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How 'Crazy Negroes' With Guns Helped Kill Jim Crow

Civil rights and armed self-defense in the South

"Negroes With Guns""Negroes With Guns" This Nonviolent Stuff'll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible, by Charles E. Cobb Jr., Basic Books, 304 pages, $27.99

I have a dream that one day children in seventh grade will have an American history textbook that is not like my son's. Its heroes will not just be people from the past who upheld the middle-class values of modesty, chastity, sobriety, thrift, and industry. The rebels it celebrates will include not only abolitionists, suffragists, labor unionists, and civil rights leaders who confined their protests to peaceful and respectable writing, speaking, striking, and marching. In my dream, schoolchildren will read about people like C.O. Chinn.

Chinn was a black man in Canton, Mississippi, who in the 1960s owned a farm, a rhythm and blues nightclub, a bootlegging operation, and a large collection of pistols, rifles, and shotguns with which he threatened local Klansmen and police when they attempted to encroach on his businesses or intimidate civil rights activists working to desegregate Canton and register black residents to vote. After one confrontation, in which a pistol-packing Chinn forced the notoriously racist and brutal local sheriff to stand down inside the county courthouse during a hearing for a civil rights worker, the lawman admitted, "There are only two bad sons of bitches in this county: me and that nigger C.O. Chinn."

Although the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) were formally committed to nonviolence, when their volunteers showed up in Canton they happily received protection from Chinn and the militia of armed black men he managed. "Every white man in that town knew you didn't fuck with C.O. Chinn," remembered a CORE activist. "He'd kick your natural ass." Consequently, Chinn's Club Desire offered a safe haven for black performers such as B.B. King, James Brown, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, and the Platters; illegal liquor flowed freely in the county; and, unlike their comrades in much of Mississippi, CORE and SNCC activists in Canton were able to register thousands of black voters with virtual impunity from segregationist violence.

According to Charles E. Cobb's revelatory new history of armed self-defense and the civil rights movement, This Nonviolent Stuff'll Get You Killed, Canton and the rest of the South could not have been desegregated without people like C.O. Chinn, who were willing to take the lives of white people and were thus known as "crazy Negroes" or, less delicately, "bad niggers."

Cobb does not discount the importance of nonviolent protest, but he demonstrates with considerable evidence that desegregation and voting rights "could not have been achieved without the complementary and still underappreciated practice of armed self-defense." Noting that textbooks like my son's ignore the many people who physically defended the movement or themselves, Cobb shows that the "willingness to use deadly force ensured the survival not only of countless brave men and women but also of the freedom struggle itself."

The philosophy of nonviolence as propounded by Martin Luther King Jr., and the civil rights leadership that emerged in the 1950s was a new and exotic concept to black Southerners. Since before Emancipation, when slaves mounted several organized armed rebellions and countless spontaneous and individual acts of violent resistance to overseers, masters, and patrollers, black men and women consistently demonstrated a willingness to advance their interests at the point of a gun. In the year following the Civil War, black men shot white rioters who attacked blacks in New Orleans and Memphis. Even the original civil rights leadership publicly believed that, as Frederick Douglass put it in 1867, "a man's rights rest in three boxes: the ballot box, the jury box, and the cartridge box."

During Reconstruction, all-black units of the Union Leagues organized themselves as militias and warred against such white terrorist organizations as the Men of Justice, the Knights of the White Camellia, the Knights of the Rising Sun, and the Ku Klux Klan, whose primary mission was to disarm ex-slaves and thus was one of the first gun-control organizations in the United States.

With the rise of Jim Crow segregation at the end of the 19th century, civil rights leaders continued to advocate meeting fire with fire. "A Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home," the famed anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells-Barnett wrote in 1892, when on average more than one black person was lynched every three days in the South, "and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give."

In 1899, after a black man named Henry Denegale was accused of raping a white woman in Darien, Georgia, armed black men surrounded the jail where he was held to prevent lynch mobs from taking him. Instead of being hanged from a tree or burned at the stake, Denegale was tried and acquitted. Though blacks tended to consider Georgia the most lethal of all the Southern states, the coastal area, where Darien was located, "had the fewest lynchings of any place in the state."

One of the first victories of the modern civil rights movement came at the point of many guns. In the spring of 1947, after a black man named Bennie Montgomery in Monroe, North Carolina, was executed for murdering his white employer during a fight over wages, the local Ku Klux Klan threatened to take Montgomery's body from the funeral parlor and drag it through the streets of the town as a message to blacks who might consider assaulting whites. But when the Klansmen arrived at the funeral parlor, three dozen rifles belonging to members of the Monroe branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) were trained on their motorcade. The Klansmen fled.

