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We Will Shoot Back

We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement

Akinyele Omowale Umoja
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 351
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  • Book Info
    We Will Shoot Back
    Book Description:

    Winner of the 2014 Anna Julia Cooper-CLR James Book Award presented by the National Council of Black Studies"Ranging from Reconstruction to the Black Power period, this thoroughly and creatively researched book effectively challenges long-held beliefs about the Black Freedom Struggle. It should make it abundantly clear that the violence/nonviolence dichotomy is too simple to capture the thinking of Black Southerners about the forms of effective resistance." - Charles M. Payne, University of ChicagoThe notion that the civil rights movement in the southern United States was a nonviolent movement remains a dominant theme of civil rights memory and representation in popular culture. Yet in dozens of southern communities, Black people picked up arms to defend their leaders, communities, and lives. In particular, Black people relied on armed self-defense in communities where federal government officials failed to safeguard activists and supporters from the violence of racists and segregationists, who were often supported by local law enforcement.InWe Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement,Akinyele Omowale Umoja argues that armed resistance was critical to the efficacy of the southern freedom struggle and the dismantling of segregation and Black disenfranchisement. Intimidation and fear were central to the system of oppression in Mississippi and most of the Deep South. To overcome the system of segregation, Black people had to overcome fear to present a significant challenge to White domination. Armed self-defense was a major tool of survival in allowing some Black southern communities to maintain their integrity and existence in the face of White supremacist terror. By 1965, armed resistance, particularly self-defense, was a significant factor in the challenge of the descendants of enslaved Africans to overturning fear and intimidation and developing different political and social relationships between Black and White Mississippians.This riveting historical narrative relies upon oral history, archival material, and scholarly literature to reconstruct the use of armed resistance by Black activists and supporters in Mississippi to challenge racist terrorism, segregation, and fight for human rights and political empowerment from the early 1950s through the late 1970s.Akinyele Omowale Umojais Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of African-American Studies at Georgia State University, where he teaches courses on the history of the Civil Rights, Black Power, and other social movements.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-2547-4
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-10)

    My father was born in 1915 to a sharecropping family in the Bolivar County village of Alligator in the Mississippi Delta. Dad told me stories about Mississippi when I was growing up in Compton, California. These stories were full of examples of White terrorism and intimidation. One story I heard invoked mixed feelings of fear and pride. My father remembered seeing a Black man hanging from a Delta water tower, apparently after being lynched by White supremacists. Angered by this visible assault on Black humanity, my grandfather grabbed a rifle and intended to shoot the first White man he saw....

  5. 1 Terror and Resistance: Foundations of the Civil Rights Insurgency
    (pp. 11-26)

    In the beginning of the nineteenth century, Mississippi, a territory of the United States (acquired in the Louisiana Purchase), consisted of only a few thousand White settlers and captive Africans, as well as the indigenous population. In 1817, Mississippi was granted the status of a state in the U.S. federal union. Demand for land for White settlement and expansion of commercial farming meant the expulsion of the indigenous population and the increased demand for captive African labor. Particularly due to the expansion of “King Cotton,” Mississippi had increased in population. The region east of the Mississippi River was overwhelmingly populated,...

  6. 2 “I’m Here, Not Backing Up”: Emergence of Grassroots Militancy and Armed Self-Defense in the 1950s
    (pp. 27-49)

    Something new was happening in Mississippi. Although White terror was still formidable, Black people were willing to rally in the thousands for their freedom and human rights. Accommodationist Black leadership still had significant control over Black institutions, but they were being challenged by new, assertive activists who attracted and articulated the aspirations of a growing constituency. Black leaders emerged to demand the rights of citizenship and to express the grievances of the Black masses. What was occurring in Mississippi was connected to the struggles of people of color throughout the world.

    The decades following World War II represented a crisis...

  7. 3 “Can’t Give Up My Stuff”: Nonviolent Organizations and Armed Resistance
    (pp. 50-82)

    The NAACP never overtly promoted armed resistance. The organization’s national leadership also never advocated nonviolent direct action as a primary method of struggle. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which began organizing in Mississippi in 1961, became the first activist organization to advocate nonviolence as a philosophy, strategy, or tactical approach in the Mississippi Black Freedom Struggle. Within two years, another nonviolent activist group, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), also became active in the state. A natural tension developed when nonviolent activists began to organize in communities where indigenous leadership and sympathizers believed in and practiced armed self-defense on...

