Brothers In Arms

How civil rights flowed from a rifle barrel

(Page 2 of 4)

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 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.

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