Civil Rights and Self-Defense

Against the Current, No. 15, July/August 1988

John R. Salter, Jr.

COMMUNITY ORGANIZING for social justice purposes is, by its very nature, controversial-frequently drawing violent attacks from adversaries and hostility or cold indifference from law-enforcement and other governmental agencies. This paper will discuss the necessity of personal firearms protection in the organizing context, and will cite a number of representative, firsthand examples.

In the mid-1960s, I was a full-time grassroots civil rights organizer for the radical Southern Conference Educational Fund. I directed a large-scale and ultimately quite successful community organizing project in the extremely recalcitrant, poverty-stricken, and intractable segregated northeastern North Carolina Black belt.

The multi-county setting was Klan-ridden and night-time terrorism was common: cross burnings, armed motorcades, arson, shootings. Local law enforcement was almost completely dominated by the United Klans of America in some of the counties and at least strongly Klan-influenced in others.

Halifax County, in which our project started and where our central base existed in the town of Enfield, was the toughest. (Klan dues were collected in the Enfield police station!) Thoroughly hated by the segregationists, I was-as I had been for several years in the hard-core South-on several death lists and received many death threats. And, as I had for years, I carried a .38-caliber Special Smith & Wesson, generally in my attaché case.

Late one fall night in 1964, I left a Halifax County civil rights rally at Weldon and drove back toward Enfield, twenty-odd miles away. Normally because of the terroristic atmosphere, we traveled two or three vehicles together at night but, on this occasion, I was the only person heading to Enfield.

At this late hour, the road was almost always deserted; two miles out of Weldon, however, a large white car came up behind me — showing no inclination to pass. In the bright moonlight I could see several persons therein and knew these were Klansmen.

Although there was no question but that they were quite open to shooting me, I was not surprised that they did not. Months before, we had diffused word on the local grapevines that we, and certainly myself, were armed. They knew full well that I was capable to returning fire — and willing indeed to do so.

Hence they settled for futile efforts to force me into a high-speed chase situation — “revving” their motor practically bumper-to-bumper with mine. But I continued to drive sedately, mile after mile. When I finally stopped in Enfield, with my revolver in my hand, they drove past me, obviously frustrated and cursing. But that was that evening.

One night not long thereafter, a local civil-rights stalwart, Mrs. Alice Evans of Enfield, opened fire with her double-barreled 12-gauge shotgun, sprinkling several KKKers with birdshot as they endeavored to bum a cross in her driveway and, simultaneously, were approaching her house with buckets of gasoline.

When we arrived after hearing the nearby shots, Mrs. Evans had matters well in hand. The Klansmen were gone-to a hospital, we later learned. We gave the cross to the Smithsonian. These are but two instances in a period of time that includes many direct personal examples.

A half-breed Indian, I grew up in the West, principally in Northern Arizona, and in a hunting family. I had my first rifle when I was seven years old and, by the time I was eighteen, I had owned sixty-seven different firearms.

In my early twenties, as I was embarking on my principal life-long career — that of a social-justice organizer — I was strongly influenced by old-time Wobblies (members of the Industrial Workers of the World) and by organizers of the always radical and militant International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers (Mine-Mill). Although committed to tactical nonviolence, these men were also, in the quasi-frontier traditions of our section, equally committed to the use of firearms for personal protection in the face of attacks by company thugs.

In the later 1950s, as I became deeply involved in controversial labor unionism in the rough-and-tumble Southwest, I frequently and routinely traveled armed. And this was certainly my approach in such murderous crucibles as Mississippi, eastern North Carolina and other Deep South citadels in the 1960s and in the South/Southwest Side of Chicago in the 1970s. I am convinced that I’m alive today because I traveled with firearms-and that this fact was generally known.

Direct Firearms Protection

There is no question but that the known existence of pervasive firearms ownership in Southern Black communities prevented much (though not all) massively violent racist retaliation.(1) This was certainly true in the northeastern North Carolina Black belt, and it was true across the South generally.

