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 possible…to 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.

The Radical Republican Congress observed the South with dismay. The Republicans intended to use federal power to force freedom on the South. One of the Radical Republicans' most important tools was the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which required states to respect basic human rights. While the vague language of the amendment has produced disagreement about exactly what is covered, the Congressional backers of the amendment seem to have intended, at the least, protecting the core freedoms listed in the national Bill of Rights. Announced Representative Clarke of Kansas: "I find in the Constitution an article which declared 'the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.' For myself, I shall insist that the reconstructed rebels of Mississippi respect the Constitution in their local laws."

The earlier Freedman's Bureau Bill had also been squarely aimed at protecting the right to bear arms. The bill guaranteed federal protection of "the full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of person and estate, including the constitutional right of bearing arms."

The Amendment was quickly emasculated by the United States Supreme Court in The Slaughter-House Cases and United States v. Cruikshank, The Supreme Court understood the social realities of the South. The Cruikshank decision gave the green light to the Klan, unofficial white militias, and other racist groups to forcibly disarm the freedmen and impose white supremacy.

One state at a time, white racists took control of government by using armed violence and the threat of violence to control balloting on election day. Freedmen and their white allies also resorted to arms. But white Republican governors were usually afraid that employing the black militias fully would set off an even broader race war.

The white South, while defeated on the battlefield in 1865, had continued armed resistance to Northern control for over a decade. When the North, an occupying power, grew weary of the struggle and abandoned its black and Republican allies in the South, the white South was again the master of its destiny.

In deference to the Fourteenth Amendment, some states did cloak their laws in neutral, non-racial terms. For example, the Tennessee legislature barred the sale of any handguns except the "Army and Navy model." The ex-Confederate soldiers already had their high quality "Army and Navy" guns. But cash-poor freedmen could barely afford lower-cost, simpler firearms not of the "Army and Navy" quality. Arkansas enacted a nearly identical law in 1881, and other Southern states followed suit, including Alabama (1893), Texas (1907), and Virginia (1925).

As Jim Crow intensified, other Southern states enacted gun registration and handgun permit laws. Registration came to Mississippi (1906), Georgia (1913), and North Carolina (1917). Handgun permits were passed in North Carolina (1917), Missouri (1919), and Arkansas (1923).

As one Florida judge explained, the licensing laws were "passed for the purpose of disarming the negro laborers… [and] never intended to be applied to the white population."

That gun control has a very unsavory past does not, in itself, prove that all modern gun control proposals are a bad idea. But it does offer reasons to be especially cautious about the dangers of disarming people who cannot necessarily count on their local government to protect them.