Syndic No. 19 Cover
Syndic Literary Journal

1966 Resistance by Terence Cannon

1966 Resistance

 

by Terence Cannon

 

 

 

PICK UP THE GUN BUT DON’T SHOOT ANYONE

(UNLESS IT’S ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY)

By Terence Cannon

(Chapter seven of A Child Went Forth: Making Sense of Race and Racism, a memoir/history)

By 1966, I held contradictory views of race. I believed race was biological, inheritable, and obvious. (wrong)   I believed the hierarchy of race was imposed by political power, not by nature (right) I assumed that races carried cultural behavior (wrong)  that were products of history, not biology (right). On the other hand, the black race was in some way homogeneous — the Black Vote, Black Music, Soul Food (wrong) I did not think behavior was inherited. (right)

In my mind the white race was known for its indifference to or participation in racism, both governmental and personal; the black race notable for its nobility, courage, will to struggle, and a protective attitude towards me. I could not imagine race to be a biological fiction as false and artificial as the Divine Right of Kings. That came later from book-learning.[1] Some truths need science to be known.

At this point my world and the world of Stokely Carmichael, head of SNCC – the Student Nonviolent, Coordinating Committee  — crossed and joined in “Bloody Lowndes,” an Alabama county where segregation, like slavery, was war. In Lowndes, one did not negotiate, demonstrate, march, or sit in. Stokely and SNCC came to Lowndes for one purpose: “It’s simple,” said Stokely, “we intend to take power.”

Mrs. Francis Moss, a Lowndes County woman in her 70s welcomed this white kid from San Francisco, put me up in a room of her ancient log house and cooked us meals on an iron wood-burning stove. She showed no deference or gratitude to me; I was another civil rights worker, safe, deep in the countryside where 87% of the county’s citizens lived, all of them African-American, and white authorities rarely ventured; at least I never saw one.

If she were born in 1890 she would have grown up with people who had voted during Reconstruction, but neither she nor any black citizen had been allowed to vote since them. The tiny white minority ruled by gun, blackjack, firebomb, money, threats, and the courthouse.

“I can remember when I used to run in the house whenever I saw a white man coming down the road,” she said. “I was afraid I’d be killed.” She put her head in her hands and shook, halfway between laughing and crying. “And I wasn’t a baby then, but a grown woman.”

With SNCC’s help, the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO) ran candidates for county-wide offices on the ballot under the symbol of the Black Panther, chosen as a dramatic counter-image to the racist Democratic Party’s white rooster. (Later a group in Oakland, California adopted the symbol, but that’s another story). The white 13% took this threat seriously, offering a $1000 reward to whomever killed the first black sheriff. They drove sharecroppers off their land. SNCC countered with a Freedom School and a tent city for the homeless.

The civil rights struggle was never non-violent. The blood shed was ours, the shootings, bombings, and murders theirs, against whom the people of Lowndes were prepared to defend themselves. Most black households owned guns. One saw the shotgun by the front door, the pistol on a shelf in the living room. When I first went to Lowndes in May 1966, I was well protected deep in the black community beyond the paved roads and street lights, but the year before, two white civil rights workers, Viola Liuzzo and Jonathan Daniels, had been gunned down in the county. That first visit was the last time I went unarmed.

What I did not know was that by “travelling armed” I was participating in what Charles E. Cobb, Jr., a former SNCC field secretary, calls “a tradition that has safeguarded and sustained generations of black people in the United States.”[2]

“The fact that individuals and organized groups across the South were willing to provide armed protection to nonviolent activists and organizers as well as to black communities targeted by terrorists is barely discussed,” writes Cobb, “although organized self-defense in black communities goes back to the aftermath of the Civil War, and white fear of rebellion and weapons in black hands dates to Colonial America.” Shortly after the Civil War, as white terror swept the South against democratization under Reconstruction, armed black men, then free citizens, came to the Lowndes County Courthouse to demand the pro-slavery government leave office and hold free elections. When Reconstruction ended, a 70-year reign of terror began.

So when Stokely came to San Francisco in 1966 to speak about Lowndes at the Fillmore Auditorium, the police took the threats to his life seriously and sent two plainly clothed officers in shiny shoes and neat haircuts. I introduced myself, revealed my gun, explained I was just doing my job as a SNCC bodyguard, guys, which they accepted, requesting only: Please, kid, if anything breaks out, let us shoot first. I agreed.