In a few instances, there were formally organized Black self-defense groups-for example, the Louisiana­ based Deacons for Defense. Mostly, though, armed self-defense appeared in innumerable ad-hoc and individual examples.

Beginning in 1961, I taught for several years at Tougaloo College, a private Black school on the outskirts of Jackson, Mississippi, right in the heart of the blood-drenched, closed society. I served as advisor to the Jackson Youth Council of the NAACP and as chief organizer and strategy-committee chair of the Jackson Movement, which developed in 1962 and 1963 into the most massive grassroots upheaval in Mississippi’s history and one of the major efforts in the United States of the 1960s.(2)

Along with many others, I was often beaten and arrested in Mississippi but, as the primary civil-rights organizer in the Jackson area, I was a special target. During the Christmas season of 962, soon after we had begun active and open Jackson Movement development, night-riders attacked my home on the Tougaloo campus. One of the shots they fired into our house passed just above the crib in which my infant daughter, Maria, slept. If anything, local law officials were strongly supportive of the night- riders; the U.S. Justice Department and the FBI had no interest in enforcing the Constitution in cases such as ours. Those of us on campus at that point then began standing an organized, armed guard at several strategic locations and let this be known to the news media. The attacks ceased for a long time; when they resumed, the guard resumed, and the vigilante moves against Tougaloo subsided.

In North Carolina, in February 1965, I had become so much a target than even the far-from-friendly FBI and Justice Department became somewhat concerned. An agent came to our home in Raleigh and, indicating an informer in a United Klans “klavern” had reported a conspiracy to bomb our house, concluded by saying the federal government could do nothing about it. Local law enforcement was not reliable.

Fortunately, we lived in the middle of a heavily armed Black community, with neighbors-obviously supportive of my civil-rights work in North Carolina and across the South-who were protective, especially when I was away in the field for long periods of time. We immediately apprised them of the FBI warning, barricaded our windows, and fed our “preparedness” to several grapevines. We were not surprised when the bombing effort never materialized.

Years later in Chicago, in the summer of 1970, I was Southside director of the Chicago Commons Association. This private social-service organization was coordinating a large-scale grassroots community organizing project involving mostly Black, Puerto Rican and Chicano people in racially changing sections of the turbulent South/Southwest Side.

White attitudes and practices frequently exemplified racism often more violent and sanguinary than in the deep South of the previous decade. The Richard Daley machine was openly antagonistic to us and the Chicago police in some (though not all) of the local districts were frequently in league with the racists.

Again, as the prime organizer and the project director, I was special target Police harassment and death threats were common, increasing in direct proportion to the growing power and militancy of our grassroots organization.

One afternoon while I was at work, men with knives in their hands came to my home; their intent was quite clear but a vigilant next-door neighbor with a revolver frightened them away. In three days’ time, I performed more “home improvement” services than the total of everything I’ve done before or since: barring and boarding windows, chaining doors, changing locks.

But my basic reliance lay in my several firearms. When death threats came over the telephone, I now began telling the callers, somewhat to the discomfiture of my gentle wife, that I had a ticket for them, a pass to permanent eternity via my Marlin .444. No men returned to my home and the death threats tapered off.

Firearms as a Force to Compel Responsible & Egalitarian Law Enforcement

In the late fall of 1964, in response to the increasing successes of our northeastern North Carolina Black-belt project, the United Klans of America scheduled a large­scale, state-wide rally in Halifax County-very close to a Black residential area. Not surprisingly, posters advertising the affair were conspicuously displayed, among other places, in most law-enforcement offices in the county.

We knew the Justice Department and the FBI would be no help and, early on, we petitioned the state government for state police. This request was not even acknowledged and, with the approval of our local grassroots leaders, I went to Governor Terry Sanford’s office at Raleigh. He declined to meet with me directly but did send in his chief aide.

