Good Protester, Bad Protester and the Monopoly on Violence

“I’m not going to let my oppressor dictate to me what method I must use.”

Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Violence is a term that can at times be difficult to define because of what may in any given situation constitute as violence. On the one hand, violence is easily interpreted as physical harm, usually intended by one person to inflict damage to another person’s body or property. On the other hand, violence may also be interpreted in spiritual, intellectual, or emotional terms. Sexism and patriarchy can and do perpetuate violence upon women and people of other genders when they are marginalized, harassed, or have their potentials limited by the power structure that restrains or diminishes their privacy, liberty, and dignity. Racism is a system of power monopolization that imposes a synthetic inferiority upon a group of people arbitrarily based on the color of their skin. In the United States, the people who have practiced racism have caused a tremendous amount of both physical and psychological harm to many, if not most people who cannot be identified as white.  The state and its subsidiary institutions of the military and police maintain a relative monopoly on violence, which has been used to suppress people and the assertion of their human rights both abroad and domestically. Notwithstanding that monopoly on violence, Civil Rights and Black Power activists in the twentieth century continued to find ways of challenging and maintaining opposition to a system they perceived as discriminatory, disenfranchising, and dehumanizing. The progenitors of the different methods of challenging injustice were often in competition with one another, and while a prescriptive struggle of how to best challenge the racist system and what a good protester or activist was did occur, both the self-defense and the nonviolent methods assisted each other helping to improve social and political conditions for people of color in the United States.

By the mid-twentieth century and the Civil Rights Era, a system of racism had been imposed upon the society of the United States for two centuries. The ‘founding fathers’ wrote racism into the U.S. Constitution and it was ratified in 1789 by the U.S. Congress:

Representatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several states which may be included within this union, according to their respective numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole number of free persons, including those bound to service for a term of years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.[1]

Any human being that was “bound to service,” a creative method to define a slave without specifically stating slave, or who was a tax paying “Indian,” was defined in the U.S. Constitution as not having the full value, dignity, respect, or rights of a human being. Underlying what has become known as the “Three-Fifths Clause,” is an ideological belief in the superiority of people who can be classified and categorized as white people. One thing the clause did acknowledge was that the people held in service and those who were called Indians were “Persons” according to law. However, the overall effect of the clause was that it legally imposed a synthetic inferiority upon a group of people.

During the nineteenth century, even though the United States was a slave society, not all black people were slaves. However, in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Dred Scott v. Sandford in 1857, declared that no black person was a citizen of the U.S. and that black people “were of an inferior order” and “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”[2] After the end of the American Civil War (1861-1865) the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution outlawed slavery “except as a punishment for a crime,” and the Fourteenth Amendment granted full citizenship to “[a]ll persons born or naturalized in the United States.” The 14th Amendment effectively overturned the Dred Scott decision however culture and ideologies sometimes do not shift as quickly as the law does. As black people began to assert their civil liberties and compete with white people in the economy and in politics, there was a major push-back as a campaign of terror emerged with the Ku Klux Klan and a system of laws designed to maintain blood and social purity known today as the Black Codes, which became Jim Crow. Lynching, the non-legal vigilante assassination of individuals by a mob taking the law into their own hands that was used as a tactic used to terrorize people into submission became prolific during this period.

Lynching by State 1900 to 1931[3]

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) established in 1909 was one of the primary organizations active throughout the Civil Rights Era. The NAACP had for the most part been a non-violent direct action organization that focused primarily on advocacy and litigation, but was instrumental in the Anti-Lynching Campaign in the 1920s and 30s. Between 1880 and 1930, “at least 2,462 African-American men, women and children met their deaths in the grasp of southern mob.”[4] It was primarily used as a tactic to control black people in the South, but some white people are reported to have also been lynched.  Lynching was never technically outlawed, but there were two major bills that brought a lot of attention to the problem. The first was the Anti-Lynching Bill introduced by Congressman Leonidas Dyer in 1918, but it was stopped from being adopted into law because it led to a filibuster.[5] The second was the Costigan-Wagner Bill drafted by Robert F. Wagner and Edward Costigan in 1934, but it was defeated in Congress by Southern congressmen as well.[6] The NAACP advocated for both pieces of legislation and did assist in bringing this crime to the nation’s attention.

