Clancy Sigal

The Important Role of Armed Resistance in the Black Civil Rights Movement

Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of  “Freedom Summer” and the murder by Mississippi Kluxers of three young civil rights volunteers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and “Mickey” Schwerner.  The triple killing was world news mainly because Goodman and Schwerner were white Jewish New Yorkers.   If it had been only the African American Chaney, nobody outside the “beloved community” of the Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee would have cared.  The deep south’s culture of violence against blacks was a given. 
What’s not so given, even today, is the black community’s long tradition of armed resistance.  I’m riffing off Charles Cobb’s new book “This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible.”  Cobb, a Brown University professor, is a former SNCC field worker, a bland way of saying he was under constant fire.   I’m also dipping into my own experience in the Freedom Summer south…but also north.  
Ever since slaves were imported to Jamestown in 1619, armed self defense was an authentic part of the African American experience.  I don’t just mean well-known rebellions like Nat Turner’s, but ordinary day to day.  Almost every household I ever visited in the south had a hidden shotgun or pistol under the bed.  This contradicted MLK’s dominant peace-and-love message, his honestly-held outreach to whites, many of whom (like me) flocked to his Gandhian banner.  Less publicly known is that wherever “Martin” traveled he was bodyguarded by men with guns.  Indeed, his own Atlanta home was a  discreet arsenal of weapons. 
Even less public was the role of armed black women who for decades had to endure sexual and physical assaults by white southern cops and other thugs who, given immunity from prosecution, felt they could rape at will.   Attending church services in Tuscaloosa, Selma or Montgomery, I was no longer surprised sitting next to a respectable black woman who opened her purse to fan herself revealing a modest little .22.  Cobb cites the well-known story of Mama Dolly Raines in southwest Georgia (where I stayed with SNCC) sitting by her window with her shotgun to protect the Rev. Charles Sherrod, a passionate believer in nonviolence, who was staying with her. 
In Albany, Georgia, where I was longest, love and commitment were the hallmarks of community organizing.  The locals we were embedded in took us in like their own children.   We were family.   They would do anything to protect us from the constant threat of beatings and death.  Or as Mama Dolly, a midwife, told Sherrod, “Baby, I brought a lot of these white folks into this world, and I’ll take ‘em out of this world if I have to.”
It’s sometimes hard for civilized nawthenuhs to remember how American-cherrypie violence was in the south.  In Chattanooga, where I first went to school, streetcar conductors wore holstered pistols; city bus drivers all over the segregated south “packed”.   You shot a “nigger” who gave you lip without second thoughts or fear of arrest.  If you’re the local sheriff in rural Georgia and fancied a black man’s woman you erased him from the picture by beating him up and jailing him for assault.
Passive resistance began to change when WW2 veterans, trained in weapons, came home.  Suddenly bad whites were confronted by armed ex-soldiers in the Deacons for Defense or ex-Marine Robert Williams’ Black Armed Guard (with an NRA charter yet!) in Monroe, North Carolina, to defend against racist attacks.  Historically, there had always been the odd, defiant black man with a shotgun standing on his porch confronting KKK cross burners.   Now, here and there, wherever Rev. King went, or was afraid to go, was collective resistance.  In Birmingham when one of King’s bodyguards was asked how he protected his man, he replied, “With a nonviolent .38 police special.”
Up nawth the black mind set wasn’t all that different but with an entirely different circumstance.   When I held a seminar on Black Nationalism at Monteith College for half a dozen young street blacks each one of them proudly showed me his shiv or cheap pistol.  My sweet tempered Detroit host, Jim Boggs, the African American auto worker and Marxist activist, walked me to the corner bus stop on my last day but not before reaching behind his prized bust of Lenin on the mantelpiece and withdrawing his own .38 to escort me a city block.  In my old Chicago neighborhood my host, a postal worker, waved me up to his apartment by pointing a shotgun out of the window to signal to the gang kids downstairs, including his own son, he meant business. 
The 10th District cops I rode with, both African American, were armed: each hid a .45 under his clipboard, wore a hip holstered .38 and an ankle .25 caliber as backup to the backup plus two Mosberg 500 riot shotguns in the rack.  “And you know what,” said my police driver, “we’re still outgunned.”   His theory was that much of Chicago’s black-on-black violence was a form of culture shock.  “These southern boys come up north with their mamas looking for work.  Down in Alabama and Mississippi they had to toe the line or get lynched.  Yassuh noesuh shonuff suh.  All that peckerwood crap.  Take that train up to Chicago and the chains drop off.   They ain’t no more oppressed.  Run wild.  Cuss, shoot dope, murder each other or white folks.  They wouldn’t dare do that in Yazoo County.”  
So in honoring Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman, martyrs to a beloved community of non violent resistance, I can’t help thinking how it might have turned out differently if on that lonely Mississippi road in 1964, they’d been tailed not by murderous morons but by the Deacons for Defense.

