You have a dream, I got these hands: The secret history of non-nonviolent resistance
During Black History Month, theGrio’s weekly series, “The Secret History of…” will explore the lesser-known details of some of the most popular stories from Black history. Today we examine the “other” civil rights movement.
In the non-CRT, safe-for-white-children fairytale that we know as the civil rights struggle, a lone white man killed a little boy named Emmett Till, who was understandably unable to control his urge for beautiful white women. The senseless murder jolted Black people out of a state of slumber. In response, a compliant daydreamer named Martin Luther King Jr. convinced everyone to hold hands and march peacefully until Black people stopped judging white people. And just like that, America suddenly saw the error of its ways, handed Black people their humanity, and everyone lived happily ever after.
That is the Cliffs Notes version of the civil rights struggle that exists in the collective white imagination and social studies classes across America. Through a complex combination of history bleaching, self-guilt and Caucasian Race Theory, they have fabricated a fantastic ahistorical hologram of a socially conservative, respectable campaign of racial reconciliation. For the sake of their mythology, the doctrine was eventually reduced to “nonviolence”—no resistance whatsoever.
There has never been a successful nonviolent movement in the history of America.
As long as America has existed, Black men and women have been engaged in a fight for their humanity. But, unlike the fairytale version would have you believe, the struggle has never been passive, nor has Black resistance been nonviolent. In their quest to “get free,” Black people have always availed themselves of the right to self-defense and armed resistance because, of course, the white people had enough violence for everyone.
When angry white boys showed up at Essie Harris’ Chatham County, N.C., home a few days after Christmas 1870 to take his gun and warn him about voting, Harris complied—at first. But when they shot up his home, wounding him in the arm and riddling his house with bullets, Harris figured his wife and six children were already dead. So he grabbed an ax and chopped one of the Klansmen in the head, then picked up his gun to finish off the rest of the mob.
“They always said in my country that a man could not kill a Ku Klux,” Harris told an 1871 Joint Committee investigating the white supremacist insurrection in the South. “They said that they could not be hit; that if they were, the ball would bounce back and kill you. I thought, though, that I would try it and see if my gun would hit one.”
Even though Harris had never loaded his shotgun with anything deadlier than squirrel shot, he blasted one of the Klansmen in the face. It worked! When he realized that the KKK was not impervious to bullets, Harris tried it again, telling legislators:
I loaded my gun again. I put an uncommon load in it—a dangerous load…After I had got it almost loaded, I said, ‘Give me hold of my five-shooter.’ They said: ‘Boys, the old man is calling for his five-shooter and loading his gun; let us leave.’ Upon that, they went off…I was the last man to shoot a gun in my house.
Using guns to face the ongoing terrorist threat posed by white supremacy wasn’t limited to Klan violence; it also figured heavily in the constant struggle against police brutality. On Monday, July 23, 1900, Robert Charles was sitting on his New Orleans porch with his roommate when three white police officers investigated reports of “two suspicious-looking negroes” roaming around the predominately white neighborhood. During an argument, one of the officers reached for his sidearm, and Charles grabbed his own. Both fired, hitting each other in the leg. Later that day, two more officers attempted to arrest Charles, but he shot and killed them both.
The manhunt was on.
Because Charles was a member of several Black organizations, including a society promoting a return to Africa, New Orleans’ white community took up arms and proceeded to go on a Black people hunt, killing at least a dozen Black people and injuring another six. The sergeant on duty gave permission to kill Charles on site. Meanwhile, a crowd of 700 gathered outside the home where Charles was holed up, waiting for an opportunity to kill him. Instead of running, he picked them off one by one.
“One of the extraordinary features of the tragedy was the marksmanship displayed by the Negro desperado,” the Times-Democrat reported. “His aim was deadly, and his coolness must have been something phenomenal.”
By the time the crowd smoked Charles out by setting a mattress on fire, he had killed or fatally wounded five law enforcement officers and wounded another 19 members of the mob. The brave Caucasians riddled his body with bullets, beat the corpse and, for good measure, they burned down every Black school in the area, successfully razing “the best negro schools in the city.” Black students wouldn’t have access to a school for 17 years. The white people were sure they had taught New Orleans’ Black population a valuable lesson.
“The white people of this country may charge that he was a desperado, but to the people of his own race, Robert Charles will always be regarded as the ‘Hero of New Orleans.’” wrote Ida B. Wells in the definitive account, Robert Charles and His Fight to Death, the Story of His Life, Burning Human Beings Alive, Other Lynching Statistics. As the most prominent anti-lynching crusader in America, Wells often advised every Black person in the South to arm themselves because, as she wrote, she would rather “die fighting against injustice than to die like a dog or rat in a trap.”
