Interview with Stokley Carmichael

At what point does it—did nonviolence as a tactic begin to break down?


The question of nonviolence as a tactic or principle even breaking down in SNCC I, myself, trace to a debate by Charlie Cobb inside of SNCC. I remember once, and my memory is not clear on the years, but it's in early '60s, he raised the question. He said, "OK, I'm a SNCC worker," he said. "I'm nonviolent," he said, "but I'm working Mississippi, and I have to work with peasant families there, sharecropper families, and these families are not nonviolent." So, he gives the example of Miss Hamer. He says, "OK, I go to Miss Hamer's house. Every time I go there's a SNCC field representative. The terrorist groups shoot into her house." So he said, "If these terrorist groups are shooting into a house, even though I'm nonviolent, she's not. They have guns in the house. If they are returning fire, the terrorist groups, what is my position as a SNCC person?" Nobody in SNCC answered the question. Nobody. And when the question was not answered, it was clear then every SNCC person should make their own individual decision and the decisions were clear. Those of us in SNCC never saw, the overwhelming majority of people in SNCC never saw nonviolence as a philosophy as did those in SCLC. For those in SNCC it was just a tactic. If it could work, fine. If it can't work, we'll try something else. For SCLC, it had to work at all times under all conditions. Nothing else could work. So it never came into the realm. So for those of us in SNCC who had it as a tactic—guns, we began to carry guns probably even a little bit before this statement which is in the early '60s, but I'm sure that by 1963 I would say 90 percent of your field staff in SNCC were carrying guns. Of course, not publicly but 90 percent of your field staff in Alabama and Mississippi were definitely carrying guns by 1963.