Fifty years ago this August 4, in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement’s Mississippi Freedom Summer project and a month after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a federal search party confirmed the grim belief that had coursed through the civil rights community the previous six weeks.
In an earthen dam in the Neshoba County, Mississippi countryside they found the bodies of the three civil rights workers who had been kidnapped and murdered six weeks earlier by nearly two dozen local police officers and Ku Klux Klan members.
The men – James Chaney, Michael (Mickey) Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman – had “gone missing” the night of June 21, when they had driven to the county to investigate the report of a Black church being burned by the Klan. When they failed to report by the next morning, colleagues at the project’s headquarters began making the telephone-call alarms that ultimately reached all the way to the U.S. Justice Department and the White House.
Segregationists had sneered throughout late June and July that the men’s disappearance was “a publicity stunt.” But, in fact, from the moment the first alarms were sounded there was no rational reason not to know the worst had happened.
Eventually, the F.B.I implicated 21 local police and Klansmen in the crime. However, state prosecutors refused to indict them on kidnapping and murder charges. Instead, only seven would be found guilty of violating the victims’ civil rights, and each served less than six years in prison. It wasn’t until 2005 that 80-year-old Edgar Ray Killen, the ringleader, was indicted and convicted of manslaughter. He was sentenced to 60 years.
In one sense, the murder of Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner underscores an often-overlooked truth about the Black freedom struggle during the early 1960s. That is that the more apparent it became that Jim Crow was about to fall, the more vicious the White extremist violence became. Indeed, each of the years 1963, 1964 and 1965 brought a shocking display of the murderous cruelty that underlay the white-collar segregationist chant about “states’ rights” and “the southern way of life”: the bombing of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in September, 1963 that killed four young girls; the murder of the three civil rights workers the following June; and the Feb. 18, 1965 murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson in Marion, Ala. by State Trooper James Fowler and March 1965 “Bloody Sunday” police riot in Selma, Ala..
Those incidents also reinforced the worldwide, sharply contrasting view of the Civil Rights Movement as a saintly campaign full of heroic people committed to nonviolence and willing to face even death in the pursuit of civil rights for Black Americans.
Much of that assessment was and remains true. The Movement was an extraordinary display of mass discipline and commitment to nonviolent protest, and many of the people in it acted heroically. But, as Charles E. Cobb, Jr. makes clear in his important new book, the civil rights movement during these years in the Deep South was more complicated than that – because the nonviolent campaign there was in many instances supported by the implied or overt possibility of “armed resistance” to white violence. The book’s title –This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible – makes the point.
Cobb has impeccable credentials to discuss it, having been from the early to the late 1960s, a field secretary of the legendary Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and later an award-winning journalist.
A column of this length can do but scant justice to the facts and assessments Cobb presents; but he declares at the outset that his isn’t a book about the “political fantasy” notions of guerilla warfare, retaliatory violence, or ‘revolutionary’ armed struggle. Nor is it about nonviolence. What he set out to do is worth quoting at length:
“Rather, it is about the people – especially the young people—who participated in a nonviolent movement without having much commitment to nonviolence beyond agreeing to use it as a tactic. As their involvement in the movement and with rural communities deepened, however, they found themselves in situations where they, their colleagues, and the people they were working with could get killed for even trying to exercise the ordinary rights of citizenship. What, then, would they do?
He continues: “This was in part a question of ethics and morality: Could you really kill someone? And at the same time it was also a question of responsibility: What obligations do you have to the people who are supporting you and whose lives are endangered because of it? But at its core, of course, it was also very much a question of practicality: What do you need to do to stay alive?
“This book explores the choices movement activists and organizers made when confronted with the questions, and the circumstances underlying those choices.”
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His latest book is Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America.