May 30, 2013

Book Review: We Will Shoot Back: Armed resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement

We Will Shoot Back: Armed resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement
By Akinyele Omowale Umoja
New York University Press
New York and London

This is a good and valuable book and it should be read by anyone who is interested in the Black Freedom Struggle, the Civil Rights Movement, New African politics and struggles for self-determination.

The book represents an intellectual and nuanced breakthrough in how we look at social movements. The author makes this breakthrough by showing convincingly that the Black Freedom Struggle in Mississippi was big enough and was rooted enough in people's struggles to contain trends which were both integrationist and also supported Black self-determination. Akinyele Omowale Umoja has uncovered a "hidden history" of the Movement which is very much at odds with the dominant narratives. These narratives incorrectly see the Civil Rights Movement in the Solid South as non-violent, channelled through established national and regional organizations and dependent upon outsiders---mainly white outsiders---for their success.

The author is anti-dogmatic in his approach and gives proper weight to the Deacons for Defense and Justice, the Regional Council for Negro Leadership and other organizations which built collective Black leadership and resistance. The book also provides much information on local leaders such as Amzie Moore, Hartman Turnbow and E.W. Steptoe. These were strong leaders who consistently reflected the strivings of their communities. They carried on in a context which was shaped by both their African heritage and their American surroundings. Resistance of any kind, armed or passive, would have been impossible without them and others like them. Much space is given over in the book detailing how accountability of leadership was built and maintained over time, how organizing in rural and urban areas was developed and how formulas for successful organizing developed and were put in place. The book also shows how white supremacist reaction unfolded in the face of people's advances.

But what were Black people resisting? The author correctly names the struggle as being one against an essentially apartheid system which depended upon underdevelopment, brute force and and a legacy of white supremacy that reverberated through peculiar and specific class, national and gender relations for its survival. The response was bound to be dramatic and violent, even as parts of Mississippi industrialized, and the book captures that quite well.

This is also an invaluable local history and it should challenge and inspire others to unearth and publish other "on the ground" accounts of the Movement in the Solid South. Particularly interesting in Umoja's work is the incontestable demographic information provided. It must be remembered---and the book does this---that Black people formed solid majorities or near-majorities in the areas studied here. If that explains or contextualizes some of the features of the Movement, it also raises the question of how a white minority could safely hold so much power for so long.

Umoja argues in his introduction that "Black resistance in the United States cannot be solely interpreted through the lens of Western philosophical constructs" and he does a strong job of showing a continuity of Black organizing and resistance over time. The African roots of this organizing and resistance have been obscured or written out of history by the politically inept and blind. Still, his methodology is dialectical to the core and his particular emphasis on local leadership, which he points out was often intellectual and activist at the same time, echoes the work done by the Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci. Perhaps "solely" merits continued discussion and analysis. The book offers the hope that we can eventually get past a Western Marxist vs. African or New African philosophical or interpretative divide, return to our roots and reimagine dialectical methodology as something which adequately and necessarily serves the interests and needs of all oppressed peoples.

I recently had the opportunity to ask the author why he capitalized "W" in "White" throughout the book. He patiently explained that he did this in order to balance his capitalizing "B" in "Black." It's a nice thought, but the evident respect and balance may well be unwarranted. We should not see white people as constituting a people or a nation.

Some white people will no doubt see in this book a partial vindication of the worst fears and propaganda of the white supremacist forces: Black people were armed and had political agendas all along which transcended demands for integration. We must be prepared to defend those agendas and the right of oppressed people to engage in all forms of struggle. Others will get hung up on the space given to New African consciousness and activism. We must also be prepared to point out the essential humanism and internationalism of this consciousness and practice. Umoja repeatedly places New African identity in the proper historical context.

This is not a book about or for the white left, although white leftists frequently get their due in the book. The book should serve to remind us that those on the left who surrendered to reformism in the 1940s and afterwards and gave up the programmatic demand for Black self-determination in the Solid South and the right of Black people to secede on their terms were in error. The questions of where were the Movement's white allies and where was the white working-class self-interest which would have, or should have, struggled alongside of the Freedom Movement naturally arise as we contemplate the lessons Umoja gives us.

There is one unfortunate typo in the book. The Communist Workers Party is mistakenly identified as the "Community Workers Party." Other than that, there are no obvious errors in the text.

Akinyele Omowale Umoja comes to this work as a scholar and as an activist, as a dedicated militant. Read this book!  


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