However, what the NAACP is perhaps most known for is Oliver Brown et al. v. the Board of Education of Topeka (1954) that overturned the ruling in the Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) that stated separate but equal accommodations for white people and black people was Constitutional. This was a major step in the long struggle to dismantle the system of Jim Crow, but like the amendments after the Civil War the law often changes faster than public opinion and culture. The first attempt to desegregate the public school system would not occur for another three years, in 1957 with the Little Rock Nine. In September of 1957 Minnijean Brown, Terrance Roberts, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Thelma Mothershed, Melba Patillo, Gloria Ray, Jefferson Thomas, and Carlotta Walls confronted a mob of citizens hurling insults and stones at them, police, and the National Guard of Arkansas by the order of Governor Orval Faubus as they attempted to enter Central High School. None of the nine students retaliated they simply trudged through the abuse. They were hand-picked and prepared to face this treatment by the president of the Arkansas chapter of the NAACP, Daisy Bates. Television had been invented by this time and many of the people in the United States who had quickly assimilated the new invention into their homes lives watched these events unfold. Thurgood Marshall, the lawyer who had won the Brown v. Board case, and a team of NAACP lawyers won an injunction against Faubus’s use of the National Guard to prevent the integration of Central High School in the federal district court.[7]

The events at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas were not dissimilar from what Autherine Lucy experienced when she enrolled at the University of Alabama in 1956, or when James Meredith enrolled at the University of Mississippi (Old Miss) in 1962. At the University of Alabama, a mob of white people chased Lucy around the school lobbing insults, food, and stones at her. At the University of Mississippi a riot erupted in response to Meredith’s enrollment at which point the National Guard had to be federalized by President John F. Kennedy to quell the violence. In all three instances, people of color were simply attempting to exercise their rights as citizens of the United States, as was guaranteed by the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, and Brown v. Board of Education. In all the situations their peaceful actions were met with brutality and violence. And in all three cases, the victims were blamed for the violence.

There are and were philosophical, moral, and legal imperatives and justifications, which either permitted or prescribed self-defense. One of the earlier advocates for self-defense during the Civil Rights Era was Robert F. Williams, the president of the Monroe, North Carolina chapter of the NAACP. Williams believed that, “[i]t has always been an accepted right of Americans, as the history of our Western states proves, that where the law is unable, or unwilling, to enforce order, the citizens can, and must, act in self-defense against lawless violence.”[8] Williams did not come to this conclusion lightly. He and his community had been challenging Jim Crow Segregation in the south and one example he recounts is about a swimming that was paid for by taxes but denied black people entrance or a reasonable alternative. The black people Monroe had negotiated for a pool for people of color with the town 1957 and waited for the officials to follow through on a promise they perhaps never intended to keep. So in 1961, community members decided to picket the white only swimming pool and a few days later people started shooting guns at them to terrorize and scare them off. Williams says that the police chief was right there and did nothing to protect the peaceful protesters. Furthermore, neither the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), nor the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) would intervene.

Williams also recounts attempts upon his life, which was not unheard of for a Civil Rights activists around that time. Medgar Evers, the president of the NAACP chapter of Jackson Mississippi was shot dead as he returned home to his family June 12, 1963. James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman were tortured and murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi while working with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) on the Freedom Summer project June 21, 1964. Williams could not have known of these murders yet, but he would have been well aware of the monopoly on violence the state had. And since no one would come to his or his community’s aid, being a war veteran, he chose to arm himself in self-defense, and it worked. A crowd of “two or three thousand people” intent on killing him and the people with him were held at bay because Williams and another man with him displayed their weapons and expressed their intent to use them in self-defense.[9] Williams would later note, “[w]hen an oppressed people show a willingness to defend themselves, the enemy, who is a moral weakling and coward, is more willing to grant concessions and work for a respectable compromise.”[10] Neither Williams, nor any of his people were harmed that day.

