Happy Birthday Dr. Huey P. Newton (Co-founder of the Black Panther Party); because they don’t want us to know he had a Ph.D in Social Science. They want us to think he was just some ignorant, trouble-making thug.
“How y’all going to build a nation in the South? Black people down there are so passive and nonviolent.” Akinyele Umoja heard this misguided statement while attending a black nationalist forum in Los Angeles in the late 70s, and decades later, he sought to systematically disprove it by exploring the black freedom movement in Mississippi in We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement.
Armed resistance in the American South is largely unexplored in scholarship and popular discourse, as stereotypes about Southern blacks as docile and submissive overpower the reality of southern resistance. The most popular descriptions of black armed resistance stem from urban centers: Oakland, Chicago, Los Angeles, where images of black men in black leather jackets and berets, marching in single file lines, holding rifles struck fear into the hearts of the local white power structures and bred paranoia in the federal officials. Images of already armed, rural Southern blacks using their guns to fend off, and even retaliate against, the violence of whites are far too few, but a growing body of literature is attempting to give Southern blacks their well-deserved recognition in the canon of black armed resistance. We Will Shoot Back accompanies books like Bloody Lowndes, Radio Free Dixie, andDeacons for Defense at the vanguard of a movement to emphasize the prominent role of armed resistance in the Black Freedom Movement (the term Black Freedom Movement is used to encompass the entirety of post-bellum black activism, from Reconstruction politics to the winding down of the Black Power movement in the 70s and 80s) in the South.
In introducing us to armed resistance in Mississippi, Umoja takes us on an intricate journey across time and geography, giving us an in-depth tour of Mississippi, taking us from the all-black enclaves of the Mississippi Delta, like Mound Bayou, to Jackson, the state’s largest urban area, and the Klan ruled southwest town of Natchez. He introduces us to a lengthy and courageous cast of characters, from Dr. T. R. M. Howard and his fortress of a house, to Joe Pullen, who single-handedly battled a mob of 100 angry whites for seven fucking hours!, killing nine and wounding another nine, and Rudy Shields who used a string of boycotts across the state to break the backs of local whites. He presents Mississippians who were bold and unafraid to defend themselves, and as a native Mississippian and the product of a segregated town in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, I must admit that I let out a mild (ok…exuberant) cheer each time a white person was shot while attempting to terrorize a black neighborhood.
But the book is much more than a story of Mississippi. It’s a story of organizations. He offers an inside look into the debates swirling around the efficacy of nonviolence as a strategy in prominent national organizations like SNCC, CORE, and the NAACP and examines how nonviolence and self-defense didn’t necessarily stand on opposite ends of tactical spectrum. In some instances, organizers found a way to make the two strategies co-exist in ways that have gone largely unexplored in other texts; in others, field organizers ignored or disobeyed the orders of the their national organizations. He tells us how Mississippians imported organizational framework of the Deacons for Defense and Justice to provide organized armed forces to accompany the other arms of the movement. Local leaders also emerged to establish their own organizations when the national organizations began to pull out or failed to meet their communities’ needs.
And though the book will never be labeled a feminist interpretation of the Black Freedom Movement, Umoja is clearly aware of the gendered nature of the movement and the ways that women are often erased from movement scholarship. He is careful to point out women’s integral role in the movement’s success and to recognize their contributions outside of stereotypical feminine roles like cooking and teaching. He also refused to shy away from calling out moments of masculine bravado and acknowledging them as such.
The book only falls short in one area. Umoja neglects the proverbial “Where are they now” segment that makes a history book more than simply a history book. After cultivating our affection for the Rudy Shieldses, Charles Everses, and Skip Robinsons, he simply concludes the book, leaving us wondering what became of them and the communities where they organized. He fails to connect the movement to the present and take a few pages to tell us how it shaped contemporary Mississippi, the progress we’ve made, and the work that still needs to be done. This type of call to action is what transforms a history book from a text that merely fills a hole in the literature to a text that inspires future action. Fortunately, at least for a Mississippi boy like me,We Will Shoot Back is an extraordinary book, even without this final chapter.