by Al Simpson
During the early civil rights era, from 1955 through to the early 1960s, the attempts at desegregation of accommodations were portrayed as nonviolent protests. It was heavily stressed that all such protesters – the persons who acted to desegregate lunch counters, libraries, amusement parks, stores, etc. – were trained in nonviolent protest, and they would not strike back if hit or threatened or react to taunts. Hotheads were weeded out. This was done because nonviolence was politically acceptable to white liberals, on whom various civil rights organizations depended for donations.
A number of such protests were viciously attacked by the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacists. Very few laws changed during this period. Nevertheless, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) persisted and ran freedom rides on busses throughout the South to integrate interstate travel facilities. They had to endure mobs, beatings, firebombs, and jails, but by 1962 they successfully integrated many bus and terminal accommodations.[i]
The absolute nonviolent nature of the various organizations was a myth. Armed guards were posted, especially at night, to protect the demonstrators where they slept. By 1964 some Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) activists went even further and many carried weapons themselves.[ii] Given the murders, incarceration, beatings and other depredations they were subjected to, many activists felt that nonviolence was more of a tactic than an imperative.
What was the Rationale for Nonviolence?
At a SNCC meeting during Freedom Summer 1964, Pratha Hall, a black staff member of SNCC, said that Martin Luther King argued in the early days of the movement that white violence that met no resistance would eventually shame the federal government into intervening. Hall also said: “We must bring the reality of our situation to the nation. Bring blood onto the white house door. If we die here it’s the whole society that has pulled the trigger by its silence.” Thus, the blood of the persecuted, not the persecutor, was the only blood of salvation.[iii] CORE had similar views regarding nonviolence. But is redemptive suffering a workable strategy? There is no evidence that nonviolence did anything other place the persons practicing it in danger. Time and again, the racists were unimpressed and carried out their violent crimes with no resistance and without consequence. The cops did absolutely nothing, and in fact, led Klan caravans into black communities.
A New Tactic Takes Hold
When a Klan caravan entered the black community in Jonesboro, Louisiana, in July, 1964, it was described this way: “The wave of protests and arrests quickly brought the Ku Klux Klan into the fray. It was on the evening of the protests that the Jonesboro assistant police chief had led the Klan caravan of fifty cars through the black community.”[iv] This time, however, there was a black self-defense group, later called the Deacons for Defense and Justice, that informed the Chief of Police that such a thing must never happen again, for otherwise there was “going to be some killing going on.” The police never escorted the Klan again.[v] The threat of violence from a Black self-defense group made for substantive changes in the behavior of the cops and the racists, not the redemptive suffering of civil rights protestors. More than this, the existence of armed self-defense groups, like the Deacons for Defense and Justice, hereafter referred to as the Deacons, made the demonstrations and integration tests more effective because they were less likely to be attacked. One black person observed that the Klan members don’t want to die, but they sure like killing.
In 1965 there was a black high school protest in Jonesboro, LA, against the firing of a popular physical education teacher. The cops, white segregationists and Klan members, whom they deputized, were threatening the defenseless students. They were about to have firemen spray the students with high-pressure water from their hoses when the Deacons gave the order: “When you see the first water, we gonna open up on them. We gonna open up on all of them.”[vi] The cops and their deputies backed off. For the first time in the 20th century an armed black organization had successfully used weapons to defend a lawful protest against an attack by law enforcement. Previously, the Deacons only claimed the right to self-defense against racist terror. Now they asserted their right to defend themselves against government violence as well.[vii]
Contrast this with the events in Selma Alabama. On March 7, 1965 six hundred marchers attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge en route to Montgomery Alabama. Just short of the bridge, they found their way blocked by Alabama State troopers and local police who ordered them to turn around. When the protesters refused, the officers shot tear gas and waded into the crowd, beating the nonviolent protesters with clubs and ultimately hospitalizing over fifty people. The second march took place on March 9. Troopers, police, and marchers confronted each other at the county end of the bridge, but when the troopers stepped aside to let them pass, Martin Luther King led the marchers back to the church where they met. Ostensibly, he was obeying a federal injunction while seeking protection from federal court for the march. That night, a white group beat and murdered civil rights activist James Reeb, a Unitarian Universalist minister from Boston[viii].
