Do innocent minorities have a moral right—and even a moral duty—to resist mob violence? The history of black people in America over the past century suggests that doing so may be necessary in order to protect civil rights.
During the Jim Crow era of the late 19th and early 20th century, blacks often offered only minimal resistance to white rioters, who were often abetted by law enforcement officials. For example, In the Wilmington, North Carolina riot of 1898, a mob destroyed a black newspaper after taking offense at a newspaper opinion. Armed whites fatally shot 12 blacks. The leader of the mob was elected mayor.
In August 1900 in New York City, police joined an anti-black riot, often behaving more brutally than other rioters. The mayor, the police commissioner, and the courts covered up the officers' crimes.
The rioters in the extremely destructive East St. Louis riot of 1917 were assisted by the police and by the Illinois state militia. As historian Robert Fogelson recounts in his book Violence as Protest, the white rioters:
burned houses and, with a deliberation which shocked reporters, shot black residents as they fled the flames. They killed them as they begged for mercy and even refused to allow them to brush away flies as they lay dying. The blacks, disarmed by the police and the militia after an earlier riot and defenseless in their wooden shanties, offered little resistance.
Still, the Missouri legislature thought blacks a threat, and enacted a law requiring a permit to obtain a handgun.
In the Washington, D.C., riots of 1919, policemen refused to protect blacks from rampaging soldiers and sailors. After the rioters had been allowed several days without restraint, federal troops were finally called in suppress the riot.
When whites and blacks rioted against each other in Detroit in 1943, the police tried to “reason” with the white rioters (to little effect) and killed 17 black rioters. A report by the NAACP blamed the riot on the Detroit police's over-escalation of violence.
A 1947 report by the President's Committee on Civil Rights, assessing the contemporary problem of lynching, found that “Frequently state officials participate in the crime, actively or passively.”
Black leaders such as W.E.B. DuBois, editor of the NAACP magazine Crisis, insisted that black stop behaving like helpless victims. He wrote with disgust about black people in Gainesville, Florida, who had acted “like a set of cowardly sheep”:
Without resistance they let a white mob whom they outnumbered two to one, torture, harry and murder their women [and] shoot down innocent men…
No people can behave with the absolute cowardice shown by these colored people can hope to have the sympathy or help of civilized folk…
In the last analysis lynching of Negroes is going to stop in the South when the cowardly mob is faced by effective guns in the hands of people determined to sell their souls dearly.
A. Philip Randolph, editor of the socialist black magazine Messenger, agreed: “Always regard your own life as more important than the life of the person about to take yours, and if a choice has to be made...choose to preserve your own and destroy that of the lynching mob.”
At a protest meeting held at Carnegie Hall after the New York City riot, one of the speakers, “Miss M.R. Lyons of Brooklyn,” told the audience:
Let every negro get a permit to carry a revolver. You are not supposed to be a walking arsenal, but don't you get caught again. Have your houses made ready to afford protection from the fury of the mob, and remembering that your home is your castle and that no police officer has a right to enter it, unless he complies with the usage of the law; see that he does not.
Sometimes, as in Memphis, the mere presence of armed blacks constrained white police or mob behavior. In other cases, armed blacks were partially successful; during the 1906 Atlanta riots, according to historian John Dittmer’s Black Georgia in the Progressive Era, although blacks “were unable to offer effective resistance when trapped downtown or caught in white sections of the city, they did fight back successfully when the mobs invaded their neighborhoods.”
Other times, resistance produced heavy bloodshed on both sides. In July 1919, a black who had floated into “white” water near a Lake Michigan beach in Chicago was killed. Whites rioted, blacks fought back with rifles, and the police stood aside. Twenty-three blacks and 15 whites were killed in a week of rioting.
Michigan’s law requiring a government permit in order to buy a handgun was enacted after Dr. Ossian Sweet, a black man, shot and killed a person in a mob that was attacking his house because he had just moved into an all-white neighborhood. The Detroit police stood nearby, refusing to restrain the angry crowd.
Indicted for first degree murder, Sweet was acquitted after a lengthy trial at which Clarence Darrow served as his attorney. Black newspapers such as the Amsterdam News and the Baltimore Herald vigorously defended blacks’ right to use deadly force in self-defense against a mob.
Darrow summed up for the jury: “eleven of them go into a house, gentlemen, with no police protection, in the face of a mob, and the hatred of a community, and take guns and ammunition and fight for their rights, and for your rights and for mine, and for the rights of every being that lives. They went in and faced a mob seeking to tear them to bits. Call them something besides cowards.”
In Tulsa during and after World War I, the police worked closely with the “Knights of Liberty,” a group which wore masks and attacked blacks and union organizers. In the 1921 Tulsa riots, armed blacks protected an alleged black rapist from a lynch mob. A small white army, led by the American Legion and with the approval of the police and city government burned a one-mile square black district to the ground. As many as 200 blacks died, but about 50 whites also lost their lives in the riot.
The eminent historian John Hope Franklin wrote: “The self-confidence of Tulsa’s Negroes soared, their businesses prospered, their institutions flourished, and they simply had no fear of whites...After 1921, an altercation between a white person and a black person was not a racial incident...It was just an incident.”
After the Tulsa Riots, Herbert H. Harrison, the president of the Liberal League of Negro America, told a New York audience that more white riots were possible soon:
I advise you to be ready to defend yourselves. I notice the State Government has removed some of its restrictions upon owning firearms, and one form of life insurance for your wives and children might be the possession of some of these handy implements.
