This Nonviolent Stuff'll Get You Killed: How Guns Made The Civil Rights Movement Possible

            “This is the story of lives and people at the grassroots,” says Charles E. Cobb Jr. “The story of guns in their hands simply commands your attention” (13).

            Command it does. This stunning work of investigative history looks squarely at the role that weapons and armed self-defense played both in the Civil Rights movement and beyond. It profiles individual men and women as well as larger forces and movements, centering the actions of community organizations rather than heroic individuals. He writes with the humor of people laughing in the face of oppression, and the clarity of someone who has his “feet in scholarship as well as in activist experience and sensibility” (250).

            Cobb begins his narrative with the founding of America, and the slave labor that made it possible. He writes about Haiti, armed slave rebellions, and the extensive network of secret societies and hidden lines of communication that allowed both slaves and free Black people to escape or rise up in insurrection. In later chapters he moves to the Civil Rights movement of the 20th century. We meet elderly women guarding their homes with shotguns and organized groups of men who intimidate Klansmen out of burning crosses. Cobb takes tremendous care to display the extraordinary complexity of the Civil Rights movement. He never reverts to sweeping generalizations, or shoddy conjectures, and refuses to act as if one specific historical narrative will ever be able to contain the vastness of people, issues, and ideas that make up every aspect of Black America. “Even though the traditions of armed self-defense and nonviolence coexisted, the southern civil rights movement has come to be defined as a non-violent movement…." But "nonviolent incompletely describes these student activists,” Cobb argues. “Indeed, because of their evolution from sit-in protesters to community organizers, armed self-defense and nonviolent activism came to be intertwined in unprecedented ways during the 1960s” (154).

            While the entire book is fantastic, there is one specific aspect that I found most valuable. Cobb refuses to place the successes of the Civil Rights movement into the hands of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., or the SCLC, or SNCC, or any one specific person or organization. He always traces these triumphs to the role of communities, of people in tiny rural hamlets or large Southern cities banding together, strategizing, and collectively resisting white supremacy. An accepted historical narrative championing individual Black leaders may be partially rooted in white fears about the revolutionary power of Black collective organizing, and Cobb shows that these fears are, happily, well-founded. This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed is a crucial addition to the historical record.

This Nonviolent Stuff'll Get You Killed, by Charles E. Cobb, Jr.

Basic Books, 2014. ISBN: 9780465033102


Kyle Lukoff