There you have it: the Selma march was unsuccessful, caused both injuries and death, and yet it is celebrated! There was much made of the Selma events, described above, and a featured movie, Selma, made quite a splash in 2014. But no such movie will be made of the successful standoff with law enforcement in Jonesboro, LA. Since this would debunk the myth of nonviolence in the civil rights movement, it is given no mention. It is only described in one history book of the times: The Deacons for Defense
The Deacons were a locally based black self-defense organization that spread to other cities in the South. In all cases, they were run locally and tended to reflect the needs of the local black working class. Let’s consider the example of Natchez Mississippi, a very racist city: “The city’s well-organized Ku Klux Klan had engaged in systematic guerrilla warfare against Adams County’s black residents since 1964. Robed hooligans bombed churches and flogged and tortured blacks without fear or consequence.”[ix] As usual, the cops would be found missing while these attacks took place. If a black person was beaten up by Klan members or other racists, the cops would come to arrest the person who was beaten, but never the person(s) who did the beating. This was a favorite tactic of the cops.
George Metcalfe was President of the Natchez branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). His car was blown up on August 27, 1965, almost killing him. The attempted assassination enraged blacks in Natchez, especially young people. NAACP state field secretary Charles Evers rushed to Natchez to assist as he was very concerned with the tension there. The Watts rebellions in Los Angeles had just taken place on August 11 – 16, 1965 and were fresh in everyone’s mind. Established Black community leaders in Natchez understood the danger in the restive mood and tried frantically to calm things down. As usual, the NAACP representative, Charles Evers, talked about getting out the vote, but it fell on deaf ears. The men behind him on the stage were brandishing guns and the audience was more interested in that, by far. Late that night, hundreds of enraged black youths filled the black business district. They had armed themselves with rocks, bottles, pistols, and rifles. There were snipers firing from the rooftops. Groups of black youths roamed the streets, shouting threats at white motorists and hurling bricks, bottles and tomatoes at police cars. An improvised security detail prevented the crowd from attacking innocent whites who accidentally drove into the fray. But its main purpose was to deter the white cops from assaulting the young blacks.[x]
Two days of rebellion changed things in Natchez! Prior to August, whites could expect blacks to respond peacefully to Klan terror and police brutality. But not anymore. During this time, the NAACP, SNCC, and CORE did practically nothing, except maneuver around each other. The middle-class blacks on the various panels meeting with whites would go through the motions of negotiating but nothing of consequence ever developed, but they always maintained that they were “leaders” of the black community. James Jackson, a local barber summed things up neatly: “…We plan too damn much, man; and never do nothing.”[xi] With the assistance of the Jonesboro Deacons, a new chapter was started on September 10, 1965. The Deacons membership was secret. Families of members were not to be told of their membership and the police were never to be informed of anyone’s membership no matter how much duress they endured. The Deacons pointed out that they did not hate whites and mainly intended to restore black community pride and respect as well as provide defense.[xii]
The Deacons also had a strict policy on how to deal with Uncle Toms, who would break boycotts or who were suspected of being informers — they would beat them severely. The focus on how to handle collaborators, who were mainly middle class, was not unique to the Natchez chapter and in fact characterized the Deacons wherever they emerged. The concern with “Toming” reflected a measure of class conflict within the black community. Opposition to the Deacons would come primarily from black businessmen, who felt economic pressure from the banks, and also had a bad habit of looking down on working class blacks.
The Deacons would not participate in any demonstrations or marches; instead, they would quietly watch. Their ostensible goal was to protect these demonstrations and marches from Klan terror. They spent quite a bit of time discussing how they would discipline Uncle Toms.
There were negotiations with various Natchez politicians. The demands of the black leaders were as follows:[xiii]
- The hiring of at least 4 additional black policemen in addition to the two already on the police force.
- Desegregation of all public facilities.
- Naming a black representative to the school board.
- A poverty program with funds divided fairly between whites and blacks.
- A public denunciation of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and another White Supremacist organization.
- City employees were to address blacks with courtesy titles such as Mister or Missus rather than the degrading titles such as auntie, missy, boy, hoss and uncle.