  8. 4 “Local People Carry the Day”: Freedom Summer and Challenges to Nonviolence in Mississippi
    (pp. 83-120)

    By 1964, CORE and SNCC organizers in Mississippi were confronted with the dilemma of continuing their voter registration efforts in the face of increasing violence from White supremacists against the activists and communities they organized. SNCC’s and CORE’s initial years in Mississippi had demonstrated that White supremacists would respond violently to protect the system of segregation. The Kennedy administration, particularly the Department of Justice, proved an inconsistent partner with respect to its ability or willingness to protect COFO activists from the violence of Mississippi racists. COFO activists, some of whom had come to Mississippi with the expectation of federal protection,...

  9. 5 “Ready to Die and Defend”: Natchez and the Advocacy and Emergence of Armed Resistance in Mississippi
    (pp. 121-144)

    The years following the Freedom Summer of 1964 represent a significant shift in the tactics of the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi. The COFO coalition was unable to maintain its momentum in terms of providing statewide direction and coordination for the Mississippi Movement after Freedom Summer and the failure and disappointment of the MFDP’s challenge in Atlantic City. There were several reasons for COFO’s decline as a statewide vanguard for the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement. The primary entities of COFO, CORE, and SNCC went through a crisis of direction after the major campaigns of 1964. CORE and SNCC experienced internal...

  10. 6 “We Didn’t Turn No Jaws”: Black Power, Boycotts, and the Growing Debate on Armed Resistance
    (pp. 145-172)

    On June 6, 1966, Movement activist James Meredith was shot one day after he initiated his “March against Fear.” His one-man march was a challenge to the intimidation from White supremacist terror that Blacks had had to endure for centuries. The Mississippi-born activist stated that the march’s purpose was “to encourage the 450,000 unregistered Negroes to go to polls and register.” He argued that the march would “point out and challenge the all-pervasive and overriding fear that dominates the day-to-day life of the Negro in the United States—and especially in Mississippi.” Meredith would travel 220 miles south from Memphis,...

  11. 7 “Black Revolution Has Come”: Armed Insurgency, Black Power, and Revolutionary Nationalism in the Mississippi Freedom Struggle
    (pp. 173-210)

    One NAACP lawyer told author Willie Morris, “Rudy Shields is one of the few Black radicals left who still believe in integration.” While Shields led Mississippi Black communities in local campaigns to pursue civil rights and desegregation, his rhetoric and perspective began to reflect the insurgent nationalism of the Black Power Movement. Shields identified with radical forces within the Black Power Movement and attempted to link the continuing human rights struggle in Mississippi with those forces. In a letter to the editor in theYazoo Heraldon January 15, 1969, invoking Dr. King on the martyred leader’s birthday, Shields promoted...

  12. 8 “No Longer Afraid”: The United League, Activist Litigation, Armed Self-Defense, and Insurgent Resilience in Northern Mississippi
    (pp. 211-253)

    The 1970s saw a resurgence of Ku Klux Klan and other White supremacist activity in the South and throughout the United States. The Anti-Defamation League of the B’nai B’rith identified the late 1970s as a “minor renaissance” for the Klan, which “almost tripled its national membership” in the decade of the 1970s. Klan leader David Duke received eleven thousand votes, one-third of the electorate, in a state senate race in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1975. This demonstrated the continued base of White supremacy in some White communities during the decade. A contingent of seventy-five White supremacists, including Klansmen and Neo-Nazis,...

  13. Conclusion: Looking Back So We Can Move Forward
    (pp. 254-260)

    I grew up in Compton, Watts, and South Central Los Angeles, California. I embraced the Black Power Movement as a teenager. Malcolm X, George Jackson, Robert Williams, Max Stanford, and the Black Panthers were my heroes. I was recruited into the African Peoples Party and the House of Umoja, two successor organizations of the Revolutionary Action Movement, after graduating from high school in 1972. One of my first introductions to the armed resistance tradition of the southern Black Freedom Struggle was in 1976, when I traveled to Atlanta for a national Black student activist assembly. One of the advisors for...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 261-304)
  15. Index
    (pp. 305-338)
  16. About the Author
    (pp. 339-339)