Gun Rights

Why Civil Rights and Gun Rights Are Inseparable

A riveting new book restores "the black tradition of arms" to its proper place in American history.


Negroes and the Gun: The Black Tradition of Arms, by Nicholas Johnson, Prometheus Books, 379 pages, $19.95

In January 1960, Martin Luther King Jr., the rising star of the civil rights movement, and Robert Williams, president of the Monroe, North Carolina, branch of the NAACP, conducted an extraordinary public debate over the permissible use of violence on behalf of racial equality.

Williams was the instigator. In 1959, responding in fury to the sham acquittal of a white man who had raped a pregnant black woman, Williams declared, "Since the federal government will not bring a halt to lynching in the South, and since the so-called courts lynch our people legally, if it's necessary to stop lynching with lynching, then we must be willing to resort to that method."

One day later, after receiving a distraught phone call from NAACP Executive Secretary Roy Wilkins, who worried about the blowback from Williams' incendiary rhetoric, the North Carolina activist offered a modification. "Negroes have to defend themselves on the spot when they are attacked," Williams said.

Those comments led Williams and King to debate the use of violence. That King, a well-known proponent of nonviolent measures, took issue with Williams' apparent call for bloody justice is perhaps unsurprising. Then as now, King was widely regarded as a man of peace.

Yet as Fordham law professor Nicholas Johnson explains in his riveting new book Negroes and the Gun: The Black Tradition of Arms, Martin Luther King, just like virtually every other civil rights activist at the time (and earlier), readily distinguished between what King called "violence as a tool of advancement," and "violence exercised merely in self-defense." The former, King argued, had no place in the freedom movement. But the latter, he added, was of course perfectly legitimate.

"The principle of self-defense, even involving weapons and bloodshed, has never been condemned, even by Gandhi," King argued in his debate with Williams. "When the Negro uses force in self-defense, he does not forfeit support—he may even win it, by the courage and self-respect he shows."

King had no quarrel with black Americans keeping and bearing arms strictly in self-defense. In fact, King himself once applied for a permit to keep a concealed gun in his car in response to the many death threats he had received, though bigoted local officials denied him the permit on the arbitrary (and preposterous) ground that King lacked "good cause" to keep a gun at the ready.

Nor was King alone in that regard. As Negroes and the Gun makes clear, a vast number of nonviolent civil rights activists either carried arms themselves or were surrounded by others who did, including Rosa Parks, who described her dinner table "covered with guns" at a typical strategy session in her home, and Daisy Bates, "the first lady of Little Rock," who played a pivotal role in the famous battle to integrate her city's Central High School. Thurgood Marshall, who stayed with Bates in 1957 while litigating the Central High case, called her residence "an armed camp." Bates herself packed a .45 automatic pistol.

Indeed, from the time of Frederick Douglass, who called a "good revolver" the "true remedy for the Fugitive Slave Bill," to that of civil rights icon Fannie Lou Hamer, who braved the worst of 20th century Jim Crow and declared, "I keep a shotgun in every corner of my bedroom," armed self-defense has always gone hand in hand with the fight for racial equality in America.

"The black tradition of arms has been submerged because it seems hard to reconcile with the dominant narrative of nonviolence in the modern civil-rights movement," Johnson writes. But as he documents in this eloquent and impressively researched book, that submersion has turned the true story of the civil rights movement on its head.

The true story, Johnson reveals, is one of "church folk, merchants, and strivers, the very best folk in the community, armed and committed to the principle of individual self-defense." Yes, those folks adopted nonviolent tactics in their now-storied campaigns for justice and equality, such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Mississippi Freedom Summer; but they never once doubted their basic right to use guns if that's what it took to keep themselves, their families, and their communities safe from harm. At night, after the voter registration drives were over and the protest marches had broken up, those guns helped keep marauding terrorists at bay.

Take the case of Dr. Ossian Sweet. Born into poverty in rural Florida in 1895, Sweet earned a medical degree at Howard University and eventually settled down to practice his trade at Dunbar Memorial Hospital in Detroit. In 1925, he and his wife Gladys purchased a home in an all-white section of the city.

It was a bold move, and the Sweets knew it. The Ku Klux Klan was heavily active in the Motor City at that time, and the homes of several black families attempting to similarly integrate white neighborhoods had been firebombed. But Dr. Sweet was undeterred. "We're not going to look for any trouble," he informed one of his friends, "but we're going to be prepared to protect ourselves if trouble arises."

Trouble arose. On the family's second night in their new home, a mob of several hundred whites gathered across the street, hurling racial epithets. In time, rocks and bricks began flying as well, shattering the Sweets' windows.

