I was in Birmingham a few years ago, speaking with some civil-rights-movement veterans there. One of them told me that whenever Martin Luther King Jr. was in town, he helped to protect him. That’s all he said, so I asked, “How did you protect him?” And he said, “With a nonviolent .38 police special.” Everyone laughed and nodded these knowing smiles.
There’s the story of Annie “Mama Dolly” Raines, in southwest Georgia, up in the window with her shotgun protecting Charles Sherrod, the nonviolent organizer who was staying with her. She was a midwife and she told him, “I brought a lot of these white folks into this world, and I’ll take ’em out of this world if I have to.” That’s what people overlook in discussions of this period. Yes, there was tremendous oppression, brutal oppression. But there was also strength, which is part of what oppression generates. There were good grounds for fear, but that fear created a kind of toughness that wasn’t limited to the men. I can certainly testify that without the women, I might be dead.