Williams’s belief in self-defense and his willingness to follow through and prove his conviction with his actions would create a rift between he and the national headquarters of the NAACP, and he and other Civil Rights leaders. In 1959 Williams witness a corrupt trial which upheld injustice instead of instituting justice as was common of the time. In 1955 a fourteen year old boy from Chicago named Emmitt Till was visiting his family in Money, Mississippi when late one night he was abducted by a group of men, brutally tortured, beaten, and murdered. The murderers were acquitted by an all-white jury and shortly after they sold their confession to a magazine bragging about their actions with impunity because of the “Double Jeopardy” clause in the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Williams no longer had any hope in the DOJ, in the police, or the federal government because there were no protections for black people in Monroe. Williams was quoted at the end of the trial as saying, “[t]his demonstration today shows that the Negro in the South cannot expect justice in the courts. He must convict his attackers on the spot. He must meet violence with violence, lynching with lynching.”[11] This represented a dramatic shift from the Anti-Lynching Campaign of the 20s and 30s and the bills the NAACP supported that never made it through Congress, and from the litigation method of 1954 utilized in Brown v. Board of Education. More importantly, people throughout the nation knew of this because Williams’s “statement was reprinted all over the United States,” creating an image and reputation that the national headquarters of the NAACP would distance itself from.[12]

Roy Wilkins, the president of the national office of the NAACP suspended Williams in May of 1959, as a battle of good protester—bad protester began. The general consensus of the NAACP national office and many of its members nationally was that Williams’s words and actions had tainted the public image of the organization, as peaceful and non-violent, and being opposed to lynching. Daisy Bates, the president of the Arkansas chapter of the NAACP who assisted the Little Rock Nine was reported stating; “she could not endorse violence even though her home had been bombed, and shot at and her life threatened during the school crisis in Little Rock.”[13] Moreover, the national committee on branches of the NAACP is reported to have stated that Williams’s statement was “contrary to the basic NAACP policy” and “endangers the effectiveness of the NAACP especially in the South. It can be used by segregationist to spread the false impression that the NAACP supports lynching and mob violence.”[14]

However, not everyone in the NAACP or in the black community was opposed to the words and actions of Williams. In opposition to the national office, Ora Mobley wrote:

I hope in this way something positive will come out of the general sentiment in his [Robert Williams] favor and the indignation over his suspension. Just consider how many self-seeking, Uncle Tom and timid leaders we have had and continue to have in our organizations in this country. Have you ever heard of one of them being brought up on trial and removed from office? Or is that a penalty reserved only for Negro leaders whose record is one of self-sacrifice, militancy, and courage? (And all this where it counts—in one of the most KKK-ridden counties in the South.)[15]

There was more going on in people’s minds than simply what a good protester or activist was. They were also concerned about why particular people seemed to have been protected and questioned the intentions of those who were being protected. This is evinced by Mobley highlighting “Uncle Tom[s],” a term used to refer to someone who is a traitor to their community, especially one who profits or benefits from allowing or propagating harms to that community. Williams makes it very clear that the national office of the NAACP did not get involved in the events of Monroe, North Carolina until his statement was distributed nationally, and when they did get involved, Roy Wilkins suspended him. Nonetheless, by November 21 of 1959 Williams was unanimously reelected to serve as president of the Monroe chapter, of which he remarked, “[t]he people have proven to me that my judgment is trusted and that they are satisfied with the way the affairs of the branch have been handled in the past.”[16] The national office of the NAACP and many other members nationally were more concerned with respectability politics and the public image of a good protester or activist, then actually providing the protections the people most effected believed they needed. The reinstatement of Williams proved to be an effective move for both the community and the nonviolent direct action in Monroe that would follow in 1960. Williams reports that Monroe was the “thirteenth town in North Carolina to start sit-in demonstrations,” and further, that “[t]here was less violence in the Monroe sit-ins than in any other sit-ins in the South.”[17] Williams was proving through his actions that self-defense and nonviolent direct action “could be successfully combined.”[18]

