Prior to this summer, you would have had to explore the darkest corners of the gun rights movement to find anyone openly exclaiming that “gun control is racist.” This assertion—and the corollary allegation that the civil rights movement succeeded not because of disciplined nonviolence, but because African Americans were willing to take up arms against their oppressors—emanated mostly from obscure right-wing and libertarian websites like LizMichael.com or The Campaign for Liberty. The most-cited proponent was Clayton Cramer, a software engineer with a not-so-subtle agenda (that paved the way for Rand Paul), who has written that: “Racism is so intimately tied to the history of gun control in America that we should…require that the courts use the same demanding standards when reviewing the constitutionality of a gun control law, that they would use with respect to a law that discriminated based on race.”
“The Only Black”
In the wake of the Supreme Court’s recent 5-4 ruling in McDonald v. Chicago, however, the “gun control is racist” argument is all the rage. The June 28 decision overturned Chicago’s longstanding handgun ban and ruled that the Second Amendment applies to the states. The lead plaintiff in the case, Otis McDonald, is a 76 year-old African-American who wants a handgun for self-defense. “I would like to have a handgun so I could keep it right by my bed, just in case somebody might want to come in my house,” McDonald explained. The problem is that criminals never visit McDonald when he is home—loaded shotguns have been stolen from his home on multiple occasions while he was away. McDonald might have bought those shotguns to protect himself and his family, but they ended up on the street in criminal hands and might have been used to intimidate, injure or kill innocent people.
McDonald has long been a gun rights activist in Illinois, traveling to rallies in Springfield, Illinois, where he was “probably the only black person.” When attorney Alan Gura selected him as the lead plaintiff in the case, he inquired, “Why would you name [the case] after me? Is it just because I’m the only black [plaintiff]?”
Nonetheless, Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority in McDonald, imagined many other African-Americans in our nation’s history standing with the aged pro-gunner. Specifically, Alito concluded that Reconstruction-era efforts designed to grant equal citizenship to black Americans were equally as much about gun rights as they were about civil rights. He found a general right to bear arms within the “Freedmen’s Bureau Act of 1866,” a law that guaranteed blacks property ownership rights they were denied as slaves and created a federal agency to secure housing, establish schools, and litigate discriminatory policies for freedmen. Alito also reasoned that the Fourteenth Amendment contemplated guns rights because the amendment was based on the “Civil Rights Act of 1866,” which used some of the same language as the “Freedmen’s Bureau Act” (but which Alito himself admits did not specifically mention any right to keep and bear arms). Citing Congressional debate over the Fourteenth Amendment, Alito made reference to the following remark by Republican Senator Samuel Pomeroy from Kansas:
Every man….should have the right to bear arms for the defense of himself and family and his homestead. And if the cabin door of the freedman is broken open and the intruder enters for purposes as vile as were known to slavery, then should a well-loaded musket be in the hand of the occupant to send the polluted wretch to another world, where his wretchedness will forever remain complete.
Justice Clarence Thomas, who wrote his own concurring opinion, noted that blacks were disarmed by state legislatures and denied protection from white mobs:
The use of firearms for self-defense was often the only way black citizens could protect themselves from mob violence. As Eli Cooper, one target of such violence, is said to have explained, ‘[t]he Negro has been run over for 50 years, but it must stop now, and pistols and shotguns are the only weapons to stop a mob.’
Almost as soon as the McDonald ruling was issued, articles began to appear in popular conservative periodicals declaring gun control to be “racist.”
The McDonald decision is really a victory for and about black Americans … America’s gun-control laws owe their genesis to the post-Civil War era, when white southerners moved to disarm freed slaves. The former Confederate states’ successful efforts to restrict gun ownership had disastrous long-term consequences for black Americans’ life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.
Rittgers stated that:
Racism created gun control in America. Confronted with the prospect of armed freedmen who could stand up for their rights, states across the South instituted gun-control regimes that took away the ability of blacks to defend themselves against the depravity of the Klan.
Even moderate African-American commentators Clarence Page and Courtland Milloy jumped on the bandwagon. Page commented:
Armed self-defense is a long-running theme in black American history. As recently as the 1960s, the Deacons for Defense and Justice were a popular, powerful self-defense group in the last days of Jim Crow segregation. Yet news media paid more attention to the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his nonviolent side of the civil rights movement.