But as promised, Sweet was prepared. Among the items in his possession were a dozen handguns and rifles, which he distributed to his brothers and several other friends who were there to help him stand watch. Before the mob could advance further, two shots rang out in defense from the house, one with fatal results.

State officials ultimately charged Dr. Sweet and 10 others with first-degree murder. Unsurprisingly, most black Americans took a different view of the matter. "If it is true that Dr. Sweet fired into the crowd of whites to keep them from rushing his home," declared the Chicago Defender, America's leading black newspaper, "he was certainly within his rights and should be supported by every law-abiding citizen in Detroit."

At the same time, the young NAACP sprang into action, raising more than $75,000 to cover the legal defense, which included retaining the services of star lawyer Clarence Darrow. That money, Johnson reports, was enough "to pay for Sweet's defense, with surplus left to seed the long-discussed and soon-legendary NAACP Legal Defense Fund." In the end, Sweet was given a mistrial.

Today, when we talk about guns, we're likely to debate the social costs: guns used to commit violent crimes, guns used to commit suicide, and so forth. And make no mistake; those costs are very real. But as Negroes and the Gun plainly establishes, privately owned guns have also played a profoundly moral and beneficial role in our society. In the words of one civil rights activist, "I'm alive today because of the Second Amendment and the natural right to keep and bear arms."

That role also deserves our attention when we talk about guns. With Negroes and the Gun, Nicholas Johnson has restored this vital component of the civil rights story to its proper place at the fore.

NEXT: Windsor Mann on Feel-Good Politics

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  1. Don’t forget Justice Taney’s parade-of-horribles passage about why it would be wrong to recognize blacks as citizens: they would have among other things “the right…to keep and carry arms wherever they went”…../15sup.htm

    1. I remember bringing Dred Scott up as a great example of some of the rights of the American citizen. Because Taney explicitly listed all the things that Scott would be allowed to do if he were a citizen.

      the right to enter every other State whenever they pleased, singly or in companies, without pass or passport, and without obstruction, to sojourn there as long as they pleased, to go where they pleased at every hour of the day or night without molestation, unless they committed some violation of law for which a white man would be punished; and it would give them the full liberty of speech in public and in private upon all subjects upon which its own citizens might speak; to hold public meetings upon political affairs, and to keep and carry arms wherever they went.

      Those are things free men may do, but slaves may not. If you cannot keep and bear arms, then you are not free.

      1. Start working at home with Google. It’s a great work at home opportunity. Just work for few hours. I earn up to $500 a week. I can’t believe how easy it was once I tried it out.

    2. Huh, that’s exactly the same page out of Bloomberg’s playbook.

    3. True, Taney was a total states rights guy. The right would love him today. It is always so amusing when conservatives try to claim MLK as an ideological companion. Cynical propaganda that would make Goebells proud. Oh, and by the way you are not fooling African Americans with that crap. We have become extremely adept at recognizing bullshit.

      1. They why did they vote for 0bama?

  2. though bigoted local officials denied him the permit on the arbitrary (and preposterous) ground that King lacked “good cause” to keep a gun at the ready.

    That’s what the left calls common sense gun control, by the way. The technical term is a “may-issue” permit. Or as I call it: subordinating your rights to the whim of a politician and/or bureaucrat. So when a lefty says CCW permits should be restricted to only those the government approves of, that’s what they’re advocating for.

  3. the right to enter every other State whenever they pleased, singly or in companies, without pass or passport, and without obstruction, to sojourn there as long as they pleased, to go where they pleased at every hour of the day or night without molestation, unless they committed some violation of law for which a white man would be punished; and it would give them the full liberty of speech in public and in private upon all subjects upon which its own citizens might speak; to hold public meetings upon political affairs, and to keep and carry arms wherever they went.

    It’s like a progressive’s worst nightmare.


  4. Sometimes man you jsut have to roll with it.

  5. my co-worker’s step-mother makes $63 /hour on the computer . She has been without a job for eight months but last month her payment was $19211 just working on the computer for a few hours. try this site……

  6. I am about 2/3 through this book, and while many parts of it are riveting and it has a zillion footnotes so it must be well-researched, it leaves me disappointed. The bulk of it is individual anecdotes, sometimes from several sources, including KKK-skeptics. Each chapter represents a different era. What makes it so frustrating is that it really is 90% individual instances, each making you angrier and angrier, and yet the non-anecdotal text holding each chapter together doesn’t really lay out anything cohesive. It really feels like just a bunch of anecdotes, interspersed with a few tidbits of history, a few quotes, and a few philosophical questions, almost more as a break in the stream of angrifying anecdotes rather than being the real meat of the matter.

