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Month March 2014

Review: Akinyele O. Umoja, We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement (2013)

The black freedom movement is framed in popular memory as distinguished by nonviolent civil disobedience. Yet in multiple southern towns, black people used armed self-defense to protect their communities and lives. While it is true that this was especially done where the federal government refused to protect people of color from Jim Crow segregationist authority, where cops and Klan often went hand in hand, this aspect of the liberation struggle must also be understood as a movement for popular justice.

Black Nationalism and Pan Africanism, outlooks which elevated the idea that blacks were “a nation within a nation” and should see themselves through an African worldview fighting white supremacy and empire, highlighting questions of self-emancipation and self-government beyond the United States government, are often seen as perspectives which are more prevalent in Northern cities. Yet beyond seeking legal reform and civil rights, these radical beliefs were also found animating resistance in places such as Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Georgia.

Akinyele Umoja’s We Will Shoot Back takes the reader on a journey which re-introduces us to the Southern Freedom Movement, both in the era of the Modern Civil Rights Movement (1955–1965) and the Black Power Movement (1965–1975) by highlighting “armed resistance” in Mississippi.

Dr. Umoja, the chairperson of African American Studies at Georgia State University, sees armed resistance in a variety of ways: individual and collective use of force for protection, retaliation, guerilla warfare, spontaneous rebellion, and insurgent political action. One of the great burdens on the psyche when considering images of attacks on the black community, from rape, brutal police, lynchings, barking and biting dogs, and having the clothes ripped from one’s body by fire hoses is the myth that people of color never physically stood up for themselves. In the eyes of some, this was a concrete moral stand. But for many, such degradation without fierce resistance calls into question African American humanity and self-governing capacities. Umoja revises these memories of nonviolence, which were often produced as strategic rhetorical strategies, and known by people active in the Southern movement not to be entirely true, if only by hearsay and rumor, and offers the reader stories which not only lift up self-esteem but reveal methods of empowerment.

We learn from We Will Shoot Back that the assassinated Mississippi NAACP leader Medgar Evers was in fact an advocate of armed self-defense and wished to see a “Mau Mau,” a reference to the Kenyan Land and Freedom Army, emerge. The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) fieldworkers, often associated with leaders like James Farmer and John Lewis who advocated nonviolence, came in contact with local people who were armed and defended their voter registration drives.

Umoja highlights the tension and cooperation between black folks with different strategic outlooks. Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964 is remembered for the assassination of fieldworkers Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner. But Umoja tells us that there were informal networks of armed self-defense and a spontaneous rebellion in McComb that pressured the federal government to intervene. This led to debate within SNCC about armed self-defense. In Natchez, Mississipi, consumer boycotts were joined with guerilla warfare led by paramilitary organizations like the Deacons for Self-Defense, which originated in Louisiana. Enforcer squads made sure that the community supported the boycott and that the Klan was discouraged from obstructing the movement. Resistance to the 1970 shooting at Jackson State College is also explored.

This study highlights the activism of figures which have not come to formal national acclaim, such as Rudy Shields, Hartman Turnbow, Ralph Featherstone, Alfred “Skip” Robinson, Hollis Watkins, T.R.M. Howard, Dara Abubakari and organizations such as the Council for Negro Leadership and the United League. It also elevates Black Power organizations, which began in Northern states, such as the Revolutionary Action Movement and Republic of New Africa as influential among grassroots organizing where their roles have been previously little understood.

In the social movement history of the United States, from Detroit to Mississippi, those tangentially aware of the Republic of New Africa, its projections of provisional government for peoples of African descent in the United States, and its related heritage, have often asked why the slogan, “Free the land?” Why not “Free the people?” The reader will learn that not only the search to be self-governing on one’s own land, but mastery of rural roads and the value of having allies on black-owned lands adjacent to one another, was essential to black freedom and anti-fascist movements in the deep South. Umoja, as an historian, breathes life into the very geography and topography of the struggle for those who have never seen these communities, and conveys a striking familiarity to those who know them intimately.

From Belzoni to Yazoo City, Aberdeen to West Point, Tupelo to Jackson, remarkable stories are brought to life. “Bad Negros,” black mothers preparing firebombs in their kitchen, armed patrols in cars driven by people of color with flashing lights signaling to white racist authorities to beware, and white casualties as a result of the mistaken belief that black life was cheap and would not be defended, are all part of neglected historical and political legacies that many will be excited to read about.

Ultimately, Professor Umoja’s contribution is that he has written a book that the obscure local people of the American South, those not recorded in history, will increasingly recognize and, quiet as it is kept, already identify, as their own.