Milloy, suggesting that many blacks view Justice Thomas as an “Uncle Tom,” nonetheless praised him for “a scorcher of an opinion that reads like a mix of black history lesson and Black Panther Party manifesto.” “[Black people] might not agree with his conclusion, but there’ll be no mistake about where he’s coming from,” he concluded.
Back to the Beginning
Forget for a moment that the two propositions examined in this article seem to be contradictory (i.e., If gun control laws had targeted blacks for disarmament, how would they have been able to successfully engage in armed resistance against White terrorists during Reconstruction and the civil rights movement?) and let’s evaluate them separately.
For starters, the “gun control is racist” argument, working from the McDonald decision, makes the assumption that there was no gun control before the Reconstruction period. Nothing could be further from the truth. As Justice John Paul Stevens noted in his dissent in McDonald:
From the early days of the Republic, through the Reconstruction era, to the present day, States and municipalities have placed extensive licensing requirements on firearm acquisition, restricted the public carriage of weapons, and banned altogether the possession of especially dangerous weapons, including handguns … After the 1860’s just as before, the state courts almost uniformly upheld these measures.
These laws were enacted to provide for the public’s safety, not to discriminate against any particular minority, and were enforced uniformly against all state residents.
Additionally, regarding the argument that the 14th Amendment was somehow focused on gun rights, Stevens was not persuaded:
Consider, for example, that the text of the Fourteenth Amendment says nothing about the Second Amendment or firearms; that there is substantial evidence to suggest that, when the Reconstruction Congress enacted measures to ensure newly freed slaves and Union sympathizers in the South enjoyed the right to possess firearms, it was motivated by antidiscrimination and equality concerns rather than arms-bearing concerns per se … Apart from making clear that all regulations had to be constructed and applied in a nondiscriminatory manner, the Fourteenth Amendment hardly made a dent.
This is not to say that there were not discriminatory gun control laws at this time—and other times—in our history that specifically targeted blacks. But the fact is that for most of our 234 years, the entire U.S. legal system has been arrayed against blacks. Using gun rights activists’ weak logic, one could claim that virtually any type of law has racist origins: property laws, marriage laws, tort laws, contract laws, etc., etc. Just because there was once racial inequity in certain, long-abolished laws, however, does not mean we should abandon all efforts at government regulation.
Rebellion and Retribution
Did lack of access to firearms play a unique role in preventing blacks from vindicating their rights prior to the civil rights movement? That seems to be the obvious inference of statements like, “The former Confederate states’ successful efforts to restrict gun ownership had disastrous long-term consequences for black Americans’ life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.”
The problem is that history is replete with examples of African-American communities being severely punished and repressed after they did take up arms against white terrorists. Take, for example, the admission by David Rittgers:
Confronted with the prospect of armed freedmen who could stand up for their rights, states across the South instituted gun-control regimes that took away the ability of blacks to defend themselves against the depravity of the Klan.
Then there are Eli Cooper and Nat Turner, two African-Americans cited by Justice Thomas in his opinion in McDonald. Thomas cites the remark that Cooper is alleged to have made in Georgia in 1919: “[The] Negro has been run over for 50 years, but it must stop now, and pistols and shotguns are the only weapons to stop a mob.” What he doesn’t tell us is that this statement was apparently the provocation that caused 20 white men to attack Cooper in his home with axes and knives. Nor does Thomas explain how a firearm would have preserved Cooper’s life in such a situation. Finally, the same newspaper article cited by Thomas that mentions Cooper also tells the story of Berry Washington, a black man who was lynched in the same town as Cooper mere months earlier. Washington took up arms against a White terrorist, shooting and killing a man who was about to rape his 16-year-old daughter. After surrendering to the local sheriff, Washington was pulled out of jail by a mob and lynched.
Thomas also refers to Nat Turner, a Virginian slave and preacher who staged a rebellion to seek God’s judgment against the institution of slavery. The revolt began on the night of August 13, 1831, when Turner and six of his followers went from house to house killing slave owners and their families with a hatchet and a broad axe. At each house, the rebels freed any slaves they encountered and stocked up on more weapons. Eventually, his force numbered 60 men—all armed with guns, axes, swords and clubs. The revolt lasted nearly 10 days and 57 whites were killed before the group was pushed back by militia and federal forces. Although Turner escaped, he was caught two months later, immediately convicted, and hanged.
