This Nonviolent Stuff′ll Get You Killed

How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible

This Nonviolent Stuff′ll Get You Killed

Book Pages: 328 Illustrations: 12 illustrations Published: November 2015

Author: Charles E. Cobb

Activism, African American Studies and Black Diaspora, History > U.S. History

Visiting Martin Luther King Jr. during the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott, journalist William Worthy almost sat on a loaded pistol. "Just for self-defense," King assured him. It was not the only weapon King kept for such a purpose; one of his advisors remembered the reverend’s Montgomery, Alabama, home as "an arsenal." Like King, many ostensibly "nonviolent" civil rights activists embraced their constitutional right to self-protection—yet this crucial dimension of the Afro-American freedom struggle has been long ignored by history. In This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed, Charles E. Cobb Jr. recovers this history, describing the vital role that armed self-defense has played in the survival and liberation of black communities.  Drawing on his experiences in the civil rights movement and giving voice to its participants, Cobb lays bare the paradoxical relationship between the nonviolent civil rights struggle and the long history and importance of African Americans taking up arms to defend themselves against white supremacist violence. 


"A frank look at the complexities and contradictions of the civil rights movement, particularly with regard to the intertwined issues of nonviolence and self-defense. . . . Thought-provoking and studded with piercing ironies."   — Kirkus Reviews

"[A] bracing and engrossing celebration of black armed resistance."  — Publishers Weekly

"Powerfully and with great depth, Charles Cobb examines the organizing tradition of the southern Freedom Movement, drawing on both his own experiences as a field secretary with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) working in the rural Black-Belt South and contemporary conversations with his former co-workers. While Cobb challenges the orthodox narrative of the ‘nonviolent’ movement, this is much more than a book about guns. It is essential reading."  — Julian Bond, NAACP Chairman Emeritus,

"When night riders attacked his home, twentieth-century Mississippi civil rights leader Hartman Turnbow 'stood his ground' and lit up the night to protect his family. Charles Cobb’s 'stand your ground' book, timely, controversial, and well documented, contravenes a history as old as George Washington and Andrew Jackson and as new as George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn. Don’t miss it." 
— Bob Moses, former director of SNCC's Mississippi voter registration program and founder and president of the Algebra Project,

"[A] richly detailed memoir."  — New York Times Book Review

"Cobb's long-essay format brings the Freedom Movement to life in an unexpected way, shaking up conventional historical views and changing the conversation about individual freedom and personal protection that continues today. . . . A nuanced exploration of the complex relationship between nonviolent civil disobedience and the threat of armed retaliation."  — Shelf Awareness for Readers

"Cobb . . . reviews the long tradition of self-protection among African Americans, who knew they could not rely on local law enforcement for protection. . . . Understanding how the use of guns makes this history of the civil rights movement more compelling to readers, Cobb is nonetheless focused on the determination of ordinary citizens, women included, to win their rights, even if that meant packing a pistol in a pocket or purse."  — Booklist

"This Nonviolent Stuff'll Get You Killed is a powerful mixture of history and memoir, a scholarly and emotionally engaging account of a dark time in our recent history. This is one of those books that is going to have people from across the political spectrum buying it for different reasons. One can hope that those on both left and right can learn from this book." — Clayton E. Cramer, author of, Armed America: The Remarkable Story of How and Why Guns Became as American as Apple Pie

"[A] brilliant book. . . . A serious analytical work of the African-American southern Freedom Struggle, Cobb’s book…deserves a prominent place on everyone’s reading list." — Against the Current

"This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed jostles us outside the ho-hum frame of 'pick up a gun' vs. 'turn the other cheek.' Charles Cobb’s graceful prose and electrifying history throw down a gauntlet: can we understand any part of the freedom struggle apart from America’s unique romanticization of violence and gun culture? This absorbing investigation shows how guns are often necessary, but not sufficient, to live out political democracy." — Wesley Hogan, Director, Center for Documentary Studies, Duke University,

"In this challenging book, Charles Cobb, a former organizer, examines the role of guns in the civil rights movement." — Mother Jones

"Cobb brilliantly situates the civil rights movement in the context of Southern life and gun culture, with a thesis that is unpacked by way of firsthand and personal accounts." — Library Journal

"[A] revelatory new history of armed self-defense and the civil rights movement." — Reason

"Charles Cobb’s This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed is a marvelous contribution to our understanding the modern black freedom struggle. With wonderful storytelling skills and drawing on his unparalleled access to movement participants, he situates armed self-defense in the context of a complex movement and in conversation with both nonviolence and community organizing. Cobb writes from personal experience on the frontlines of SNCC’s voter registration work while also using the skills of journalist, historian, and teacher. The result is a compelling and wonderfully nuanced book that will appeal to specialists and, more importantly, anyone interested in human rights and the freedom struggle." — Emilye Crosby, author of, A Little Taste of Freedom: The Black Freedom Struggle in Claiborne County, Mississippi

"What most of us think we know about the central role of nonviolence in the long freedom struggle in the South is not so much wrong as blinkered. Or so Charles Cobb says in this passionate, intellectually disciplined reordering of the conventional narrative to include armed self-defense as a central component of the black movement's success. Read it and be reminded that history is not a record etched in stone by journalists and academics, but a living stream, fed and redirected by the bottom-up witness of its participants." — Hodding Carter III, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,