In 1936 in Gordonsville, Virginia, an elderly black man and his sister, William and Cora Wales shot a sheriff who had come to arrest the Mr. Wales on false charges of threatening a white woman. The arrest was a pretext to force the Waleses to sell their property to the town, for a cemetery expansion. An enraged crowd of 5,000 grew outside the Wales’s home. Roy Wilkins, a future head of the NAACP, reported what happened next:
There was a slight flaw in the set-up, however. The man and woman had arms and they were not afraid to shoot…The leaders of the five thousand…had numbers. They had machine guns. They had sulphur bombs. They had tear gas bombs. But the two in the house had rifles, shotguns, and perhaps a pistol or two. Not so good. Not half as good as one lone Negro with nothing but his bare hands…
The mob sent a request that the United States Marine Corps send some men from Quantico to take care of the Waleses. The Marines refused.
After night fell, the crowd threw a torch on the house, and shot the Wales as they were silhouetted against the fire. After the fire had cooled, souvenir hunters hacked the Waleses’ bodies into tiny pieces. Wilkins defended the Waleses for standing up to the system after a lifetime of humiliating oppression.
In the 1950s and 1960s, a new civil rights movement began in the South. White supremacist tactics were just as violent as they had been during Reconstruction. Over 100 civil rights workers were murdered during that era, and the Department of Justice refused to prosecute the Klan or to protect adequately civil rights workers. Help from the local police was out of the question; Klan dues were sometimes collected at the local station.
Blacks and civil rights workers armed for self-defense. Daisy Bates, the leader of the Arkansas NAACP and publisher of the Arkansas State Press during the Little Rock High School desegregation case, recalls that three crosses were burned on her lawn and gunshots fired into her home. Her husband, L. C. Bates, stayed up to guard their house with a .45 semi-automatic pistol. Some of their friends organized a volunteer patrol.
After the Bates’s front lawn was bombed, Mrs. Bates telegrammed Attorney General Herbert Brownell in Washington. He replied that there was no federal jurisdiction, and told them to go to the local police. “Of course that wasn't going to protect us,” Mrs. Bates remembered.
State or federal assistance sometimes did come—not when disorder began, but when blacks reacted by arming themselves. In North Carolina, Governor Terry Sanford (who later served as an anti-gun U.S. Senator) refused to command state police to protect a civil rights march from Klan attacks. When Governor Sanford was warned that if there were no police, the marchers would be armed for self-defense, the governor provided police protection.
Based in local churches, the Deacons for Defense and Justice set up armed patrol car systems in cities such as Bogalusa and Jonesboro, Louisiana, and within their spheres of operations succeeded in deterring Klan and other attacks on civil rights workers and black residents. Of civil rights workers killed in the South, almost none were armed.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a self-described “Second Amendment absolutist,” grew up in segregated Birmingham, Alabama, where her father, a Presbyterian minister, was a community leader in the civil rights struggles. According to a Nov. 17, 2004, article in the Montgomery Advertiser:
During the bombings of the summer of 1963, her father and other neighborhood men guarded the streets at night to keep white vigilantes at bay. Rice said her staunch defense of gun rights comes from those days. She has argued that if the guns her father and neighbors carried had been registered, they could have been confiscated by the authorities, leaving the black community defenseless.
Reverend John Wesley Rice never crossed the dividing line between self-defense and aggression. One man who did, though, was Robert Williams, President of the Monroe, North Carolina, NAACP. In the mid-1950s, Williams began leading demonstrations against the city’s whites-only policy at the city swimming pool. Ku Klux Klan death threats came by telephone. Thousands of people gathered at Klan rallies to denounce both Williams and Dr. Albert Perry, another Monroe civil rights advocate. Williams responded by chartering an official NRA gun club, and using it to teach black people how to defend themselves.
Civil rights volunteers, in groups of 50 a night, took turns standing guard at Albert Perry's house. They dug foxholes, piled up sandbags, and kept steel helmets and gas masks handy. They also stockpiled over 600 firearms.
On the night of October 5, 1957, a Klan motorcade approached the Perry house. The civil rights workers opened fire, having been told not to shoot unless necessary:
The fire was blistering, disciplined and frightening. The motorcade of about eighty cars, which had begun in a spirit of good fellowship, disintegrated into chaos, with panicky, robed men fleeing in every direction. Some had to abandon their automobiles and continue on foot.
Two years later, Williams began to advocate more than mere resistance to white attacks. On the steps of a courthouse, following trials in which two white men were acquitted of allegedly attacking black women, Williams called for black lynching of white criminals: “if it’s necessary to stop lynching with lynching, then we must be willing to resort to that method.”
Williams was suspended from the NAACP. He appealed to the NAACP’s National Convention. The NAACP convention delegates upheld the suspension, and adopted a Resolution observing that Williams “suggested violence as a means of redress of wrongs and not in self-defense or rights of person and property.”
The Convention also adopted a Preamble to the Resolutions Committee report, stating: “we do not deny but reaffirm the right of individual and collective self-defense against unlawful assaults. The NAACP has consistently over the years supported this right by defending those who have exercised the right of self defense…”
Daisy Bates, the Little Rock civil rights leader whose family was armed for self-defense with a Colt .45, spoke in favor of the suspension. The resolution suspending Williams and the addition of the Preamble language about self-defense were both adopted unanimously by the Convention. However, the delegates were voting according to the “unit rule,” whereby the delegates from a given region would cast their votes in accordance with the preference of the majority of the delegates within that region. Press reports suggested that there had been 17 votes (out of 781) against condemning Williams, although, pursuant to the unit rule, the official tally was unanimous. There was no suggestion that any of the delegates had voted against the self-defense language in the Preamble.
Also speaking in favor of the suspension resolution had been Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. King predicted that mass non-violent actions—boycotts, marches, sit-ins, and the like—would liberate blacks, and “retaliatory violence” would not. At the same time, King distinguished Williams’ call for lynchings from violence “exercised in self-defense.” King described the latter type of violence “as moral and legal” in all societies, and noted that not even Gandhi condemned it.