In We Will Shoot Back, Akinyele Omowale Umoja presents a compelling and important argument for the role armed resistance played in the Mississippi freedom struggle. Without armed resistance, Umoja contends, many civil rights organizations “would not have been able to organize in Mississippi” (p. 2). Despite advocating nonviolence, We Will Shoot Back demonstrates that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) benefitted from the presence of armed resistors whose actions saved lives in some instances by deterring white violence.
Umoja’s strength rests in his deft use of a wide range of source materials, as well as his careful attention to the racial environment of Mississippi and African Americans’ open and sometimes volatile response to racial oppression. We Will Shoot Back then challenges conventional narratives presenting black Mississippians as either passive participants in the movement or as dependent, for the most part, upon the leadership of national civil rights organizations and a nonviolent platform for bringing about sociopolitical change; this approach is far too myopic as Umoja demonstrates. By focusing on the work of key Mississippi activists, such as C. O. Chinn, Vernon Dahmer, [End Page 709] Amzie Moore, and E. W. Steptoe, Umoja provides an important view into the lives, mission, and work of Mississippi civil rights activists and their relationship to the larger movement with armed resistance as the backdrop. He adds to the discussion of civil rights activism by connecting it with armed self-defense in a way that is fresh and symbolic of the ever-changing dynamics of the civil rights struggle.
Throughout, We Will Shoot Back provides readers with a sense of the dangers faced by activists, as well as those who were willing to house, feed, and introduce civil rights workers to the larger community. More importantly, the author demonstrates the lengths to which they were willing to go to stand as men and women; shooting back underscored that determination. The depth of white oppression that African Americans faced and what it took to resist will be important to readers’ understanding of what civil rights activism really meant, and Umoja accomplishes this quite well. However, ideas of armed resistance did not always go over smoothly, and he effectively demonstrates the constant tension and divisions created around the issue of armed resistance versus nonviolence as primary strategies. Yet, Umoja acknowledges that ideas about the feasibility of armed resistance changed in light of the inability, or unwillingness, of the federal government to protect those suffering from white oppression and violence. Dave Dennis of CORE symbolized this shift in 1964 when cautioning Robert Kennedy that blacks “shall not watch their families starve, be jailed, beaten, and killed without responding to protect themselves. You have proven by your refusal to act that we have no other recourse but to defend ourselves with whatever means we have at our disposal” (p. 96). Individuals did not use armed resistance as a stand-alone strategy but often employed it in conjunction with economic boycotts to bring about change.
Umoja stretches the conventional timeline of the civil rights movement from the late 1960s to include the mid-1970s and does an effective job of demonstrating the ways that small Mississippi towns organized using multiple tactics and blending the strategies of economic boycotts and armed resistance. We Will Shoot Back accomplishes [End Page 710] Umoja’s primary goal of demonstrating that “armed resistance was critical to the efficacy of the southern freedom struggle and the dismantling of segregation and Black disfranchisement” (p. 2). Thus, he successfully challenges the often silent narrative on the importance and prevalence of armed resistance in Mississippi and, in doing so, We Will Shoot Back underscores the importance of reexamining the Mississippi movement in all of its complexities.
MICHAEL VINSON WILLIAMS is the author of Medgar Evers: Mississippi Martyr and dean of the Division of Social Sciences at Tougaloo College.