Guest Opinion | Mr. Hamer’s Shotgun and Resistance to Racist Violence

Published : Monday, September 25, 2017 | 3:18 PM

In July, 1964, I spent a night alternating with another SNCC* volunteer aiming Mr. Hamer’s shotgun at the front door of the house in which we were staying during the Mississippi Freedom Summer. As we honor the memory of Fannie Lou Hamer’s 100th birthday in October, I reflect on that night. It was decision time for me on the issue of armed self-defense against racist violence.

Fannie Lou Hamer lived in Ruleville, Mississippi. She was a smart woman who was good at numbers despite a limited education. For years she worked for a local plantation owner doing his accounting work, but she was fired the day after she attempted to register to vote. She was a big woman, whose deep, resonating voice brought to “We Shall Overcome” the best gospel-singing tradition of Black churches. That voice was also a clarion call for resistance to racism after she was fired; she turned to working with SNCC organizers and told her compelling story to audiences. Then she was arrested by Mississippi Highway Patrol officers and badly beaten while jailed, resulting in injuries lasting a lifetime. But that racist violence turned out to be counterproductive, as she persisted in resistance with an even more compelling story. Millions were moved later in the 1964 summer when her iconic words of resistance, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired,” were televised during her testimony at the Democrats national convention.

I volunteered to participate in the 1964 Freedom Summer project. Freedom Summer did grass-roots organizing for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s challenge to the racist white regular Democratic party at the 1964 Democratic National Committee convention. I was assigned to the Sunflower County project and stayed in Ruleville – half the summer in Mrs. Hamer’s house and half in her next-door neighbor’s house. I reported to Julian Bond, and my assignment was as the security and press director for the Sunflower County Project. One of my responsibilities was to stay out of jail so that there would always be someone who could raise the money to bail everyone else out. I was the only volunteer in the Sunflower County Project who was not arrested, and I called contacts in the North to raise the money to bail out everyone else.

In my security function, I was the liaison to the regional SNCC office in Greenwood, Mississippi. One July afternoon, I got a phone call from Greenwood telling me that SNCC learned that the FBI had been tipped that there was going to be an attack that night on Mrs. Hamer’s home to assassinate her. Neither the FBI nor the federal government offered any assistance. SNCC had no resources to help us. Our experience with the local police and local political leaders was completely negative; for example, they had blamed me to the FBI for an arson attempt at a local Black church because I was the one who reported it to the Mayor. So we were on our own.

Under cover of darkness, we moved the Hamer family next door. But we had the problem that the thugs-with-guns we anticipated coming might then just go next door. So I decided to stay in the Hamer house and defend against any armed assault, as I was trained in using weapons in the Army. Mr. Hamer gave me his shotgun. Len Edwards, who was then a University of Chicago Law School student and later became a California Superior Court Judge, volunteered to stay the night with me. I trained him in using the shotgun as best I could without firing any shots. We alternated staying up throughout the night with the shotgun aimed at the front door. Fortunately, no one came through it.

That particular July night was for me an especially searing confrontation with the issue of armed self-defense against racism, but the issue was omnipresent throughout my visit to Mississippi. The questions of non-violence and armed self-defense were not abstract questions. Even before going to Mississippi, I learned while undergoing SNCC training that three SNCC volunteers had disappeared in Philadelphia, Mississippi, and correctly assumed they were the victims of racist violence. I didn’t intend to be the fourth assassination nor to stand idly by for a fourth assassination. Mississippi was a police state. The hostility to civil rights was ferocious. Mississippi was an armed camp. We knew that we survived as civil rights volunteers only because every Black home had guns – including especially the ones in which we stayed. Racists periodically drove down the dirt streets in the Black community in their pick-up trucks with rifles in their racks, honking, sometimes throwing rocks, and usually shouting racist tirades. But they knew the Black homes were armed, so they didn’t dare openly go onto the Black properties. SNCC’s tactics were to confront racism in the daylight, and nonviolence was an effective tactic when the sun was shining; it was also probably a necessary tactic, given the overwhelming force superiority of hostile police and racist vigilantes. But at night in Black homes, armed self-defense was a meaningful deterrent to violence. In my view, 1964 SNCC volunteers like me who are alive today are alive because of Black armed self-defense against racism.

After the 1964 summer, I moved on to resistance against racism in the North and resistance to the Vietnam war. My concerns were now about both racist violence against Blacks and their allies and fascist violence against progressives opposing the war. I soon bought an M-1 rifle like the one I had been taught to use in the army. When ACT held a referendum on whether guns should be banned, I was one of the very few persons who voted no. When my house burned down in the 1993 Altadena fire, my M-1 and two pistols burned in the fire.

I haven’t bought any replacement guns after 1993, but I’m pondering whether that should change. As time went on, I changed my view on banning guns for two reasons: first, there seemed to be less likelihood of racist or fascist violence in my life; second, the senseless loss of life from guns seemed overwhelmingly more important. Right now, I think that money that could be used to replace my burned-up weapons would be better spent contributing to organizations like the NAACP and ACLU who have fought the resistance fight for the past century. But, as Trump’s election seems to have unleashed racist and fascist thugs, I am beginning to have to think anew about responding to political violence. I still think that, rather than spending my time being wary about my safety, I should keep my focus on resistance through working in organizing through the alphabet soup of Pasadena organizations such as NDLON, CICOPP, POP!, ACT, PDG, and CCEJAM. I’m still supporting gun control, but…


*The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, often pronounced “snick”) was one of the most important organizations of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.

Dale Gronemeier is a local civil rights attorney. He will be a recipient of the annual President’s Award from the Pasadena Branch of the NAACP on October 12.


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