In Virginia, the retribution was brutal:
A reign of terror followed in Virginia. Labor was paralyzed, plantations abandoned, women and children were driven from home and crowded into nooks and corners. The sufferings of many of these refugees who spent night after night in the woods were intense. Retaliation began. In a little more than one day 120 Negroes were killed … One individual boasted that he himself had killed between ten and fifteen Negroes … Negroes were tortured to death, burned, maimed and subjected to nameless atrocities.
Thomas himself tells us the broader consequences of Turner’s exercise of “Second Amendment rights”: “The fear generated by these and other rebellions led southern legislatures to take particularly vicious aim at the rights of free blacks and slaves to speak or to keep and bear arms for their defense.”
The Colfax Massacre is another tragedy frequently cited by the majority in McDonald. Colfax actually began as a civil rights success story. During the Reconstruction period, African-Americans in the small Louisiana town elected officeholders, held important public positions, and even organized a state militia company led by a black man, William Ward. Eventually, however, their unit was demobilized after moving too aggressively to arrest white terrorists. A withdrawal of federal government support set the stage for the massacre on April 13, 1873, when between 62-81 African Americans—more than half of them armed with firearms—were slaughtered by a larger, better-equipped force of whites.
As my boss, CSGV Executive Director Josh Horwitz, and Casey Anderson put it, according to gun rights activists:
…the collapse of Reconstruction—and every tragic consequence that followed—could have been avoided if the newly freed slaves had had access to firearms. This explanation of events is a fantasy. It is easy…to identify incidents where the victim of racist violence might have defended themselves more effectively if they had been armed with guns. The idea that white racists could have been kept in check by ensuring widespread access to firearms among black southerners, however, is absurd. In fact, the American experience during and after Reconstruction illustrates that the…premise…that private ownership of guns safeguards individual rights against tyranny of the majority is exactly backward in explaining the relationship between private force and state power in protecting individual rights … Not only is the claim that gun rights could have stopped the Jim Crow system a falsehood, but it covers up the even more important insight that [this argument] is a continuation of a concerted effort, born and nurtured in the antebellum South, to limit the federal government’s effectiveness in protecting the democratic rights of the most vulnerable Americans.
I can’t help but think of Lifetime National Rifle Association (NRA) Member Rand Paul advocating for the repeal of a section of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and stating that gun carriers should be a protected class like minorities. Nor could “Reclaim the Dream” rally organizer Rev. Al Sharpton when he recently referred to Paul while noting that King’s life work was conducted “for the precise purpose of pushing for increased federal action and involvement to nullify all discriminatory state and local practices.”
It is clear that armed resistance—while often noble and heroic—did little to vindicate the rights of African Americans during and immediately after Reconstruction. Is there any evidence it was more effective in the 20th century when the civil rights movement became a national cause?
The leading proponent of the “armed resistance won the civil rights movement” idea is Dr. Lance Hill, the Executive Director of the Southern Institute for Education and Research at Tulane University and the author of The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement. In his book, Hill gives primacy to the role of the Deacons for Defense and Justice, a group that wielded guns against white terrorists and provided armed guards for nonviolent protests in certain local communities in the South from 1964-1968. Hill’s central thesis is that:
Nonviolence unquestionably defined the black freedom movement from 1954-1963 … But by the end of 1962 Martin Luther King and the more militant nonviolent organizations had fallen victim to state repression and terrorism. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), [Congress of Racial Equality] CORE, and Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) had all failed to secure local reform, voting rights, or protective federal legislation … [The Deacons’] willingness to retaliate against Klan violence ultimately forced the federal government to enforce the Civil Rights Act and the Bill of Rights, assert federal supremacy, and destroy two major pillars of white supremacy—local police repression and Klan terror.
The problems with Hill’s argument are obvious. The Deacons were (and remain) a little-known group that had no discernible impact on the national civil rights movement. The group did not even form until the summer of 1964 in Jonesboro, Louisiana. This was after Brown v. Board of Education; after Rosa Parks refused to leave her seat on a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama; after federal troops integrated Little Rock High School; after student sit-ins were initiated at lunch counters across the Deep South; after the “Freedom Riders” boarded buses to test desegregation laws; after the University of Mississippi was integrated; after a national television audience watched “Bull” Connor turn fire hoses and police dogs on demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama; after more than 200,000 attended the historic March on Washington; after the 24th Amendment abolished the poll tax; and just as President Johnson was signing the Civil Rights Act into law with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. looking on.
