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

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9780820326870: Pure Fire: Self-Defense as Activism in the Civil Rights Era
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Pure Fire is a history of self-defense as it was debated and practiced during the civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s. Moving beyond the realm of organized protests and demonstrations, Christopher B. Strain reframes self-defense as a daily concern for many African Americans as they faced the continual menace of white aggression. In such circumstances, deciding to defend oneself and one's family was to assert a long-denied right and, consequently, to adopt a liberating new attitude.

To grasp the subtleties of this activist approach to self-defense in the struggle for black equality, Strain says we must break down the dichotomies of the movement constructed by journalists, scholars, and even activists: a pre-1965 era versus a post-1965 era, nonviolence versus violence, integration versus segregation, Martin Luther King Jr. versus Malcolm X. These and other oversimplifications have led to a blurring of distinctions between the violence of racial animosity and the necessary force of self-defense, and to the misinterpretation of nonviolence as passivity.

Pure Fire looks anew at such familiar figures as Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, and Huey Newton, as well as issues and events including gun ownership, the Watts riot of 1965 in Los Angeles, and the rise of the Black Panther Party. It also profiles Robert F. Williams of North Carolina, Charles Sims of the Louisiana-based Deacons for Defense and Justice, and other outspoken black advocates of armed self-defense.

This provocative new study reveals how self-defense underpinned notions of personhood, black advancement, citizenship, and "Americanness," holding deep implications for civil rights, civil liberties, and human rights.

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About the Author:

CHRISTOPHER B. STRAIN is an assistant professor of history and American studies at the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College of Florida Atlantic University.

Review:

A well-researched contribution to the history of the civil rights and Black Power movements, arguing that the role of self-defense in the modern civil rights struggle has been misunderstood. Like John Dittmer, Charles Payne, Adam Fairclough, and Timothy Tyson, Christopher Strain gives attention to the local people who were the backbone of the civil rights struggle, transcending the grand narrative that focuses on national leaders and national organizations.

(Jeffrey O. G. Ogbar author of Black Power: Radical Politics and African American Identity)

Those of us who were participants in the 1960s freedom struggle will find Christopher Strain's Pure Fire a critical and significant contribution to the annals of the civil rights movement literature and history. All students of history, African American history, and civil rights history must read this important new book. Pure Fire is a valuable expansion to the historiography of the freedom struggle.

(Cleveland L. Sellers Jr. Director of African American Studies, University of South Carolina)

In Pure Fire, Christopher Strain has connected nonviolence and self-defense and the freedom struggle for the first time. Generations of students and historians will welcome his accomplishment in explaining their origins, similarities, and differences.

(Julian Bond Chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People)

Strain deserves praise for forcing historians to reconsider traditional interpretations of the Civil Rights Movement by putting self-defense at the center of the story . . . Christopher Strain has written an important study, which is likely to spur further work on this complex subject.

(Journal of African American History)

By linking armed self-defense to the broader struggle for black citizenship rights at the time, [Strain] recasts it as an end in itself, rather than merely a tactical means to other ends, like voting rights, economic opportunity, or the cessation of police brutality . . . The chief value of Pure Fire is as a synthesis of the existing, scattered literature on armed self-defense during the civil rights era . . . Strain's synthesis is a welcome addition to the literature and should find an audience among beginning and intermediate-level undergraduates as well as those new to the issue.

(Register of the Kentucky Historical Society)

The book succeeds brilliantly in its combination of intellectual, cultural, and social history . . . this is an important book on an essential history . . . many college professors will welcome these 254 pages as a useful and insightful teaching tool for courses on civil rights history.

(Journal of American History)

Strain skillfully traces the evolution of self-defense, from its antebellum incarnations to its ultimate collapse as a viable tactic by the 1970s . . . well-researched work . . . Strain has made an important contribution to civil rights historiography and our understanding of the movement's many sides.

(Arkansas Historical Quarterly)

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