In the wake of last week's horrific mass murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the debate over the proper scope of gun rights and gun control has focused largely on the evil deeds some individuals have done with the help of firearms. That focus is understandable in the aftermath of this terrible event. But it's important to also remember that privately-owned guns have often been a tremendous force for good in American history. For evidence of this, look no further than the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s, where the right of armed self-defense played an indispensable role in the battle against Jim Crow.
"I'm alive today because of the Second Amendment and the natural right to keep and bear arms," declared John R. Salter Jr., one of the organizers of the famous non-violent sit-ins against segregated lunch counters in Jackson, Mississippi. Writing in 1994, Salter noted that he always "traveled armed" while working as a civil rights organizer in the Deep South. "Like a martyred friend of mine, NAACP staffer Medgar W. Evers, I, too, was on many Klan death lists and I, too, traveled armed: a .38 special Smith and Wesson revolver and a 44/40 Winchester carbine," Salter wrote. "The knowledge that I had these weapons and was willing to use them kept enemies at bay."
Another prominent civil rights activist who championed the right to keep and bear arms was T.R.M. Howard of Mound Bayou, Mississippi, a surgeon and entrepreneur who was at the center of the trial and investigation into the shocking 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till. Here's how I described Howard's role in the Till case in a 2009 review of David and Linda Beito's masterful biography Black Maverick: T.R.M. Howard's Fight for Civil Rights and Economic Power:
In the aftermath of Till's murder, Howard put his considerable talents and resources to work. Recognizing that local officials had little incentive to identify or punish every member of the conspiracy that took Till's life, he spearheaded a private investigation, personally helping to locate, interview, and protect several important witnesses. He also made his large, lavishly provisioned home available to the various out-of-state observers gathering in town for the trial, including Cloyte Murdock of Ebony magazine and Rep. Charles Diggs (D-Mich.)….
In addition to bankrolling and assisting the investigation, Howard served as a sort of chief of security, escorting [Till's mother Mamie] Bradley, Diggs, and other witnesses and supporters to and from court each day in a heavily armed caravan. In fact, the Beitos write, security at Howard's residence "was so impregnable that journalists and politicians from a later era might have used the word 'compound' rather than 'home' to describe it." To put it another way, guns were stashed everywhere, including a Thompson submachine gun at the foot of Howard's bed and a pistol at his waist. Howard understood all too well the deep ties between white supremacy and gun control. The first gun control laws in American history arrived during Reconstruction, when the former Confederate states attempted to deny emancipated blacks the right to acquire property, make contracts, vote, freely assemble, and keep and bear arms.