(This essay was written in 2017) There is a lot of discussion about non-violence as a moral belief, as a strategy, and as a tactic. I often see the following claim: “Non-violence is the only valid approach. Anything else must be disavowed as destructive to the resistance. Why, look how successful Martin Luther King was, and how seeing all those Black children brutalized on TV is what finally made Civil Rights happen.”

That is downright inaccurate historically. A lot of factors came together in the 1950s and 1960s that moved Civil Rights forward, and the tepidly moral outrage of Northern whites was a part, but only a part.

  • There were the decades of struggle of the African American people pushing towards the Civil Rights “era,” and that resistance took many forms.
  • There was the crucial fact that the United States was fighting the Cold War and trying to be the world’s face of Democracy for all of the decolonizing Third World, and seeing African Americans brutalized didn’t help their propaganda campaign. How many more countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia would they lose to the Soviet Union?
  • There was the other wing of the struggle for African American lives: The armed self-defense movement. Without it, the non-violent wing of the struggle would have not survived to fight back. This movement also continued to mobilize the parts of the African American community that practiced and believed in armed self-defense.
  • Understanding what is “violent” and what is “non-violent” is complex, and takes some sustained analysis. We live in a constant sea of violence.

Those communities not under attack have no right to argue that defending ourselves is immoral or non-strategic. Relying on moral suasion in a world that sees you as sub-human is a precarious proposition at best.

Suggested Readings

Civil Rights History 101: start here for basic historical literacy
I’ve Got The Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle, by Charles Payne
The best history I’ve read so far that explains the grass-roots nature of the Civil Rights Movement, and how it is grounded in decades of resistance. Be sure to read the historiographical essay at the end, “The Social Construction of History.”

The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women who Started It, by Jo Anne Gibson Robinson
Crucial book on how the Montgomery Bus Boycott was actually organized and sustained, it explains how Martin Luther King was brought in by the organizers to be the face of a movement he is now credited with creating.

Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement, by Barbara Ransby
“In this deeply researched biography, Barbara Ransby chronicles Baker’s long and rich political career as an organizer, an intellectual, and a teacher, from her early experiences in depression-era Harlem to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Ransby shows Baker to be a complex figure whose radical, democratic worldview, commitment to empowering the black poor, and emphasis on group-centered, grassroots leadership set her apart from most of her political contemporaries. Beyond documenting an extraordinary life, the book paints a vivid picture of the African American fight for justice and its intersections with other progressive struggles worldwide across the twentieth century.”

Cold War and Civil Rights: Read these to understand this crucial issue.
Race Against Empire, by Penny Von Eschen
Race against Empire tells the poignant story of a popular movement and its precipitate decline with the onset of the Cold War. Von Eschen documents the efforts of African-American political leaders, intellectuals, and journalists who forcefully promoted anti-colonial politics and critiqued U.S. foreign policy. The eclipse of anti-colonial politics―which Von Eschen traces through African-American responses to the early Cold War, U.S. government prosecution of black American anti-colonial activists, and State Department initiatives in Africa―marked a change in the very meaning of race and racism in America from historical and international issues to psychological and domestic ones. She concludes that the collision of anti-colonialism with Cold War liberalism illuminates conflicts central to the reshaping of America; the definition of political, economic, and civil rights; and the question of who, in America and across the globe, is to have access to these rights.

Exploring the relationship between anti-colonial politics, early civil rights activism, and nascent superpower rivalries, Race against Empire offers a fresh perspective both on the emergence of the United States as the dominant global power and on the profound implications of that development for American society.

Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy, by Mary Dudziak
In what may be the best analysis of how international relations affected any domestic issue, Mary Dudziak interprets postwar civil rights as a Cold War feature. She argues that the Cold War helped facilitate key social reforms, including desegregation. Civil rights activists gained tremendous advantage as the government sought to polish its international image. But improving the nation’s reputation did not always require real change. This focus on image rather than substance–combined with constraints on McCarthy-era political activism and the triumph of law-and-order rhetoric–limited the nature and extent of progress.

Black Power and Armed Self Defense:
More is coming out every year on this topic. Get started on this repressed history.

Negroes with Guns: Robert F. Williams
The classic manifesto for armed self defense, written in 1962. Robert and Mabel Williams were dear family friends. An important read. Also, don’t miss his story told in an interview with his wife, Mabel, Robert F. Williams: Self-Defense, Self-Respect, & Self-Determination, as told by Mabel Williams

Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams

The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement, by Lance Hill
Annoyingly masculinist, but important nonetheless. More work needs to be done recovering women in the armed self-defense movement. Be sure to read the short conclusion, “The myth of non-violence.”

These are slightly later on the time line, but crucial:
Assata: An Autobiography, by Assata Shakur
“On May 2, 1973, Black Panther Assata Shakur (aka JoAnne Chesimard) lay in a hospital, close to death, handcuffed to her bed, while local, state, and federal police attempted to question her about the shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike that had claimed the life of a white state trooper. Long a target of J. Edgar Hoover’s campaign to defame, infiltrate, and criminalize Black nationalist organizations and their leaders, Shakur was incarcerated for four years prior to her conviction on flimsy evidence in 1977 as an accomplice to murder.”

Angela Davis: An Autobiography
If They Come in the Morning, Angela Davis, ed.

“With race and the police once more burning issues, this classic work from one of America’s giants of black radicalism has lost none of its prescience or power

One of America’s most historic political trials is undoubtedly that of Angela Davis. Opening with a letter from James Baldwin to Davis, and including contributions from numerous radicals such as Black Panthers George Jackson, Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale and Erica Huggins, this book is not only an account of Davis’s incarceration and the struggles surrounding it, but also perhaps the most comprehensive and thorough analysis of the prison system of the United State.

Since the book was written, the carceral system in the US has seen unprecedented growth, with more of America’s black population behind bars than ever before. The scathing analysis of the role of prison and the policing of black populations offered by Davis and her comrades in this astonishing volume remains as pertinent today as the day it was first published.

Featuring contributions from George Jackson, Bettina Aptheker, Bobby Seale, James Baldwin, Ruchell Magee, Julian Bond, Huey P. Newton, Erika Huggins, Fleeta Drumgo, John Clutchette, and others.”