It is difficult to find any historians outside of Hill who view the Deacons or other armed groups as the engine behind the great achievements of the Civil Rights Movement. Howard Zinn, in A People’s History of the United States, concluded, “King’s stress on love and nonviolence was powerfully effective in building a sympathetic following throughout the nation, among whites as well as blacks.” Peter B. Levy, author of The Civil Rights Movement, wrote:
For many Americans, the image of Connor’s German shepherd dogs biting at the limbs of peaceful protestors became a symbol of the viciousness and ugliness of the southern way of life. Polls showed an outpouring of support for King; letters and telegrams poured into the White House expressing support for the goals of the movement… It took the assassination of John F. Kennedy, brutal assaults against nonviolent protesters in Birmingham, Selma, and elsewhere, and a massive lobbying effort to gain passage of [the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act].
Journalist/author Charles Lane, reflecting back on the Colfax Massacre, wrote, “The revolutionary new ingredient was nonviolence. The dignified resistance of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legions succeeded where William Ward and P.B.S. Pinchback had failed.”
King understood that white supremacists were the only winners when blacks resorted to violence. “The plain, inexorable fact was that any attempt of the American Negro to overthrow his oppressor with violence would not work,” he said. “The courageous efforts of our own insurrectionist brothers, such as Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner, should be eternal reminders to us that violent rebellion is doomed from the start. Anyone leading a violent rebellion must be willing to make an honest assessment regarding the possible casualties to a minority population confronting a well-armed wealthy majority with a fanatical right wing that would delight in exterminating thousands of black men, women, and children.” “And when it was all over,” King noted, “the Negro would face the same unchanged conditions, the same squalor and deprivation.”
From his jail cell in Birmingham, King laid out his belief that, “There is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest.” Why did nonviolent protest succeed where armed rebellion had failed? “The social tool of nonviolent resistance…was effective in that it had a way of disarming the opponent,” King wrote. “It exposed his moral defenses. It weakened his morale, and at the same time it worked on his conscience. It also provided a method for Negroes to struggle to secure moral ends through moral means… The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, so that when the battle is over, a new relationship comes into being between the oppressed and the oppressor.”
Even after his home was bombed in Montgomery, King told blacks: “Don’t get your weapons. He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword. Remember that is what God said. We are not advocating violence. We want to love our enemies. I want you to love our enemies. Be good to them. Love them and let them know you love them.”
King could see that there was only one path to freedom for African-Americans:
We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.
The millions of African-Americans who engaged in nonviolent action to obtain their rights as democratic citizens during the civil rights movement rose to such “majestic heights” time and time again.
The Target Audience
In a Pew poll taken last year, an overwhelming majority of blacks, 72%, said it was more important to control gun ownership than to protect the right to own guns. Only 20% said that protecting the right to own guns was more important.
There’s a good reason why few African-Americans associate guns with “freedom” and “liberty.” The national U.S. homicide rate is 5.3 per 100,000 people. Among blacks, it’s 20.9 per 100,000. That’s four times the national rate and seven times the white rate. In 82% of black-victim homicides in which the fatal weapon can be identified, it’s a gun. And 73% of those gun deaths are inflicted by handguns.
Charles Lane has said that, “Firearms pose threats to modern-day urban dwellers—crime, suicide, accidents—that may outweigh any self-defense they provide. Unlike 19th-century rural Americans, we can call on professional police.”
Otis McDonald might not agree, but certainly other African-Americans in his community do. Annette Holt, whose 16 year-old son was shot and killed on a Chicago school bus while shielding a fellow student from harm, called the McDonald v. Chicago decision “a slap in the face to all of us who have lost children to gun violence.”
Then there is the Chicago City Council, which voted unanimously to approve the city’s strict, post-McDonald gun laws. Robert Farago was blunt in his assessment: “Not to put too fine a point on it, Chicago’s new handgun-licensing laws are inherently racist.” NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre ranted about “defiant city councils” that seek to “nullify” McDonald with regulations that are akin to “the poll tax or the literacy test.” Both men failed to mention that 20 out of the Chicago City Council’s 50 members are African-American.
