a century of acts for civil rightsleading to a civil rights act
In 1962, Laura McGhee invited civil rights organizers to stay at her Mississippi farm. A widow with three sons, McGhee also repeatedly used the title on her farm as security for bail bonds to get civil rights workers out of jail. As a southern black woman challenging white men in positions of power, she soon found herself under fire; nightriders attacked her farmhouse, and police officers beat her and her sons with nightsticks whenever they had the chance.
But McGhee fought back, decisively and with apparent fearlessness. After a police officer once raised his club to strike her, Charles Payne reports, other civil rights protesters "had to pull her off him." As the attacks on her home intensified, she took to sleeping during the day so she could spend nights on her front porch "with her Winchester." When her sons shot at a carload of attackers one night, the local sheriff showed up with a group of FBI agents the next day "to warn her against letting her boys shoot back. She said that was okay; she'd do all the rest of the shooting herself. They were not bothered by nightriders for a while after that."
This set of events -- the violent attacks on a black woman who supported civil rights organizations, the involvement of the local sheriff and the FBI on the side of the white supremacists, and McGhee's own aggressive and persistent self-defense -- reflect the very most fundamental themes of the history of black Americans in the century after emancipation; it was another black woman, the anti-lynching crusader Ida Wells, who wrote eighty years before that "a Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home."
In the last twenty years, the century-long exchange of violence between white supremacists and ordinary black men and women has been covered in breadth and depth by historians. Timothy Tyson, Robin D.G. Kelley, Jacqueline Jones, and many others have shown us in great detail the kinds of daily resistance to white supremacy that took place at the center of ordinary people's lives.
Tyson has paid particular attention to Robert F. Williams, a black WWII veteran who led the small local NAACP branch in Monroe, North Carolina, with an aggressive distaste for the concept of non-violence. Williams discussed his campaign against segregation in a memoir, Negroes with Guns, describing an incident in which white men tried to pull him and several other activists out of a car and kill them while the local police stood quietly by and watched. The police got involved, natch, only when Williams and his friends got out of the car with guns of their own. Daisy Bates, the local NAACP president who led the effort to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, tells a similar story in her book about those days. She fought to integrate the local high school; white men tried to kill her; she stuck a gun in their faces, and they ran.
And so, to go back to my earlier post about MLK and LBJ: Take a look at this section of the Letter from Birmingham Jail, with emphasis added:
I began thinking about the fact that I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community...The other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up across the nation, the largest and best known being Elijah Muhammad's Muslim movement. Nourished by the Negro's frustration over the continued existence of racial discrimination, this movement is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incorrigible 'devil.'And yeah, that's a threat. Martin Luther King played a tactical posture of non-violence against a threat of violence; he said, to Lyndon Johnson and to the rest of white America, we can do this the peaceful way, or we can fucking kill some of you. He was able to make that threat, and make it plausibly, because of a century of black men and women who were willing to shoot back.
I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need emulate neither the 'do nothingism' of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. For there is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest. I am grateful to God that, through the influence of the Negro church, the way of nonviolence became an integral part of our struggle. If this philosophy had not emerged, by now many streets of the South would, I am convinced, be flowing with blood. And I am further convinced that if our white brothers dismiss as 'rabble rousers' and 'outside agitators' those of us who employ nonviolent direct action, and if they refuse to support our nonviolent efforts, millions of Negroes will, out of frustration and despair, seek solace and security in black nationalist ideologies--a development that would inevitably lead to a frightening racial nightmare.
So the liberal triumphalist narrative in which King used heartfelt reasoning to convince Johnson of the justice of the black cause, leading the benevolent white liberal president to grant black freedom and equality by waving the state's wand of justice, doesn't work. The facts aren't there. There was a hundred years' war in the United States, and the bad guys lost.