Brothers In Arms

How civil rights flowed from a rifle barrel

This is the second part of Dave Kopel's report on gun control and race in America. The first article looked at the history of gun laws during the post-Civil War period.

Do 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 blacks 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 and 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."

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.


Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.