In Richmond, Va., polymath John Mitchell Jr. became a national figure by calling for non-nonviolent resistance in his newspaper, The Richmond Planet. Born as an enslaved person in 1863 in Richmond, Va., by the time he was 21, Mitchell was named editor of the Richmond Planet. His status as the “King of Jackson Ward” may have come from the fact that he founded the Mechanics Savings Bank in 1902 and served as president for 20 years. Or maybe it was Mitchell’s work as a teacher that made him famous. Or perhaps he was so well-known for another reason:
He wanted all the smoke.
Mitchell made his newspaper one of the most respected in the country by traveling around the state reporting on lynchings. But he didn’t just write about race—he advocated that people do something about it and practiced what he preached. In response to the lynching of a 5-year-old in 1901, Mitchell wrote: “The best remedy for a lyncher or a cursed mid-night rider is a 16-shot Winchester rifle in the hands of a dead-shot Negro who has nerve enough to pull the trigger.”
When he publicly condemned an 1888 lynching, racists sent a letter threatening to hang him if he decided to “poke that infernal head of yours in this county long enough for us to do it.” Believing in the old negro principle of “f**k around and find out,” Mitchell replied to the threat with a quote from Shakespeare: “There are no terrors, Cassius, in your threats, for I am so strong in honesty that they pass by me like the idle wind, which I respect not.” The brazen journalist grabbed his twin Smith & Wesson pistols, hopped on a train, walked five miles to the site of the lynching and waited for the cowards to come lynch him.
No one ever showed up.
Armed resistance was not an alternative to nonviolent resistance; it was part of the movement. Peaceful resistance was a way to protest; armed resistance was a way to stay alive. That’s why many civil rights leaders kept that “thang” on them. Mary McLeod Bethune told the story of her grabbing a rifle and holding off a hundred Klansmen in front of her school just as proudly as she told stories of her friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt. Mississippi activist Medgar Evers and his brother were strapped when they registered to vote. Just in case anyone thought about trying him instead of Jesus, W.E.B. Du Bois kept a shotgun by the door. One of the few times Du Bois said he was ashamed of his people was after Black residents of Gainesville, Fla., let a white mob lynch a Black man.
“Without resistance, they let a white mob whom they outnumbered two to one, torture, harry and murder,” he wrote. “In the last analysis, the lynching of Negroes is going to stop when the cowardly mob is faced by effective guns in the hands of people determined to sell their souls dearly.”
The seeds for the modern civil rights movement were already being laid in 1914, when 31-year-old Hubert Harrison, who is alternately called “Black Socrates,” the “father of Harlem Radicals” and the “foremost intellect of his time,” left the mostly white socialist movement and founded the “New Negro Movement.” Harrison’s intellectual radicalism advocated for an unapologetically race-conscious dynamic that inspired the Black thinkers who would become civil rights leaders, including Marcus Garvey, A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin and Malcolm X. The New Negro movement preached armed self-defense and became contagious among the Black World War I veterans who refused to subject themselves to the same racial terrorism that plagued post-Civil War America.
This staunch refusal to bow to white supremacy partially prompted the violent white backlash called the Red Summer of 1919. While many of these “race riots” were simply white lynch mobs, Black people refused to lay down and die silently. And as time passed, the right to self-defense evolved from an individual effort to a collective strategy.
On July 6, 1919, a rumor surfaced that police in Coatesville, Penn., had arrested a Black suspect man and was preparing to lynch him, but members of the town’s Black community grabbed their guns, bats and sticks and went to the town jail. The mayor and police chief tried to assure the crowd that they hadn’t arrested anyone, but the gun-toting Black folks stormed city hall just to make sure. Not only hasn’t there been a lynching in the entire state of Pennsylvania since that day, but after the “Coatesville Call to Arms,” for some reason, the city suddenly became majority-Black. I wonder why?
A few days later, an obscure newspaper called the Washington Post riled up its local readers with tales of a “negro fiend” who was attacking sailors’ white wives. The next day, a group of white veterans-turned-vigilantes tried to do their lil’ lynching thingamajig, but the Terrorists Night Out didn’t go as planned. Black churches, civic organizations and regular citizens raised $14,000 to purchase guns and stationed sharpshooters in strategic areas. Seventeen-year-old Carrie Johnson was arrested and charged with shooting and killing a white police officer from her apartment window during the “riots.” But when she went to trial, the judge believed that she was protecting herself and dropped all charges. I don’t know if I believe this, but according to actual reports, a Black rifleman shot a hat off a cop’s head from an apartment window.
