The Klan's Favorite Law

Gun control in the postwar South

If you believe everything that Michael Moore says in Bowling for Columbine and his books, then you would think that "pro-gun" people are white racists, and that "gun control" would be a wonderful way to help minorities. But a look at America's past reveals what historian Clayton Cramer has accurately called "The Racist Roots of Gun Control."

After the Civil War, the defeated Southern states aimed to preserve slavery in fact if not in law. The states enacted Black Codes which barred the black freedmen from exercising basic civil rights, including the right to bear arms. Mississippi's provision was typical: No freedman "shall keep or carry fire-arms of any kind, or any ammunition."

Under the Mississippi law, a person informing the government about illegal arms possession by a freedman was entitled to receive the forfeited firearm. Whites were forbidden to give or lend freedman firearms or knives.

The Special Report of the Anti-Slavery Conference of 1867 complained that freedmen were "forbidden to own or bear firearms and thus.rendered defenseless against assaults" by whites. Or as a letter printed in the Jan. 13, 1866 edition of Harper's Weekly observed: "The militia of this county have seized every gun found in the hands of so-called freedmen in this section of the county. They claim that the Statute Laws of Mississippi do not recognize the Negro as having any right to carry arms."

Congress' "Report of the Joint Committee on Reconstruction" set forth the factual case for the need for a 14th Amendment to protect the liberties enumerated in the federal Bill of Rights. At the Committee's hearings, General Rufus Saxon testified that all over the South, whites were "seizing all fire-arms found in the hands of the freedmen. Such conduct is in clear and direct violation of their personal rights as guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States, which declares that 'the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.'"

Despite the statutes, and at the suggestion of Reconstruction governors and other leaders, blacks often formed militias to resist white terrorism. For example, in June 1867 in Greensboro, Alabama, the police let the murderer of a black voting registrar escape; in response, a freedman who would later serve in the Alabama State Legislature urged his fellow freedmen to create a permanent militia. "Union League" militias were formed all over central Alabama.

The freedmen slipped from white control. One planter protested that his workers were "turbulent and disorderly," coming and going when they wished, as if they had a choice whether or not to work. The Union League, protested another ex-master, was advising freedmen "to ignore the Southern white man as much as set up for themselves."

The next spring, the Ku Klux Klan came to central Alabama. The Klansmen, unlike the freedmen, had horses, and thus the tactical advantages of mobility. In a few months, the Klan triumph was complete. One freedman recalled that the night riders, after reasserting white control, "took the weapons from might near all the colored people in the neighborhood."

The same dynamic existed throughout the South. Sometimes militias consisting of freedmen or Unionists were able to resist the Klan or other white forces. In places like the South Carolina back-country, where the blacks were a numerical majority, the black militias kept white terrorists at bay for long periods.

While many blacks participated in informal, local militias, most of the reconstruction governors set up official state militias that were racially integrated. Like many other facets of the reconstruction governments (and the racist governments which followed them), the integrated "black" state militias were corrupt. The state militias, which sought to protect the state governments and the election process, were frequently in conflict with informal white militias. Arms shipments from the federal government to arm the militias were often intercepted and seized by white militias.

Official or unofficial, the black militias were the primary target of the white racist resistance. "Pitchfork" Ben Tillman, the U.S. Senate advocate of racism for many decades, joined a "Sweetwater Sabre Club" whose members seized control of South Carolina's Edgefield Country from a black militia in 1874-75, and attacked a black militia at Hamburg, South Carolina in 1876.

In areas where the black militias lost and the Klan or other white groups took control, "almost universally the first thing done was to disarm the negroes and leave them defenseless," wrote Albion Tourgeé in his 1880 book The Invisible Empire. (An attorney and civil rights worker from the north, Tourgeé would later represent the civil rights plaintiff in Plessy v. Ferguson.)

The Klan's objective in disarming the blacks was to leave them unable to defend their rights, a Congressional hearing found. Afraid of race war and retribution, whites were terrified at the mere sight of a black with a gun. As legal historian Kermit Hall notes, "From the southern white's point of view, a well-armed Negro militia was precisely what John Brown had sought to achieve at Harpers Ferry in 1859."

The Vicksburg white riot of 1874 typified the problem. According to a Congressional investigation, the whites conducted, "Unauthorized searches by self-constituted authority into private homes, searches for arms converted, as is unusual, into robbery and thieving...." The Congressional Report detailed one arms roundup:

One poor old man, half crazed, but harmless, sitting quietly in a neighbor's house, is brutally shot to death in the presence of terrified women and shrieking children. He gained his wretched living by hunting and fishing, and had a shot-gun. No one pretended that Tom Bidderman had anything to do with the fight, but he was black, and had a gun in his house, and so they murdered him for amusement as they were going from the city to restore order in the country.

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