The mayor rejected the demands of the black leaders during the first week of September, 1965 and persuaded the governor of Mississippi to send 650 National Guard troops to Natchez. The National Guard arrived on September 3rd and sealed off the black community. A strict 10 PM to 5 AM curfew was imposed, and liquor was prohibited. Since the rebellion had subsided before the National Guard arrived, the locals felt that their presence was to discourage legal protest – not violence. The Guard mounted 50 caliber machine guns in the downtown area and let it be known that: “If you march we will open fire.”[xiv] The troops were withdrawn on September 6th. Soon afterwards, there were marches and the beginning of a 4-month boycott campaign. City officials remained intransigent and would not negotiate in good faith; instead, they searched for legal ways to suppress the demonstrations. On September 30th they secured an injunction prohibiting all demonstrations. From October 1-7, there were mass arrests of 544 persons. They were carted off over 200 miles to the infamous prison at Parchman, where the guards subjected them to horrible abuses. The demonstrations were suspended on October 7th, but the boycott continued. By October 12th the mayor of Natchez admitted that business was down by about 50 percent. In mid-October local officials failed to reach a settlement and the demonstrations started up again. The business community’s support for segregation was fading, and the only thing that was holding up the approval of the Black’s demands were the Klan’s threats and intimidation.[xv]
A woman addressed a Church meeting and said that she was opposed to nonviolence: “If a man or woman hits me, I’m going to hit back.” A SNCC leader, Lawrence Guyot, then addressed the crowd. He castigated her and her cohorts, and a large group rose and began to walk out. He then said: “You’re being understood by simply being quiet and sitting back and staying in your places.” More people filed out. “The most cowardly thing I have ever heard.”, Guyot continued with his voice growing tense. “Is for someone to say, ‘I would go with you all but I ain’t nonviolent’”[xvi]. The audience had heard enough. By the end of Guyot’s speech the church was nearly empty. SNCC never recovered from the Church meeting.[xvii] Their whole strategy of nonviolent redemptive suffering to force federal intervention was seen to be a fraud. Their claim that the people who did not follow their lead into oblivion were cowards ensured their abject failure. The Natchez movement instead tried to gain power locally through force and coercion, using the organizing model developed by the Deacons.
Starting in September 1965, the Deacons functioned as the de facto police in the black community of Natchez since the regular cops would not protect them against Klan violence or anything else for that matter. The Deacons were always armed and their willingness to defend themselves bred confidence. For the most part the sight of their weapons would stop the cowardly racists. However, in an isolated incident, a white motorist attempted to disrupt a march by driving his car into the line. Within seconds the Deacons intercepted the car with their guns drawn, detained the driver and handed him over to the police.[xviii] Not only did the Deacons sternly discipline Uncle Toms but they also were not averse to using violence on detractors and collaborators within their ranks.
By December 1965, the boycott had pretty much eroded business class solidarity so that 23 merchants had already hired blacks as clerks and cashiers. On December 3rd, the city government and local businessmen conceded defeat. They agreed to comprehensive racial reforms. Almost all of the original NAACP demands were met. Whereas virtually every other local campaign during the civil rights movement in Mississippi ended in failure, the Natchez project mobilized an entire community and exacted sweeping concessions from the white establishment, without Federal intervention![xix] The Deacons model of armed resistance worked once again. The Natchez campaign was the single greatest victory for the civil rights movement in Mississippi, but predictably, historians have never given it the credit it deserves.
There is also a significant difference in the demands put forward by demonstrations run by the Deacons and those run by the nonviolent groups. While the middle-class blacks who supported nonviolent organizing strove for surface changes such as voting rights and desegregation of public accommodations – things that would benefit them, the demands put forward and won in communities where the Deacons operated tended to reflect the needs of the working class: better schools, paved roads, better public facilities, public sewer and water, and so forth. Integration turned out not to be so important. Voting doesn’t do that much. The people in Harlem had had the vote for about 150 years and you see what it got them.
Has Nonviolence Ever Really Changed the Status of Working People?
Let’s address the question of why nonviolent protest is said to have worked in India but not in the United States. In India the inhabitants far outnumbered the occupiers; the British had a just a tiny army in India. British workers did not believe that their social and economic status depended on the continued exploitation of Indians, and after World War II the British were in terrible economic shape. They were in no position to enforce their rule over India. Gandhi and his supporters fought non-violently for independence from Britain, but they supported a capitalist economy, so there was never a question of British economic interests being threatened. With the division of the newly independent territory into Muslim and Hindu entities (Pakistan and India) and the inflaming of religious tensions, attention was deflected from local and foreign exploiters. The British started the British Commonwealth of Nations trading group, which allowed them to trade freely with their former colonies. So, they got almost everything they wanted anyway.