This successful showdown convinced the president of the Monroe NAACP, Robert F. Williams—who later authored a book-length argument for armed self-defense titled Negroes With Guns—that "resistance could be effective if we resisted in groups, and if we resisted with guns." In addition to his duties with the NAACP, Williams established an all-black chapter of the National Rifle Association (NRA) and used his NRA connections to procure "better rifles" and automatic weapons for his constituents. Ten years after the funeral-parlor incident, those guns were used to repel a Klan assault against an NAACP leader's house. Immediately following the shootout, the Monroe City Council banned Klan motorcades and, according to Williams, the KKK "stopped raiding our community."

Theodore Roosevelt Mason "T.R.M." Howard was another black Southerner who found guns a highly effective means to gain rights. Cobb uses Howard's story in 1950s Mississippi to illustrate "the practical use of armed self-defense" for an oppressed minority. Howard, who was the chief surgeon at a hospital for blacks in the Mississippi Delta, founded the Regional Council of Negro Leadership (RCNL), an umbrella organization of civil rights groups in the state. The RCNL led a campaign against segregated gas stations, organized rallies featuring national civil rights leaders, and encouraged black businesses, churches, and voluntary associations to move their bank accounts to the black-owned Tri-State Bank, which loaned money to civil rights activists denied credit by white banks.

Knowing that he was always at risk of being attacked by white supremacists, Howard took full advantage of Mississippi's loose gun laws. He wore a pistol on his hip, displayed a rifle in the back window of his Cadillac, and lived in a compound secured by round-the-clock armed guards. Black reporters covering the civil rights movement in Mississippi often stayed in Howard's home, which contained stacks of weapons, at least one submachine gun, and, according to one visiting journalist, "a long gun, a shotgun or a rifle in every corner of every room."

According to many accounts, southwest Mississippi was the most dangerous and Klan-ridden region of the South—"the stuff of black nightmares," according to Cobb—but it was also home to several of the strongest branches of the NAACP. Activists from the area were the first in Mississippi to file a school desegregation suit, a youth chapter campaigned against police brutality, and local NAACP members traveled to D.C. to testify for the 1957 Civil Rights Act. The presidents of two NAACP branches-C.C. Bryant of Pike County and E.W. Steptoe of Amite County-offered their fortified houses as resting stops for SNCC and CORE organizers. One SNCC volunteer recalled that if you stayed with Steptoe, "as you went to bed he would open up the night table and there would be a large .45 automatic sitting next to you....[There were] guns all over the house, under pillows, under chairs." It was for that reason that SNCC operated one of its "Freedom Schools" on Steptoe's farm.

Anti-racist proponents of gun control should note an irony in this story: One aspect of Southern culture allowed for the dismantling of another. "Although many whites were uncomfortable with the idea of blacks owning guns-especially in the 1960s," Cobb writes, "the South's powerful gun culture and weak gun control laws enabled black people to acquire and keep weapons and ammunition with relative ease." One example of this came in 1954, when the Mississippi state legislator Edwin White responded to an increase in black gun ownership with a bill requiring gun registration as protection "from those likely to cause us trouble," but the bill died in committee.

Guns weren't the only physical weapons used to advance civil rights. Five days after the famous 1960 sit-in at a Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, another sit-in was attempted but the protesters were blocked from entering the store by crowds of young whites carrying Confederate flags and threatening violence. So football players from the historically black North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College formed a flying wedge and rammed through the mob. In Jacksonville, Florida, a gang of black youth known as the Boomerangs used their fists to beat back a group of whites who were attacking sit-in protestors with ax handles.

Two of the best-known civil rights organizations practicing armed self-defense were the Deacons for Defense and Justice, which was formally incorporated in Louisiana in 1965 with the explicit purpose of providing armed protection for civil rights activists, and the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO) of Alabama, a SNCC affiliate that renounced the national organization's nonviolent philosophy and helped inspire the formation of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in northern cities.

Photo Credit: ITVS.org

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Clarence Thomas has pointed these facts out in his defense of the Second Amendment. And progressives and other gun grabbers are, of course, quick to jam their fingers in their ears whenever he or anyone else does.

