Pure Fire: Self-Defense as Activism in the Civil Rights Era

By Riffel, Brent | The Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

Pure Fire: Self-Defense as Activism in the Civil Rights Era


Riffel, Brent, The Arkansas Historical Quarterly


Pure Fire: Self-Defense as Activism in the Civil Rights Era. By Christopher B. Strain. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2005. Pp. vii, 254. Acknowledgments, notes, bibliography, index. $49.95, cloth; $19.95, paper.)

In Pure Fire, Christopher B. Strain examines how self-defense developed within the civil rights movement in the very years that nonviolent methods used by Martin Luther King, Jr. were becoming the dominant approach in the struggle for racial justice. Arguing that self-defense has been a crucial element in African-American history, Strain suggests that the 1954 Brown decision and the 1955 murder of Emmett Till instigated the rise of self-defense ideology as a key element of the civil rights movement. Interracial violence had been on the decline for decades, but the 1950s saw a renewed militancy among white southerners. In response, many black activists began openly espousing self-defense as a necessary means of confronting white violence. But, as Strain notes, whites perceived self-defense quite differently, viewing armed blacks as terrorist threats to civility. When whites heard the rhetoric of self-defense, they tended to respond with "fear and force" (p. 176).

Strain skillfully traces the evolution of self-defense, from its antebellum incarnations to its ultimate collapse as a viable tactic by the 1970s. During the late 1950s, as Martin Luther King, Jr. publicly dismissed self-defense as reckless and unwieldy, other black voices emerged in support of it. The national black newspaper the Pittsburgh Courier ran a five-part series in 1957 that directly challenged King's nonviolent approach, which the paper called a "diversionary tactic" (p. 50). National Association for the Advancement of Colored People local chapter leader Robert Williams, to whom Strain devotes a chapter, argued that blacks had to show a willingness to fight back on an individual level, that while Gandhian nonviolence might work for communal action such as the Montgomery bus boycott, it was useless for the solitary black facing white lynch mobs. Even Gandhi, he argued, had approved of self-defense when nonviolence was not feasible. A World War II veteran, Williams returned home to Monroe, North Carolina, determined to practice the egalitarian lifestyle he had encountered abroad. Eventually he promoted armed resistance against whites, found exile in Cuba, and became an early inspiration to Black Power advocates. Strain's study of Williams, however, yields little information that was not unearthed in Timothy B. Tyson's Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power (1999). Nonetheless, Strain rightly notes Williams's significance in the movement, a fact reinforced by Rosa Parks' eulogy at the latter's 1996 funeral. …

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