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Thousands Starve Themselves To Put an End to California's Cruel Solitary Confinement Methods

“It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.” â€• Nelson Mandela, who spent six of his 27 prison years in solitary confinement.
Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins's' prison movie The Shawshank Redemption is one of the most popular repeats on cable. The story is set in the 1940s. When convicted wife-killer Robbins screws up, he's thrown into solitary confinement, a dark dungeon, for only a couple of weeks, which is seen as brutal punishment. All through the "prison cycle" of movies in the '30s and '40s, from Each Dawn I Die to Brute Force, solitary is relatively brief before the misbehaving prisoner is released into the general population.
In the past few days, in the largest prison protest in California's history, nearly 30,000 inmates have gone on hunger strike in the country’s largest prison system. Such near-insurrections are not unusual in America’s prison-industrial complex. Last year’s “starve for change” strike in Georgia lasted 36 days before it was broken. All across the country correctional authorities always respond with the same Pavlovian scenario: first, a news blackout; second, flat-out denial of the obvious; third, official press releases acknowledging a strike but downgrading numbers; fourth, mass punishment by withdrawal of privileges, and away from media’s glare, beatings by guards on militants.  
California officials have followed this protocol almost to the letter. As of today, 7,600 prisoners remain on hunger strike at 23 of California’s 33 prisons. The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation refuses to acknowledge the strike is a political protest, calling it a “mass disturbance."
The prisoners’ core issue is the use of "no human contact" solitary confinement in special "control cells" or the infamous SHU, segregated housing unit. California holds 4,500 inmates in solitary. In Pelican Bay prison, inmates are cooped up in tiny, 7-by-11-foot windowless cells, sometimes without radio or TV, 23 hours a day. They cannot make or receive phone calls or have contact visits with family or friends. They have no access to rehab programs and cannot attend religious services. The average inmate stays in isolation for over seven years, and in some cases much longer. The Catholic Conference of Bishops, not your standard liberal group, has called for a change in “this inhuman form of punishment.”
You qualify for solitary either because you're a real threat (killed another prisoner or guard) or unsubstantiated gossip that you belong to, or are affiliated with, a gang such as Mexican Mafia or Crips. Evidence of a gang association is possession of books like Sun Tzu's "Art of War" or Machiavelli's "The Prince," or using words like tio and hermano—Spanish for uncle and brother.
SHU can be a bloody killing field. A few years ago CBS reporter Mike Wallace found that in Corcoran State prison in Northern California the guards routinely staged inmate fights in the segregated unit, wagering on the outcome, and if fights got out of control shooting the inmates involved. Scores of inmates have been shot and eight killed in these fights. When Wallace returned to Corcoran to follow up he found that guards, now wary of shooting prisoners, retaliated by encouraging inmate-on-inmate rape.
Californians like to think of themselves as more progressive and tolerant than the rest of America. The underfunded, overcrowded, guards-union-tyrannized prison system is a huge exception because of how we handle our inmates, female as well as male.
The Sacramento Bee, Los Angeles Times and Center for Investigative Reporting have revealed that from 2006 to 2010, nearly 150 female inmates were pressured to undergo sterilization via tubal ligation. (One of the California prison doctors is quoted saying that sterilizing women or removing their ovaries provided “an important service to poor women,” and that the money spent on sterilizing them isn’t “huge…compared to what you save in welfare paying for the unwanted children….")
Some of these imprisoned guys have done horrendous crimes, but nobody deserves inhuman isolation that, in some cases, can go on not for weeks or months but for many years. In the past, solitary was a temporary punishment. Today it's a life sentence of psychological torture. Who wouldn't go crazy?
California prisoners in isolation account for 5 percent of the total prison population but account for nearly half the suicides.
MSNBC, the "liberal" network, airs "Lockup" on weekends which probably gets higher ratings than the same networks’ Rachel Maddow. This prison-reality show is designed to scare us by interviewing zombie-like psychopaths who can't wait to tell the camera how they chopped the head off their cellmate. It’s gripping, disgusting TV. They've convinced me I don't want these bloodthirsty creeps ever released to roam around my neighborhood. But I also don't see much point in killing their souls with endless solitary. You can sometimes get out of solitary by telling the warden you've left the gang; the problem is, once you're back out on the yard you're known as a snitch worth murdering.
Of the 160,000 prisoners in California, two-thirds are African American and Latino. The feds, under Obama and his attorney general Eric Holder, refuse to intervene. 
Being a prison guard—even though you have the backing of a powerful union—is shitty work. Being the politician in charge of it all (hey, Gov. Jerry Brown! What happened to your Jesuit ethics?) is even shittier.
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