top of page


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

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 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.


"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 NAACP

"Pure Fire is 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, Director of African American Studies, University of South Carolina

"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


"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."--The Journal of 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."--The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society

"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."--The Journal of African American History


Burning Faith:
Church Arson in the American South 

In the 1990s, churches across the southeastern United States were targeted and set ablaze. These arsonists predominately targeted African American congregations and captured the attention of the media nationwide. Using oral histories, newspaper accounts, and governmental reports, Christopher Strain gives a chronological account of the series of church fires.


Burning Faith considers the various forces at work, including government responses, civil rights groups, religious forces, and media coverage, in providing a thorough, comprehensive analysis of the events and their fallout. Arguing that these church fires symbolize the breakdown of communal bonds in the nation, Strain appeals for the revitalization of united Americans and the return to a sense of community.

Combining scholarly sophistication with popular readability, Strain has produced one of the first histories of the last decade and demonstrates that the increasing fragmentation of community in America runs deeper than race relations or prejudice.


"A thoroughly researched examination of events that alarmed Americans in the 1990s. Strain provides a sophisticated dissection of the many forces, people, and events at the center of what many regarded as a national crisis."--Jeffrey O. G. Ogbar, University of Connecticut

"As the first book-length look into one of the earliest and most racially and religiously explosive issues sweeping the nation in the 1990s, Burning Faith now places Christopher Strain among the pioneering historians today writing on post-Cold War America."--Devin Fergus, Vanderbilt University



Rethinking Violence in American Life

When incidents of extreme violence flare in America, all too often they are framed as isolated aberrations. Nothing could be further from the truth, as Christopher Strain argues in his new book, Reload: Rethinking Violence in American Life. The unpleasant fact, as he reveals in this highly readable study, is that American violence is inextricably woven into the fabric of our national heritage and experience. In Reload, Strain traces our modern-day conception of violence from the struggle to survive on the American frontier, through evolving gender roles in recent centuries, to the hysteria surrounding video and role-playing games and the more recent disturbing phenomenon of school shootings. Strain shapes nothing less than a profound meditation on American violence and a "primer" on understanding what can often appear to be a profoundly dangerous nation. In addition to serving as a comprehensive overview of the state of violence in America, Reload also suggests ways of combating the trends that lead to tragedy.


"One of the most valuable pieces of scholarship on the subject of violence and American culture that I have read." --David Griffith, author of A Good War Is Hard to Find


"Reload is a literate guide through the American cultural landscape. Strain offers bold suggestions for reducing lethal violence in America." --Jeffrey Goldstein, author of Why We Watch: The Attractions of Violent Entertainment

The Long Sixties

America, 1955-1973

The 1960s, a turbulent time of great change and confusion, one marked by a profound shift in values and punctuated by a profane and often ugly war, was more than just the period defined by the decade. For some it was a time of great liberation and freedom; for others it was the time during which the United States lost its way. Attempting to explain that paradox, The Long Sixties: America, 1954-1973 is a narrative history providing a concise overview of this momentous time. The text encourages readers to reconsider what they think they know about the 1960s en route to developing a deeper understanding of the many, in some cases fundamental, changes that took place in American life.


The Long Sixties provides an accessible and engaging treatment of the major political, social, and cultural developments of the period. The narrative helps students understand how particular episodes transpired in quick succession, and how topics intertwined and overlapped. Ideal as a stand-alone text, it also complements The 1960s: A Documentary Reader (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), providing narrative context and support for the primary documents provided in the sourcebook.


“Here is a textbook that lives up to the best ideals of the genre… It is not easy to synthesize such a large amount of activity in a relatively short space, but Strain has made a commendable effort. Highly readable, it is packed with punchy expressions and a healthy smattering of engaging and well-chosen historical vignettes--ideally equipped, in other words, for any undergraduate reading list… The Long Sixties certainly exposes numerous tensions that laced this a period of turbulent change, but Strain presents them in such a way that we come away with a new level of clarity and understanding of the overarching factors that work to integrate a distinct historical epoch in which the American state and its people squared up to a number of new and challenging circumstances and began to forge a new set of political, social and cultural expectations and structures, which still persist today… [T]his little book is an important reminder of the rewards which may be gained by historians when they emerge from the weeds of historical research to reflect on the big, overarching themes that stitch together distinct periods of history.” – Dr. Louisa Hotson, Oxford University, writing for Reviews in History

bottom of page