I was very blunt. I told this person in a cold and angry fashion that either the state would send a large contingent of police into Halifax County a day before the Klan rally, to remain through the affair and at least a day afterward – or our people, armed to the hilt, would have no hesitation about utilizing armed self-defense in the event of Klan violence.

Visibly shaken, the aide left me and conferred with Sanford. He returned quickly to promise the state police. The day before the rally, many state police cars rolled into Halifax County and remained there two days after the event. For our part, we actively and successfully encouraged tactical nonviolence but, of course, we and our constituency continued to keep arms handy. There was no violence except a brutal fight among several Klansmen.

For months afterward, the United Klans continued to hold rallies near Black neighborhoods in Halifax County, and we continued the same effective formula — pressuring the state (later under Governor Dan K Moore), with our people armed and watchful. Eventually, the Klan rallies ceased in northeastern North Carolina and the local Klans faded.

In the South/Southwest Side of Chicago, the known armed state of grassroots people deterred both conventional criminal elements and white racist gangs. In our far-flung community organizational project (almost 300 multi-issue block clubs and related groups organized by the summer of 1973), in a setting where honest police were tired and overworked and the others downright hostile, we set up public citizen “watch-dog” patrols.

Although generally unarmed, these had-regardless of police attitudes one way or the other-primary backup from a network of armed citizenry in the neighborhoods with which the patrols maintained close and constant communication through citizens’ band radios, volunteer dispatchers and telephone linkups.

The effect of this well-known campaign in reducing crime and deterring white racial violence was substantial. Before long, frightened politicians forced through increasingly responsible and egalitarian law-enforcement practices. But the patrols and the vigilance of armed neighborhoods continued.

I am not taking the position that there would have been no fatalities in social-justice organizing, and that none will occur, if organizers and constituents were and are armed. A close friend and colleague, Medgar W. Evers, was shot to death in front of his home one night in June 1963, in the Jackson Movement campaign. But the heavily armed-and known to be heavily armed — Medgar lived for nine effective years after he became Mississippi NAACP field secretary — about nine years longer than most friends and enemies felt he would.

A few days after his death, I was seriously injured – almost killed — in a rigged auto wreck. But I had survived to that point, weathered the injuries, and have endured pretty effectively ever since. And all of our community organizational campaigns over the years have been essentially quite successful.(3)

I am stating categorically that the number of fatalities would have been, and will be, much smaller if organizers and their grassroots groups had been, and are, sensibly armed for self-defense. And the success of the campaigns and the projects themselves have been and will be greatly enhanced.

Notes

  1. A well-known example of racist retaliation against armed Blacks was the Robert F. Williams situation in Klan-ridden Monroe, North Carolina. In the late 1950s, Williams, a Black, organized self-defense groups in conjunction with the local NAACP and with a National Rifle Association charter. This kept the Klan at arm’s length, but in 1%1 the KKK, encouraged by some elements in state government and with the federal agents openly hostile to Williams because of his growing pro-Cuban sympathies, attacked the Black neighborhoods. Blacks resisted, some were arrested, and Williams fled the country. Even so, the armed state of Monroe’s Blacks, which had held the KKK off for years, prevented many Black injuries during that climactic night See Robert F. Williams and Mark Schleiffer, eds., Negroes with Guns (Chicago: Third World Press, 1973).
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  2. For a full account of the Jackson Movement of 1962-63, see John R Salter, Jr., Jackson, Mississippi: an American Chronicle of Struggle and Schism, (Melbourne, Florida: Robert E. Krieger Pub. Co., 1987).
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  3. All of my papers covering more than thirty years of grassroots organizing are held in the National Social Action Collection, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Madison; and at the Mississippi State Department of Archives and History, Jackson. These two collections include a considerable amount of material relating to other community organizational campaigns in which I’ve been substantially involved. Several of these (some recent) have included protective firearms.
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July-August 1988, ATC 15

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