  • ||

    As a black man who grew up under Jim Crow, what would Clarence Thomas know? Not as much as some white reader of Salon.com

  • Scruffy Nerfherder||

    False consciousness FTW

    Thanks Plato, you dick

  • Acosmist||

    ...what?

  • Doctor Whom||

    He's Uncle Thomas, dontcha know. That way, the goodthinkful people can dismiss whatever he has to say.

  • Las Vegas Night club||

    You are right on point.

  • Toki Wartooth||

    Uh oh this article looks triggering..Im putting a trigger warning in the comments for those who may be offended by the words: nigger, gun, black, the, fuck, ass. I dont want any of you blacking out from the shock....oh lordy no.

  • ||

    You left out "cracker".

  • ||

  • RishJoMo||

    I really like the sound of that dude.

    www.AnonToolz.tk

  • Notorious G.K.C.||

    The unfortunate thing about Robert Williams is that, when he was indicted for kidnapping and fled the country, he ended up in communist Cuba and China where he praised those regimes as in the vanguard of the glorious struggle against the blah blah.

  • Alan||

    Robert F. Williams sought refuge in a country that wouldn't turn him over to the U.S. government, who (ironically enough) wanted to charge him with kidnapping because he had protected a white couple from an angry crowd they had wandered into.

    The case is reminiscent of Edward Snowden seeking refuge in Russia.

  • Bo Cara Esq.||

    Maya Angelou supported private gun ownership after she died?

  • Almanian!||

    The woman is/was truly amazing.

  • PM||

    Anyone hear about Maya Angelou's support for private gun-ownership after she died?

    I'm gonna bust out some extreme English-fu here and suggest maybe "after she died" is related to *when we heard about* Maya Angelou's support for private gun ownership, not when she supported private gun ownership.

  • Bo Cara Esq.||

    I'm going to reply with reference to humor fu suggesting my response was a joke

  • Doctor Whom||

    The official history of race relations in the old South is an even bigger pack of lies than official history usually is.

  • Bo Cara Esq.||

    You mean in a Clive Bundy sense?

  • Brandon||

    A Renegade History of the United States is a great read.

  • Drake||

    Yep - Sounds like an awesome place.

  • Evan from Evansville||

    "Every white man in that town knew you didn't fuck with C.O. Chinn," remembered a CORE activist. "He'd kick your natural ass."

    What an awesome line.

  • Old Dave||

    I thought the same thing: "Ya know, I like this Chinn guy already."

  • Vapourwear||

    Next time there's an article about the importance and usefulness of firearms, maybe someone should consider not using a picture of people with bad trigger discipline.

  • Scruffy Nerfherder||

  • Vapourwear||

    Yeah, that shit drives me nuts. It's so easy, just keep your finger OFF the bang switch.

  • PM||

    It's a subtle demonstration of the oft-stated principle that gun grabbers are so obsessed with gun control because they're afraid that everybody else is as batshit and/or irresponsible as they are.

  • Brandon||

    Meh. At least they're aiming up and not toward some random person they're not looking at like Feinstein.

  • Wasteland Wanderer||

    Things were a bit more lax back then...

  • Ron||

    how do you know they weren't prepared to fire. its only bad trigger discipline if your not going to shoot.

  • perlhaqr||

    They aren't aimed at the target.

    Rule three: "Keep your finger off the trigger till your sights are on the target."

  • Zeb||

    It looks like they might be actually in the process of shooting. Or at least posing as if they are.

  • Drake||

    If you want your 7th grader to useful stuff like this, you have to teach it. No public and few private schools will.

  • Almanian!||

    What next - women voting?

  • Scruffy Nerfherder||

    Inter-species marriage

  • Almanian!||

    Now THIS interests me!

  • Evan from Evansville||

    Paging Epi to the white curtesy phone....I believe there's something you probably will want to insert here...

    Ooooh. Didn't mean to but I see what I just done did there.

  • Almanian!||

    Oooo - yeah, I saw it, too....ick

  • Bo Cara Esq.||

    Centaurs kids shouldn't have the dignity of their parents unions questioned

  • WTF||

    What could possibly go wrong?
    /Ready for Hillary

  • Almanian!||

    What difference - at this point - does it make?

  • Bo Cara Esq.||

    So who will do the movie of this: Singleton brothers, Spike Lee or Tarantino?

  • Almanian!||

    Disney (Pixar)

  • Blueman||

    Well played.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    a large collection of pistols, rifles, and shotguns with which he threatened local Klansmen and police when they attempted to encroach on his businesses or intimidate civil rights activists working to desegregate Canton and register black residents to vote.