In the United States, blacks were a tiny minority surrounded by white majority, and many white Southerners thought they benefitted from the oppression of blacks. Before and after slavery, the super-exploitation of blacks made even the poorest whites feel they had a superior status that they wanted to hold onto. In the name of white supremacy,[xx] they would engage in violent acts, including lynching, to suppress any semblance of social advancement by blacks. The cops, many of whom were white supremacists, did nothing to stop these crimes.
Thus, the conditions for the success of the nonviolent model of India in no way matched the conditions in the southern United States. However, white liberals would give money to support nonviolent protest, so it started what became a self-fulfilling prophesy: The nonviolent organizations grew rich and strong with the money they received from white liberals. During the early years of the civil rights movement, nonviolent groups had the most influence. White liberals also feared the idea of blacks coming to their own defense – out of their own racism! This contributed to the intense propaganda in favor of nonviolence.
But reality always prevails. As mentioned above, the Deacons were responsible for some of the greatest successes of the civil rights era. With time, even the nonviolent organizations got with the program. As early as 1965, executive secretary [of SNCC] James Forman said he “did not know how much longer we can stay nonviolent” and in 1969, SNCC changed the “nonviolent” part of its name. Its new official name became the Student National Coordinating Committee to reflect the broadening of its strategy.[xxi]
In the 1980s members of the International Committee Against Racism physically attacked Klan and Nazi demonstrators whenever they outnumbered them, from Connecticut to New Jersey to many other places. The Grand Wizard of the Klan announced during a radio interview that many of his members now feared to join the racist demonstrations, validating the positive role of mass violence in quashing overt racist mobilizations. In 1975, InCAR members spent the summer in Boston successfully demonstrating against racist organizations that had boasted they would stop the integration of schools and beaches. The violence of the 1968 rebellions in such cities as Newark and Los Angeles secured the construction of sorely needed public hospitals.
A few months ago, while driving and listening to the radio, the announcer said that DeAndre Harris was arrested. No information was provided as to whom Mr. Harris was, and it bothered me. Hours later, on the same day, I learned that Mr. Harris was the black man who was severely beaten by white supremacists in a parking garage in Charlottesville, VA on August 12, 2017. It was in this same city that white racists were openly marching and killed one white anti-racist protester. Harris was charged with assault. Harold Crews, state chairman of the North Carolina League of the South, a racist organization, sought the charge against Harris, who turned himself in after a warrant was issued. The Daily Progress reports around 100 people came to the Charlottesville General District Court to show their support for Harris.[xxii] Mr. Harris was subsequently found not guilty. Notice how this echoes what happened in the 1960s South. A black man is beaten by white supremacists, and then the cops come and arrest the black man and let the white supremacists go free. This time, the white supremacists who did this crime, were arrested, but it should be kept in mind that a video of the beating incident had widespread circulation.
In Anaheim, California in 2016, the KKK demonstrated, armed with flag poles with knives on their tips. They stabbed seven anti-racist protestors, but only the antiracists were arrested and charged. They go on trial in July. There is a warning here — things haven’t changed all that much. Not only does racism persist, but it is still protected by the government and still serves to divide white and black workers, and we still need to unite militantly to stop racists in their tracks.
[i] Meier and Rudwick, CORE
[ii] The Deacons for Defense, Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement by Lance Hill, The University of North Carolina Press copyright 2004. Page 18.
[iii] Ibid Page 19.
[iv] Ibid Page 37.
[v] Ibid Page 37.
[vi] Ibid Page 69.
[vii] Ibid Page 69.
[ix] The Deacons for Defense. Page 184.
[x] Ibid Page 186.
[xi] Ibid Page 190.
[xii] The Deacons for Defense. Page 193.
[xiii] Ibid Page 187.
[xiv] Ibid Page 195.
[xv] New York Times October 13-14, 1965.
[xvi] Black Natchez, transcript.
[xvii] The Deacons for Defense. Page 197.
[xviii] Ibid Page 198.
[xix] Ibid Page 205.
[xx] Ibid Page 23.