"This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed is the most important movement book in many years. Charles Cobb uses long-standing confusion over the distinction between violence and nonviolence as an entrée to rethinking many fundamental misconceptions about what the civil rights movement was and why it was so powerful. This level of nuance requires a disciplined observer, an engaged participant, and a lyrical writer. Cobb is all these." — Charles M. Payne, author of, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle

"This book will have readers who might have nothing else in common politically reaching for a copy." — PJ Media

“This long overdue book revises the image of black people in the South as docile and frightened. It tells our story demonstrating that black people have always been willing to stand their ground and do whatever was necessary to free themselves from bondage and to defend their families and communities. This is a must-read for understanding the southern Freedom Movement.” — David Dennis, former Mississippi Director, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and Director, Southern Initiative of the Algebra Project,

"Popular culture washes the complexity out of so many things. Charles Cobb works mightily against that torrent. This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed shows that the simplistic popular understanding of the black freedom movement obscures a far richer story. Cobb defies the popular narrative with accounts of the grit and courage of armed stalwarts of the modern movement who invoked the ancient right of self-defense under circumstances where we should expect nothing less. This book is an important contribution to a story that is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore." — Nicholas Johnson, author of, Negroes and the Gun: The Black Tradition of Arms

"Any book that has as its central thesis that armed self-defense was essential both to the existence and the success of the Civil Rights Movement is bound to stir up controversy. But Charles Cobb, combining the rigor of a scholar with the experience (and passion) of a community organizer, has made his case. This book is a major contribution to the historiography of the black freedom struggle. More than that, it adds a new chapter to the story of the local people who, often armed, protected the organizers and their communities during the turbulent civil rights years." — John Dittmer, author of, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi

"In accepting each civil rights worker, and indeed each black southerner, as an individual free to act as they saw fit in each and every situation they were faced with, This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed invites a more detailed analysis of the role of the individual in the movement and the often-blurry distinctions between non-violence and self-defence." — Megan Hunt, History

"This is easily the most comprehensive look at the role of armed self-defence throughout the Freedom Movement in the South and as such is an extremely important source for students of social movements as well as contemporary activists. It is perhaps an even more important and prescient work for those committed to the ongoing Freedom Movement at this particular juncture in American history, where it seems that overt and unbridled racist violence and intimidation is waking from its half century of slumber to again rear its ugly head in American society." — Robert Donald Weide, Ethnic and Racial Studies

"As Charles E. Cobb, Jr. points out in this engagingly-written study, most black southerners who endorsed nonviolent tactics did so because they saw such tactics as effective, not because they shared King’s commitment to nonviolence as a religious or philosophical imperative." — Adam Fairclough, Social History

"The book should appeal to a broad audience with interest in the sub-disciplines of race relations, peace studies, and social movements. The author has the vantage point for writing such a book based on years of scholarship and his status as a veteran of the Civil Rights Movement. Furthermore, this book provides an in-depth grasp of the magnitude of the opposition that civil rights activists faced for asserting basic human rights which included: incarceration, living with continuous death threats, economic sanctions, and house bombings." — Michael D. Royster, Western Journal of Black Studies

"Students at a high school or college level would find the book both a fascinating read and a useful tool for learning about civil rights activism. For students in a survey course on United States history, or undergraduates in a U.S. history course for up and coming history majors, This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed would be a valuable resource in both how to write compelling history and how to explore themes, such as civil rights history, that have been well traveled before." — Robert Greene II, History Teacher

"Cobb recovers an aspect of the civil rights movement that has been erased in the celebration of a postracial America presided over by a black president. One sees this erasure every day in introductory American history courses on college campuses, where most undergraduates’ understanding of the civil rights movement is a whiggish tale of blacks and their allies triumphing easily over the forces of racial reaction. Cobb’s book reminds us that this 'ain’t necessarily so.' ... If my parents were alive today, they would read this book and say well done."
  — Clarence E. Walker, Journal of Southern History

"Cobb’s book extends beyond the subject of self-defense and violence to provide an enhanced understanding of community organizing yesterday and today in the freedom struggle for a more inclusive and progressive society." — Ron Briley, Journal of American Culture

"Cobb insightfully argues that nonviolence and armed self-defense was not a question of either/or, but of both/and." — Dwana Waugh, Journal of the North Carolina Association of Historians

"Blending compelling experience with first-rate scholarship, Charles Cobb traces the way that armed self-defense and nonviolent direct action worked sometimes in tension but mostly in tandem in the African American freedom struggle. Crafted with powerful clarity and engaging prose, Cobb’s book deploys the intellectual insights of both everyday people and excellent historians to make the case that it wasn’t necessarily 'non-nonviolent' to pack a pistol or tote a shotgun in the civil rights–era South—but grassroots activists often found it necessary. This is easily the best, most accessible, and most comprehensive book on the subject."  — Timothy B. Tyson author of Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Charles E. Cobb Jr. is a former field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and has taught at Brown University. An award-winning journalist, he is an inductee of the National Association of Black Journalists Hall of Fame. Cobb lives in Jacksonville, Florida.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Author's Note  xi

Preface to the Paperback Edition: More Than a Gun Story  xv

Introduction  1

Prologue: I Come to Get My Gun  19

1. "Over My Head I See Freedom in the Air"  27

2. "The Day of Camouflage Is Past"  55

3. "Fighting for What We Didn't Have"  83

4. "I Wasn't Being Non-Nonviolent"  114

5. Which Cheek you Gonna Turn?  149

6. Standing Our Ground  187

Epilogue: "The King of Love Is Dead"  227

Afterword: Understanding History  239

Acknowledgments  251

Notes  253

Index  283
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-6123-7
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