    The history tidbits do inform the reader to some extent, it’s not all just empty filler. But as much as it’s a good read, I have to set it down every few pages just to relieve the constant nut-punches, and part of me reads picking it up again even while I do because it is a good read.

    And I have no constructive criticism on how it could have been done differently.

    1. That sounds like it was written to persuade the average progressive to abandon banning guns since they fly under the banner of “fewer facts, more emotion” – particularly when the emotion is on the side of a minority.

    2. Actually, it sounds like it started with an opinion, then dug up “facts” to support the argument.

      I will read it though. But I assume that I have run across many of the anecdotes in other reading.

      The Big Picture is that Woe be it to any Black who ever Used Firearms to Assert their Freedoms against Authority.

      As far as personal protection and/or food gathering, that could be another story. I actually trust black folks with gun (non-urban) more than I trust whites.

      Based on those idiots out there at the Ranch and the machine-gun brandishing David Koresh followers, etc.- whites seem to lose a lot of IQ points once they are armed. Or, maybe they lost the IQ points beforehand.

      As one study showed, white gun ownership correlates with their views on race – the more bigoted, the larger the gun collection.

      In any case, I suspect most informed folks are in general agreement with the topic – that the availability of “force levelers” could help in certain situations. However, history is muddier than that – and, as noted in other posts, he with the MOST guns…as well as those who hold the reins of power (sheriff, etc.) win. And, throughout history, that is/was not the black folk.

      1. “I actually trust black folks with gun (non-urban) more than I trust whites.”

        You sort of sound like one of the “top men” that the commenters keep referring to.

        1. “Nigger got a gun” was a familiar “all hands/officer needs help” radio call for the Prince George’s County (MD) Police Department as late as the 1970’s.

  7. RIP william e. worthy, who died 3 days before this article was published. Black activist who wrote “the rape of our neighborhoods,” an excellent critique of progressive slum clearance projects that destroyed thousands of black businesses and apartments. Even more relevant in our post kelo world.

  8. “The black tradition of arms has been submerged because it seems hard to reconcile with the dominant narrative of nonviolence in the modern civil-rights movement,” Johnson writes

    This is absurd.
    In the south I know, gun ownership among blacks is extremely high. Just not reported.

    1. I think you are right. Not that I have a scientific study, but Tulsa bears out your argument.

    2. I think the tradition has been submerged, as in, gone underground. Which opens the door to it fading, and I think in a lot of urban communities it has faded.

      Get out of your urban hellholes, though, and I think its still pretty healthy. Its just that the elite narrative doesn’t reflect it.

    3. Any black person with a brain knows that admitting to owning a firearm is an invitation for the Klan-with-a-badge to visit them at 3AM with a flash-bang and a dog shooting.

  9. The racist roots of gun control are undeniable. To this day some Southern states require permission from the Sheriff to buy some firearms. North Carolina still has pistol permits requiring the Sheriff’s permission. Care to guess why you’d need the Sheriff’s permission?

    1. Often, more than one thing is true.

      You may be correct in that short statement. But it would be correct to say that collection and brandishing of arms and the rights to use them without much backlash was the defining force behind it taking 130+ years after the Civil War for rights to be (mostly) restored for black folk. They very well knew that whitey could shoot them without much happening….but, woe be it the black folks who protected themselves!

      That’s true history. Don’t cherry pick one statement without clearly stating the bigger picture. Blacks would have expressed all their rights, from land ownership to voting, etc. much earlier if they had true “gun rights”. They didn’t. That’s why Federally armed troops had to escort them to schools even in the 1960’s.

      1. Feel free to select from amongst these cherry picked historical facts.
        – 1751, the French Black Code required Louisiana colonists to stop any blacks and, “if necessary,” beat “any black carrying any potential weapon, such as a cane.”
        -1803, after the Haitian revolution, planters sought to have the existing free black militia disarmed and otherwise exclude “free blacks from positions in which they were required to bear arms.”
        -1831, in response to Nat Turner’s rebellion, the Virginia Legislature made it illegal for free blacks “to keep or carry any firelock of any kind, any military weapon, or any powder or lead.”
        -1834 Tennessee constitution was revised to: “That the free white men of this State have a right to keep and to bear arms for their common defence.”

        1. -1840, an NC statute stated “That if any free negro, mulatto, or free person of color, shall wear or carry about his or her person, or keep in his or her house, any shot gun, musket, rifle, pistol, sword, dagger or bowie-knife, unless he or she shall have obtained a licence therefor from the Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions of his or her county, within one year preceding the wearing, keeping or carrying thereof, he or she shall be guilty of a misdemeanor, and may be indicted therefor.”