Robert F. Williams was not the only activist in the South during the Civil Rights Era who found it useful to act in self-defense against brutality and the monopoly on violence. Anne Moody, a civil rights activist and organizer working for CORE in Mississippi on voter registration in the early 1960s also confronted similar problems. Mississippi was a dangerous place to advocate for equal citizenship because much of the state was rural and most of the organizing occurred in the rural parts where most of the black people lived and worked, many on plantations. Medgar Evers, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney were all murdered in Mississippi while engaged in civil rights activities in the 1960s. Shortly after Emmitt Till was murdered Mrs. Burke, one of the women Moody worked for before she became an activist, argued that Emmitt Till, “was killed because he got out of his place,” attempting to justify the monopoly on violence.[19] A synthetic inferiority or not, the message was clear for Moody, “[I could be] killed just because I was black.”[20]

Moody was at the NAACP rally that Evers was shot returning home from on June 11, 1963.[21] So, when a threat was made on her and her comrades’ lives while working in Canton, Mississippi they believed it. Afterward, given that this was not the first attempt and because the police were complicit, if not also involved in many of the murders, a group of men decided to  form “a group to protect us,” as Moody recalls.[22] Moody continues on to write:

they followed us around everywhere we went, walking with us as if they were bulletproof. They even spread a rumor that the Freedom House was protected by armed men. We were still a little up tight and afraid to sleep at night, but after a while, when the whites didn’t come back, we figured the rumors worked.[23]

Again, it was the threat of self-defense that warded off the potential violence against people of color who were stridently working to achieve full citizenship in the United States. Moody notes an important transition in CORE’s effectiveness in organizing the rural community to register to vote in Canton after the defensive group emerged. The “Negro participation had dropped off to almost nothing,”[24] after five youth were shot after a rally, but after the people started standing up for themselves, “every Negro church in the county was opened for workshops.”[25]

Robert F. Williams was neither the only person to use the methods of self-defense, nor the only one to see that self-defense methods benefited the nonviolent activism the community was engaged in. However, because of the organization he was affiliated with and the level of attention his actions and words achieved made him a target of disparagement and prescription. The NAACP had an image to maintain and particular goals they wanted to achieve and did not believe that self-defense was going to further those objectives. Conversely, the people who were the victims of Klan or other mob violence, complicit police departments and court systems, and no other recourse for the protection of their lives disagreed.

However, when marginalized and oppressed people have opposed the injustices of racism in the United States, they have often been labeled ‘criminals,’ as if they were doing something wrong, or harmful. Fannie Lou Hamer was arrested for attempting to register to vote in in 1962. Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested thirty times for his involvement in nonviolent direct actions. Bobby Seale, the Chairman of the Black Panther Party was arrested for a speech he made at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, which was purported to be in violation of the Anti-Riot Act of 1968. Seale was later acquitted of the charge of inciting to riot. Assata Shakur, a member of the Black Panther Party was imprisoned in 1973 for a series of charges, and of which all but one she was acquitted. Robert F. Williams was arrested in 1960 while engaged with the sit-ins and compelled to serve thirty days on a chain gang. And countless other citizens were arrested for exercising their First Amendment right to free speech and to protest injustices. Thus, it seems that it was a crime to be an activist and an agitator during the Civil Rights and Black Power eras.

Civil Rights activists were often portrayed as being the initiators of violence regardless of whether their methods were defined as self-defense or nonviolence. The mere fact that they were seeking to alter the economic, social, and political conditions of the society in the United States to be more just and equitable for people of color was viewed as a form of violence against the status quo. The state and many white citizens who held to a racist ideology responded to the challenge of the activists with physical, psychological, and economic violence while prescribing the times, places, and methods that change would and should occur. Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. responded to these types of prescriptions in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

I have reached the almost regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens’ Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.[26]

This letter was written in Birmingham, Alabama during Project Confrontation in 1963 in response to a public message of disapproval from some white clergy members. During Project C, Bull Conner, in full measure of the monopoly on violence, unleased police dogs and fire hoses upon the nonviolent demonstrators to suppress their struggle against segregation in the South. It was brutal and violent and many people were hurt, but like the Freedom Riders in 1961, the activists and demonstrators did not initiate the violence. King was most certainly capitalizing on the violence to “dramatize” the deplorable conditions black people were suffering.[27] This passage nonetheless reveals the desperation many people of color in the Civil Rights era felt.