What does it mean to place your life at risk for another race?  Nothing. I was not bodyguarding Stokely because he was black, I was protecting him from those who might want to kill him because he was black. I was bodyguard to a body that could have been hanging from a poplar tree, that embodied all the bodies that had swung in the southern breeze. I had chosen sides in a one-sided violent struggle against state terror in the South. I feared violence and had some ingrained nature to move toward rather than away from what I feared. It wasn’t genetic, so don’t ask.

I drove to Lowndes several times with Mark Comfort, a great East Oakland, California community leader and a skilled wheelman. SNCC rules were never to let a car pass you on the left, since a dead or wounded driver endangered everyone inside the car. The guy riding shotgun was to cover the passenger window with his body, shielding the driver from anyone passing on the right. Chased by an Alabama state trooper for putting up signs supporting the LCFO, Mark executed a series of incredible maneuvers including a perfect right angle turn around a small tree by skidding counter-clockwise, whipping the wheel right to miss the tree and gunning the car over a narrow wooden bridge and into the black countryside. There was no question, I’m sure, in the trooper’s mind that his car would make a fine target when we reached the first town. He chose discretion and turned back, freeing me from making a decision about the .45 in the glove compartment.

On the night of the 1966 election, attempts were made on the lives of Stokely and Andrew Jones, a leader of the LCFO in Fort Deposit, the county’s largest town and the stronghold of white power. Jones arrived at the polling place to pick up poll watchers and discovered the courthouse lights, kept on every night of the year, were dark. He was attacked by an armed mob, beaten, and in a case of bad karma for the Klan, the lights unexpectedly came back on, illuminating the man holding a gun to Jones’ head. The mob pulled back. When word reached LCFO headquarters, a truck of armed election supporters were sent to Fort Deposit in a show of strength. Stokely would not allow me to go. “They’ll shoot you first,” he said. “They hate ‘race traitors’ more than they do us.” Another man and I were assigned to protect the home of Mrs. Alice Moore, the LCFO candidate for Tax Assessor. (Her platform was “Tax the rich to feed the poor.”)  No one attacked us. The movement lost that election, but four years later the LCFO swept the election and John Hulett was elected Lowndes’ first black sheriff. No one competed for the $1000 reward. Terror had lost its hold over the majority. The fearful and the fence-sitters had come round. The Lowndes County political power structure had been overthrown.

 

I’m driving Stokely and two other SNCC workers down a dirt street in a black neighborhood in Montgomery. I feel safe among the small houses and patchy yards. About 20 yards ahead a young boy, 4 or 5, runs into the street.

Someone in the backseat leans toward me and exclaims, “Don’t hit that kid! …. He’s Black!” Perfect comic timing. Everyone falls out. I take my foot off the gas and rest it on the brake for fear my laughing might actually cause an accident. The child crosses the street. We drive on.

If there was a critical  moment or a sequence of uninterrupted moments that hastened my path toward becoming white it was then.

During medieval Carnival, roles were reversed, hierarchies turned upside down, kings made fools, rules ridiculed, laws suspended.[3] On that street in Montgomery race was simultaneously acknowledged and dismissed. The joke was directed toward me as if  I were one of  the many white drivers who might not slow down. The joke was not directed at me because our roles were already reversed: Stokely was riding shotgun, which put him in the theoretical role of taking a bullet for me, not here in the neighborhood, but certainly on the highway to Montgomery from Lowndes, thus laying the basis of the joke. If I were black, no need to warn me, no joke. But I was the  stand-in in for whites who did not respect the lives of black children and to whom the warning would never have been made by another white.

I was a non-oppressor playing  the role of oppressor, while standing in for the oppressed. The others in the car were black men standing in for white men driving toward a white child,  who had to warn the driver, “Don’t hit that kid! He’s white!” The horror of hitting a child with a car merged with another horror, that the kid’s life depended on his social reality.

That was the joke.

For a moment there was a world in which black children did not need to fear a white man driving a car.

All in six words, and hilarious. Race travestied and recognized.

I saw no light on the road to Montgomery, had no epiphany, no revelation. Two blocks down the road I was still white, my companions still black. Our laughter blew away the mask of race as natural, revealing its constructed self. And anything constructed can be torn down.

I was becoming human by entering the heart of whiteness in the company of darkness. Now I knew slavery was not the ‘peculiar institution,’ the white race was. To become human I had to look upon what whiteness meant in America. To plow through the cold white cover of race and touch the living ground beneath.

[1] via Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin

[2] This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible,  Basic Books 2014

[3] Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World

 

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