In 1947, when Klansman came to drag a corpse through the streets of Monroe, N.C., three dozen armed members of the NAACP were waiting. In fact, the first major legal case supported by the NAACP was the 1910 case of Pink Franklin, a sharecropper who shot his landowner and a police officer who tried to “crack the whip” on him for not plowing a field. My favorite part of the story is that after one of the assailants ran, Pink’s son shot the would-be cracker in the leg as his wife charged in with an ax to “finish up the job.”
OK, maybe that’s not my favorite one.
My absolute favorite civil rights story was told by an activist who remembers sitting up all night waiting for the Klan to ride as her grandfather sat by the door with a shotgun. “I wanted to see him kill a Ku Kluxer,” she replied when asked why the incident excited her so much. “He declared the first to invade our home would surely die.”
Her name was Rosa Parks.
Parks’ lifelong friend, Robert F. Williams, may have been the biggest badass of them all. After serving in the Marines in World War II, Williams joined the Monroe, N.C., chapter of the NAACP, where half of the town’s 12,000 residents were members of the KKK. Unafraid, Williams started an NRA chapter that he named the North Carolina Black Armed Guard. Made up of 50 or 60 men, primarily veterans, they charged themselves with protecting Monroe’s Black neighborhoods from the white boys in the pointy hats. In 1957, the Klan tried to attack the local NAACP vice president, Dr. Albert E. Perry, but the Black Armed Guard had fortified the house with sandbags and the two groups engaged in a Wild West-style shootout in the middle of town.
The Klan never returned.
Williams’ did not restrict his tactics to men. When Dr. Perry was arrested on charges of “criminal abortion on a white woman,” Williams led a group of armed women to the police station as they “surged against the doors, fingering their guns and knives until Perry was produced.” Annie Pearl Avery carried a gun to her first protest and kept it as she organized in Mississippi. “I never was a true believer in nonviolence, but was willing to go along [with it] for the sake of the strategy and goals,” explained Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee field secretary Cynthia Washington. “The thought of being beat up, jailed, even being shot, was one kinda thing. The thought of being beaten to death without being able to fight back put the fear of God in me…So, I acquired an automatic handgun to sit in the top of that outstanding black patent and tan handbag that I carried.”
White supremacists bombed more than 40 homes and churches in one Birmingham, Ala. community, inspiring a new name for the neighborhood and the men who protected it: The Dynamite Hill Armed Patrol. And when five churches, a masonic hall and a community center were torched in Jonesboro, La., two different groups united to form the Deacons for Defense. In 1965, a terrorist cell from the Ku Klux Klan came to Jonesboro to retaliate against Black students who integrated the high school but were turned around by the local chiropractor, James Malcolm Edwards—who was just happened to be the Grand Dragon of the Louisiana Realm of the United Klans of America.
Edwards hadn’t turned into an antiracist; he just didn’t want any smoke with the Deacons.
Ronald Reagan might have said, “self-defense is not only our right; it is our duty,” but he quickly repealed the right to carry firearms in public after Huey P. Newton and members of the Black Panthers marched on the California State Capitol on May 2, 1967. The FBI claimed the Panthers posed a threat to law enforcement officers, but no one ever mentions that the police killed more Black Panthers than the Panthers killed police officers.
In 2017, the FBI issued a similar warning about a new threat called “Black Identity Extremists.” According to the report, the agency concluded that it is “very likely Black Identity Extremists (BIE) perceptions of police brutality against African Americans spurred an increase in premeditated, retaliatory lethal violence against law enforcement and will likely serve as justification for such violence.” Four years later, the FBI still cannot list a single murder caused by a Black Identity Extremist.
In fact, the only person remotely prosecuted was a man named Christopher Daniels. According to a court transcript, in 25 months of FBI monitoring, Daniels had not engaged in a single act of violence against an officer or another human being. In fact, the only evidence that the FBI offered for Daniels being the subject of 25 months of federal surveillance was “anti-police rhetoric” on social media. But the FBI noted that they assessed Daniels as a threat because they discovered three things when they searched his home:
- He (legally) purchased firearms.
- He is a founding member of the Huey P. Newton gun club.
- He owned a copy of Robert F. Williams’ Negroes with Guns.
Huey P. Newton called Williams’ book the “single most important intellectual influence” on his life.
Now that white legislators have made this untold part of history illegal, we might as well end with a quote by a radical gun owner who fought police brutality, believed in reparations and hung out with violent gangbangers:
When the negro uses force in self-defense, he does not forfeit support—he may even win it by the courage and self-respect it reflects.— Martin Luther King Jr. in Robert F. Williams’ Negroes with Guns.
Michael Harriot is a writer, cultural critic and championship-level Spades player. His book, Black AF History: The Unwhitewashed Story of America, will be released in 2022.
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