    That's not how the Social Contract works!

  • Pathogen||

    Well.. at the time, there was no BATF(E) to raid his compound, and burn them all to death in the siege...

  • Alan||

    Well, now you know why this oversight was corrected.

  • craiginmass||

    Wow, he mentions Darien.......

    You can only imagine he didn't read Praying for Sheetrock( set there) in which basically all the blacks land was taken, piece by piece, but the white folks using bribery like "we caught your kid smoking a J, it's jail or your property"......

    Guns helped the black folks? Ask the Black Panthers about that! Also, there were numerous cases of riots against ARMED black folks. Guess who won? Yes, the white dudes who had the law enforcement badges on.

    Was there a "crazy negro" here and there that the white law or klan stayed away from? Sure, but that is not the story of guns in the south. Not at all.

  • Pathogen||

    "..there were numerous cases of riots against ARMED black folks. Guess who won? Yes, the white dudes who had the law enforcement badges on."

    Sooo then, the issue was.. and still is the police, and their monopoly on sanctioned and legalized violence (+ murder).. and the gun has always been their tool of choice as well?

  • Jordan||

    Yes, the white dudes who had the law enforcement badges on.

    And somehow you see this as an argument that only those people should be armed.

  • Vulgar Madman||

    Yeah, if you fight back you might lose. What you progressives need to realize, is that not everyone is as fucking cowardly as you are.

  • JPyrate||

    What are you trying to say craiginmass ? Are you trying to say that Mr. Chinn should of just peacefully. and quietly submitted to a hanging ? What a racist piece of shit you are.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    I love this. It makes sense to me. But I feel I have to,sound a note of caution here. Anybody remember ARMING AMERICA? It ran against what we thought we knew about American history, and greatly pleased one faction of the fught over Gun Rights .... and was unmitigated bullshit.

    If factual, this is great, but I want some confirmation before I start quoting it.

  • dantheserene||

    Bellesiles was very far outside the established history and cited sources that hadn’t existed in a century, misquoted source documents like the Militia Act of 1792 to mean exactly the opposite of what they actually said, and assumed probate records were useful as a complete inventory of possessions, among other things. Seriously, the man has been eviscerated by historians, archivists, and statisticians until there is nothing left.
    The existence of an armed component to the more celebrated non-violent aspect of the civil rights movement isn’t new information, nor spread by a single outlier.
    The cases are not comparable.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    I'm glad to hear it. As someone whose interest in History centers in other areas, I wouldn't know. I have always sort of figured that the Progressive Left's version of the Civil Rights movement was hogwash, but don't know much in the way of detail.

  • entropy_factor||

  • Almanian!||

    Fred "The Hammer" Williamson FTW!

  • entropy_factor||

    such a jaunty tune, I love this flick

  • Ron||

    This type of history is important for everyone to know. Maybe they could get the author on a national news show or at least FOX.

  • Bostonian_in_Gotham||

    "In my dream, schoolchildren will read about people like C.O. Chinn."

    I attended American University in Washington DC and took a class taught by Julian Bond. I wish he had told us about people like C.O. Chinn seeing as Mr. Bond was a member of SNCC

  • UnrepentantCurmudgeon||

    Julian Bond was one of the founders of SNCC, but parted ways in the later 60s when SNCC went increasingly militant, including calling for armed response to KKK attacks. Most of Bond's political history has been much "respectable".

    I lived through those times and can confirm that black people generally and black political organizers specifically usually went armed. SNCC organizers in the days of Stokely Carmichael and Rap Brown routinely carried sawed-off shotguns (called them "cracker guns") under the dashboard of their cars.

    It is to the advantage of the modern left to sanitize that history, partly because it allows them to play the "victim" card, and partly because they do not want to admit that blacks in the south were winning without the help of the Democrats (who in fact sponsored the KKK and Jim Crow).

  • On The Road To Mandalay||

    Excellent propaganda. And all the more believable by the undereducated and untutored, as well as by educated dupes, because the author has his doctorate.

  • ace_m82||

    I guess we'll have to accept this in lieu of an actual rebuttal.

  • dantheserene||

    Yep. As I wrote above, "The existence of an armed component to the more celebrated non-violent aspect of the civil rights movement isn’t new information, nor spread by a single outlier."

  • On The Road To Mandalay||

    Hi Ace

    Is your response to my comment a rebuttal, or a literary fart?

