Radical History Review 85 (2003) 201-226
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The Beginning of the End of Nonviolence in the Mississippi Freedom Movement
Akinyele O. Umoja
1964 will be America's hottest year. . . . A year of racial violence and much racial bloodshed. . . . if there is to be bleeding it must be reciprocal.
The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s in the American South is often characterized as a nonviolent revolution. Scholarly and popular literature and media re-creations of the movement rarely emphasize the significance of armed resistance in the struggle of black people for desegregation, political and economic rights, and basic human dignity. In dozens of Southern communities, black people picked up arms to defend their lives, property, and battle for human rights. Black people relied on armed self-defense, particularly in communities where federal government officials failed to protect movement activists and supporters from the violence of racists and segregationists, who were often supported by local law enforcement. Armed resistance played a significant role in allowing black communities and the movement to survive and continue. The Mississippi Freedom Summer campaign and the drive for political and human rights in McComb, Mississippi, in 1964 illustrate well the dynamic role played by armed resistance in the Southern freedom movement.
The year 1964 was also pivotal for the influence of the philosophy and strategy [End Page 201] of nonviolence in the civil rights movement. Yet the experience of organizing in Mississippi presented challenges to two organizations philosophically and strategically committed to nonviolence, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). CORE and SNCC organized voter registration campaigns in the rural communities of the Deep South, where white supremacist violence had played a critical role in black disenfranchisement since Reconstruction. The national leadership of both associations wanted the federal government to provide protection against racist terror. In the context of voter registration, CORE and SNCC leaders believed that movement organizers needed to maintain the moral standard of nonviolence in order to win support from liberal sentiments in government and the American public. Yet for a nonviolent strategy to work in the Deep South, federal protective intervention was a necessity.
While nonviolent organizations relied on the possibility of federal assistance, local Mississippi blacks organized to protect their communities and civil rights activists with arms. The possession of guns and other weapons was common for most Southerners, white and black. Since emancipation, Southern blacks had historically demonstrated a willingness to defend their lives, property, and dignity with arms, particularly in communities where a large percentage of them lived in contiguous areas and owned land. With the acceleration of the civil and human rights struggle in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s, the armed resistance of local blacks became more intense and organized.
SNCC began to organize in rural Mississippi in 1961. 1 CORE sent its first full-time organizer to Mississippi in 1962, and it initiated work in the state's rural communities the following year. 2 In 1962, SNCC, CORE, and the state National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) coordinated their voter registration efforts in Mississippi under the umbrella of the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO). 3 After 1964, armed self-defense would become an integral part of each organization's Southern planning strategy. 4 I argue that the ideological shift on the question of nonviolence within CORE and SNCC occurred primarily because of the impact of events in Mississippi in 1964. This shift signaled the beginning of the end of nonviolence as the Southern freedom movement's philosophy and method. While the shape and extent of armed resistance varied in different communities, this form of struggle spread ever more widely throughout the state.
The Origins of the Mississippi Freedom Summer
By 1964, the dilemma of how to continue their voter registration efforts in the face of increasing attacks confronted CORE and SNCC organizers in Mississippi. White supremacists had already demonstrated their readiness to respond violently to any challenge to the system of segregation. The Kennedy administration, particularly the...