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Journal for the Study of Radicalism 1.1 (2007) 71-98

Between Threat and Reality:
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Emergence of Armed Self-Defense in Clarksdale and Natchez, Mississippi, 1960–1965
Annelieke Dirks
Ohio State University

The NAACP was a fully nonviolent organization, and they still stood for that [in 1965]. But they didn't stand in the way of no one else that decided that it took some violence to protect yourself. They didn't stand in the way of this, no way.1

—James Young, Secretary of the Deacons for Defense and Justice, Natchez, Mississippi

Aaron Henry, the president of the Coahoma County Branch of the NationalAssociation for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), owned a gun and openly displayed it after his house in Clarksdale, Mississippi, was firebombed in the spring of 1963. He was so disturbed when Chief of Police Ben Collins confiscated his weapon that he complained about it in a letter to the policeman: "I discussed with you the activity of my placing an armed guard outside of my home," he wrote. "To which we both agreed, as you did not have a policeman available to do private guard duty as you explained. I would like to know why, however; after your knowing that I had employed someone to guard my family and my property, . . . you went out to my home while I was not there, arrested my guard, fined him $51.00 and took my gun?"2

That Henry was openly talking about employing armed guards to protect his family and house—to a policeman who was a known violator of civil rights, no less—is only one example of how normal it was to own and use weapons for armed self-defense in the Mississippi civil rights movement during the [End Page 71] 1960s. NAACP activist E. W. Steptoe, who had organized the Amite County branch in Southwest Mississippi in 1954, also became the subject of police harassment and threats from white neighbors. A civil rights organizer who stayed with him in the early 1960s remembered that "as you went to bed he would open up the night table and there would be a large .45 automatic sitting next to you. Just guns all over the house, under pillows, under chairs. It was just marvelous."3

Hartman Turnbow was another local civil rights activist who owned an arsenal of weapons. After Turnbow, a farmer in Holmes County, tried to register to vote in the spring of 1963 nightriders threw Molotov cocktails into his home. Turnbow recalled that his wife and daughter ran outside but he did not get out "till I got my rifle, and when I got my rifle, I pushed the safety off, got it into the shootin' position, and then I run out. The first thing I met was . . . two white fellas. They start to shootin' at me, and I start to shootin' at them. So they run off, and then we come back and put the fire out." The Black community believed that Turnbow had actually shot and killed one of the nightriders, but local authorities claimed that the cause of death was a heart attack.4

African American men were not the only people brandishing guns; so did women. Black residents in Holmes County set up nightly patrols to defend their community against nightriders in the summer of 1964. A white civil rights activist who lived with local people reported that the family was up all night. "Mr. on the road patrolling with his new rifle and Mrs. walking from room to room in the house with a shot gun, peering out of every window." In the bedroom where one of the children was sleeping "was a large shot gun, waiting." In the city of McComb, NAACP leader C. C. Bryant fired away at nightriders who bombed...