    Are you packing heating in the tradition of those great Americans: Machine Gun Kelly, Baby Face Nelson, and Pretty Boy Floyd? Don't you think their contribution to American culture was just fucking fabulous? They are my heroes, and I hope they are your heroes too.

  • bignose||

    I believe it was a critique of your lack of arguing skills.
    I'm not sure where Machine Gun Kelly or the other folks you mentioned figure into the article. Did I miss something? Please point out my mistake if so.

    (cue insult-filled tirade with strangely obsessive focus on anal and scatological references that proves Ace's point in 3...2...)

  • On The Road To Mandalay||

    Toki Wartooth

    Are you responding to me?

  • On The Road To Mandalay||

    bignose,

    Hi, you fucking moron. If you read my original comment(s) correctly, you might find some sarcasm there. However, since you are one of these dumb shits that takes everything literally, you probably never will. Too bad you are such a fucking idiot, but it's not my fault you are an abortion who lived.

  • Blueman||

    "(cue insult-filled tirade with strangely obsessive focus on anal and scatological references that proves Ace's point in 3...2...)"

    He decided to go with the gynecological and fetal, instead of scatological and anal.

  • Toki Wartooth||

    They may have contributed to American culture, but it certainly wasn't in a positive way. And we certainly aren't celebrating any licentious behavior. There's a ocean of difference between people using guns for nefarious deeds, and
    people using guns for the lawful purpose of self defense. The fact that you're trying to point out how criminals used guns to further unlawful ends, makes it glaringly clear you have no
    valid argument. Go fuck off and die.

  • JPyrate||

    What are you trying to say OTRTM ? Are you saying that all African-American males are gangsters ? Racist much ?

  • On The Road To Mandalay||

    JPyrate,

    Your effort to paint me as some kind of racist is really stupid, and about as worthless as a pile of dog shit on a side road in New Mexico, or wherever you live. Have a nice evening, Fuck Nugget

  • Blueman||

    Oh, THERE'S the scatological. Just had to happen, apparently.

  • JPyrate||

    Propaganda huh. Is that what they tell you at your KKKlan meetings OTRTM ?

  • On The Road To Mandalay||

    JPyrate,

    Hi Stupid. How are you today? I know I can always count on you for your one liner bowel movements in print. First of all, you fucking asshole, I don't belong to the fucking KKK. I just don't like an approach to social problems that glorifies a bunch of fucking thugs, of any race, creed, color, or national origin, as a solution to those problems. If you don't like my opinions, that's tough shit isn't it? You have a nice evening, you fucking fool.

  • JPyrate||

    Whats this ?? I don't even get one ASSCHUNCK !! I'm very disappointed.

  • On The Road To Mandalay||

    You don't get one, because you are one. You are a living piece of shit, also referred to as an ass chunk. Actually, you can't even eat shit because you are a pile of shit. Research tells me that you were a pile of shit to begin with. Then, a retard whacked off on that pile, fertilized it (a miracle of sorts) and here you are.

  • JPyrate||

    HALLELUJAH !!!

  • On The Road To Mandalay||

    JPyrate,

    FUCKJAH!!!

  • Michael Price||

    Yeah if you could actually refute a point rather than acting like a troll that would be good.

  • REMant||

    Interesting

  • Uncle Jay||

    Sarcasm Button On:
    Ladies and gentlemen, don't you know gun control works? Just look at Chicago. That city has the most draconian (progressive) gun control laws and measures in the USA, and one just has to look at the (cooked) crime statistics to know that eliminating gun ownership has made Chicago the city it is today. Disarming law abiding citizens will always be their own good. The government knows what is best for you. Do not try to think for yourself. That is why we have the over-educated elitist statists to do your thinking for you. That is why we have a militarized police force...to keep the people in line and not to question or rebel against the enlightened rulers. Besides, the general populace is not capable of learning how to operate a firearm safely. Gun safety is much to complicated for everyone to learn and understand.
    Let's face reality: The general population is stupid and must be controlled by their superiors. If you allow people to own guns, then you will have gunfights everyday. Your neighborhood will be just like Tombstone, Arizona with Doc Holliday shooting it out with Clanton gang. How does anyone expect the ruling class to have a dictatorship of the proletariat if the people have guns? Gun control worked in every dictatorship in the 20th century, so it will work in the USA as well.
    What could possibly go wrong?
    Besides, as any progressive will tell you, guns are icky poo!
    Sarcasm Button Off:

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