged in nonviolence because the other side had overwhelming force.  There was not a sense that the other side would do the right thing if you told them, because at the end of the day, the other side knew what it was doing to you better than you did.” Chuck McDew was also at this meeting and recalls, “My position was when Gandhi tried nonviolence in South Africa he was beaten, jailed, and run out of the country.  As I said, in the United States nonviolence won’t work.  Because when Gandhi used, in India, the tactic of having people lay down on railroad tracks to protest, I said, ‘and it worked.’ I said, ‘But if a group of black people lay down on railroad tracks here, in South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, Louisiana, any of these Southern states, a train would run you over and back up to make certain you’re dead.  You cannot make a moral appeal in the midst of an amoral society.’  And I said that it was not immoral.  We lived in a society that was amoral, and as such, nonviolence was not going to work.  And so, I said I couldn’t and the people with me could not join Dr. King.  And, uh, ‘Thank you, but no thanks.’”

Even though activists used nonviolence at protests to gain sympathy for their cause, arming themselves with guns for self-protection was not uncommon. Mildred Bond Roxborough was a longtime secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and traveled throughout the South regularly to help with organizing. She tells a story about driving through Mississippi with Medgar Evers during a particularly violent time: “We had had two branch presidents who had been killed just before this particular time.  It was difficult to believe that these people would continue to carry on like this because the situation was so oppressive in Mississippi. We were driving one night and I had taken off my shoes and felt something on the floor which was cold. I said to Medgar, "What is this?  Maybe I can move it."  He said, ‘Well, that's my shotgun you have your feet on.’ Of course my feet flew up.  But this is just to give you an idea of the sense of the environment.”

The Deacons for Defense and Justice was a group founded in Jonesboro, Louisiana, in 1964 to organize men to guard the homes of activists and to protect them while they traveled. A second branch was started in Bogalusa, Louisiana, the following year. The Hicks family was protected by the Deacons, and Barbara Collins, the daughter of activist Robert Hicks, reflects on her father’s position on armed self-defense in an interview with the family: “And my dad always said, ‘What kind of man –?’  You know, Martin Luther King was a good man.  He had a dream.  But my Daddy fought for the dream.  And it was his right to fight for the dream.  You have a Constitutional right, and that’s what Daddy said, ‘I have a right to bear arms.  And if I need to protect my family,’ especially when the police did not protect us, then he had a right to do that.  The Deacons had a right to carry the guns.”

These interviews and many others from the Civil Rights History Project complicate our understanding of nonviolence in the movements for social justice. For more about nonviolence and armed self-defense, watch a book talk webcast from our Civil Rights History Project public programs series featuring Charlie Cobb, a former SNCC activist, on “This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible.” External