Brothers In Arms

How civil rights flowed from a rifle barrel

(Page 3 of 4)

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 civil rights workers adequately. 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—until he was warned that if there were no police, the marchers would be armed for self-defense.

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. As the writer Julian Mayfield recalled in James Forman's book The Making of Black Revolutionaries:

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.

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