It was that desperation which motivated people to subject themselves to violence to bring attention to their conditions or to defend themselves against an unjust and racist system. King argued in 1963 that the people had been waiting long enough to be granted full citizenship, the Emancipation Proclamation was made in 1863, and the black people of the United States had been waiting one hundred years for an end to segregation and the right to vote. Moody however provided a very clear analysis of the people’s feeling and the situation they were in when she wrote:

We sit back and say that we want Freedom. We believe that all men are created equal. Some of us even believe we are free just because our constitution guarantees us certain ‘inalienable’ rights. There are the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments that make us citizens and give us the right to vote. If you are depending on the writing on the wall to free you, you better forget it, it’s been there a long time. We’ve gotta be the ones to give it meaning. Some believe that once we get enough nerve, all we gotta do is walk up to Mr. Charlie and say ‘Man, I want my freedom.’ Do you think that Mr. Charlie is going to dish it out to you on a silver platter?[28] 

This was a call to action born of desperation and while Moody may have been a nonviolent activist, and one who did not believe violent revolution was possible, she was nonetheless not diametrically opposed to self-defense. Many activists and protesters found that when they began to challenge the system, the system used all of its means to suppress the assertion of their rights. And in their desperation, some turned to self-defense because “Mr. Charlie” was not simply going to serve them their freedom on a “silver platter,” and in fact intended to lynch them instead. Surprisingly, and against what many of the entrenched old guard activists thought, the philosophy of self-defense did not hurt the movement as much as it did to assist the objectives of the people. Yet, what stands out most clearly in Civil Rights and Black Power eras is that every group besides black people an other people of color was permitted to employ violence as a means to achieve their objectives.

[1] United States Constitution. Article 1, Section 2. 1789

[2] “The Dred Scott Decision.” Digital History: Using New Technologies to Enhance Teaching and Research. 2014.

[3] “Lynchings by states and counties in the United States, 1900-1931.” Library of Congress. Accessed December 14, 2015.

[4] “History of Lynching in the United States.” University of Massachusetts Amherst. Date Accessed December 14, 2015.  

[5] “NAACP HISTORY: ANTI-LYNCHING BILL.” NAACP. Accessed December 14, 2015.

[6] “NAACP HISTORY: COSTIGAN WAGNER BILL.” NAACP. Accessed December 14, 2015.

[7] “Little Rock School Desegregation (1957).” Martin Luther King Jr. and the Global Freedom Struggle. Accessed December 14, 2015.

[8] Robert F. Williams. Negroes with Guns. (New York: Marzani & Munsell, Inc., 1962), 3.

[9] Ibid., 9-10.

[10] Ibid., 4.

[11] Ibid., 26.

[12] Ibid., 26-29.

[13] “Court Fight Looms Over Bob Williams.” The New York Age (New York, New York), July 25, 1959. Accessed from on December 15, 2015.

[14] “NAACP Leader is Suspended.” Statesville Record & Landmark (Statesville, North Carolina), June 9, 1959. Accessed from on December 15, 2015.  

[15] Mobely, Ora. “NAACP vs Williams.” The New York Age. (New York, New York), July 11, 1959.  Accessed from on December 15, 2015.

[16] “’Meet Violence With Violence’ Advocate Back As NAACP Head.” New York Age (New York, New York), November 21, 1959.  Accessed from on December 15, 2015.

[17] Robert F. Williams. Negroes with Guns. (New York: Marzani & Munsell, Inc., 1962), 30-31.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Anne Moody. Coming of Age in Mississippi. (New York: Bantam Dell, A Division of Random House, Inc., 1968), 132.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., 302-303.

[22] Ibid., 331.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., 325.

[25] Ibid., 332.

[26] Martin Luther King, Jr. Why We Can’t Wait (New York: Penguin Group, Inc., 1963), 97.

[27] Ibid., 89.

[28] Anne Moody. Coming of Age in Mississippi. (New York: Bantam Dell, A Division of Random House, Inc., 1968), 317.

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