One has to wonder if the tragic irony of the McDonald decision was lost on the Supreme Court’s conservative majority and pro-gun activists. “[The Second Amendment] now is being used to help protect a black Chicago man from local gangbangers,” Clarence Page wrote. Those gangbangers aren’t white terrorists from days gone by. In many cases, they’re black kids with sophisticated weaponry courtesy of a deliberate marketing effort by firearm manufacturers. The Bureau of Justice Statistics has reported that, between 1976 and 2005, 94% of black homicide victims were killed by blacks.
I Know You Are, But What Am I?
Could gun rights activists’ attempts to paint those who advocate for gun control as racist be the result of a guilty conscience? Gun lobby leaders are certainly no strangers to questionable comments about race.
In 1990, NRA Board Member Ted Nugent told the Detroit Free Press magazine that:
…apartheid isn’t that cut and dry. All men are not created equal. The preponderance of South Africa is a different breed of man. I mean that with no disrespect. I say that with great respect. I love them because I’m one of them. They are still people of the earth, but they are different. They still put bones in their noses, they still walk around naked, they wipe their butts with their hands … These are different people. You give ‘em toothpaste, they f***ing eat it.
One year later, another NRA Board Member, Jeff Cooper, commented on gun homicides in Los Angeles in Guns & Ammo magazine:
The consensus is that no more than five to ten people in a hundred who die by gunfire in Los Angeles are any loss to society. These people fight small wars amongst themselves. It would seem a valid social service to keep them well supplied with ammunition.
NRA Director of Research Paul Blackman agreed with Cooper, writing that since young homicide victims “are frequently criminals themselves and/or drug abusers,” their deaths offer “net gains” to society.
In December 1997, former NRA President Charlton Heston made the following remarks at a Free Congress Foundation event:
Why is ‘Hispanic pride’ or ‘black pride’ a good thing, while ‘white pride’ conjures up shaved heads and white hoods? Why was the Million Man March on Washington celebrated in the media as progress, while the Promise Keepers March on Washington was greeted with suspicion and ridicule? I’ll tell you why: cultural warfare … Mainstream America is depending on you, counting on you to draw your sword and fight for them. These people have precious little time or resources to battle misguided Cinderella attitudes, the fringe propaganda of the homosexual coalition, the feminists who preach that it’s a divine duty for women to hate men, blacks who raise a militant fist with one hand while they seek preference with the other.
Then there was the bizarre, insulting 2003 editorial by Gun Owners of America Executive Director Larry Pratt, entitled, “Why Blacks Tend to Support Gun Control.” “Hatred is the ‘glue’ that has been used by many black leaders—preachers and politicians alike—to keep blacks on the plantation,” wrote Pratt. “Not surprisingly, one of the elements of the liberal worldview supported by many blacks is opposition to self-defense. Indeed, most black politicians are gun-bashing anti-Second Amendment zealots … Dependence on the state for food and shelter includes depending on the state for protection. That the state provides none of these things well has not shaken the firmly held commitment to restricting firearms. Regarding the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), [Rev. Lee] Peterson says this: ‘These are radical socialists who have little respect for individual responsibility or the Second Amendment.’”
Finally, you have to wonder how African-Americans feel when they hear a gun extremist like Philip Van Cleave of the Virginia Citizens Defense League describing efforts to legalize the carrying of guns in bars by saying, “We tried to throw off the bonds that have tied down gun owners unconstitutionally for years.”
A Familiar Tune
In today’s political climate, not even progressive African-Americans are immune from the “racist” charge, whether it’s Glenn Beck claiming that President Obama has a “deep-seated hatred for white people” or Andrew Breitbart creating an alternate history where USDA employee Shirley Sherrod refuses to help white farmers.
Ultimately, there is nothing racist about efforts to reduce the annual toll of 30,000+ gun deaths in America. In 1963, Dr. King expressed great concern about “our readiness to allow arms to be purchased at will and fired at whim.” He also decried a popular culture which taught children “that the hero is one who masters the art of shooting and the technique of killing.” Those concerns remain equally valid today, nearly half a century later.
Recent criticisms calling the founder of nonviolent theory a Cold Warrior are way off the mark. To rightly evaluate him, we need to understand the role he chose for himself.
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