          Let us not forget that your beloved Taxachusetts also forbade the selling of firearms to Indians. Wouldn’t want them uppity and armed, eh?

          There’s plenty more to indicate that roots of gun control in the US are racist. Quite simply, you’re wrong.

          1. Hah – it’s like you never heard of the Springfield Arsenal, Colt Weapons (all around the corner from me), and the American Revolution. Lead for the bullets was mined from virtually under my feet.

            Definitely – after the King Phillips War it was clear what Indians would do if they had as many guns as the whites…but they never would or could, so that’s a silly game you are playing. Keeping them out of the hands of “rebels” simply lowers the body count – even of the rebels. The result is still the same.

            Now, if you are saying the government should have built mines, factories, etc. for the Indians…well, go back to your video games.

            I am saying that guns, historically in the USA, served white power interests. They still do today. Woe be it for any group not aligned with power to brandish them…ever!

            1. Aren’t you always going on about how great the education system is there in the Volksrepublik? And yet your reading comprehension is absolutely abysmal.

              Gun control has clearly racist roots and you’ve presented no evidence to the contrary. Imagine that.

  10. Before the mob could advance further, two shots rang out in defense from the house, one with fatal results. State officials ultimately charged Dr. Sweet and 10 others with first-degree murder. Unsurprisingly, most black Americans took a different view of the matter.

    As did the all-white jury that eventually acquitted his brother, leading to the charges against all the remaining defendants being dropped. It’s almost ironical that nigh on to a century later we just went through a media-fueled hullabaloo about the inherent racism of self defense laws. If today’s NAACP had its way, Dr. Sweet would have only been justified in using deadly force if he’d first retreated from his home and abandoned it to the angry mob.

    Interestingly, Dr. Sweet eventually went on to commit suicide with a firearm. Demonstrating that not every gun rights story has a happy ending, and it still doesn’t justify stripping the right to self defense from anyone.

  11. “Bates herself packed a .45 automatic pistol.”
    NO, it is a semi-automatic pistol.
    Big difference.

    1. The chambered round for the Colt M1911 is the .45 “Automatic Colt Pistol” (ACP) cartridge, so the gun itself is commonly referred to as a .45 auto or .45 automatic, although the action is, of course, semi-auto. So somewhat sloppy reference, but not completely without support in common parlance.

  12. When I lived in Richmond, one of the black community’s radio stations would talk to old-timers periodically about the civil rights struggle.

    Not at all unusual to hear them casually mention armed self-defense in running off night riders and their ilk.

    1. Read about the history of what happened to the Black Panthers – or the lawful city government of Colfax, LA – when they brandished weapons to protect themselves from whitey and assert their rights.

      I’d guess that 98% of the black attempts to assert their rights with guns…over the centuries….have turned out horribly.

      But, hey, I know you can find the other 1 or 2% if you dig around.

      1. Read about the history of what happened to the Black Panthers

        Terrified white folks like you didn’t like them running around with guns on their hips talking openly about the possibility of shooting cops and introduced some of the first “common sense gun controls” in California to disarm them so that the police could hassle them with impunity. It’s a great story, but I’m not so sure it does much for your point.

      2. Tell that to the United States Colored Troops that composed approximately 1/10th of Union forces in the Civil War.

        As usual, your guesses are utter shite.

        1. I’m glad, after manpower shortages, that the north put down the “conservatives” in those Southern States using all resources at their disposal.

          The big problem is that we never went far enough and gave the conservatives and nullification folks back their power too soon.

          Yes, as you well know, the most famous “negro” troops were led by a Bostonian and are glorified in art and history as well in a movie:

          Early in the war, though, virtually every military and political leader thought them incapable of service. It took until the “liberal” Presidents of FDR and Truman for even basic equality in our armed services. None of that was gained by being personally armed.

          You seem to confuse personal arms with military ones…folks like you probably say the US “should be like Switzerland” when it comes to guns, where every male has a assault rifle at their home. What you fail to mention while you are cheering is that they don’t have any ammo for it, that being locked up in an arsenal run by the gubment. Silly stuff….

  13. The reasons that guns are central to the White’s views on civil rights are quite simple – basically, whitey always has more “rights protecting” guns and likely always will. Also, whitey owns much more property, often built up, financed or otherwise procured with the help of enslaved blacks, to protect with those guns.

    If you want just a slight peek into what guns on both “sides” of civil rights mean, read about the Colfax Massacre. Of course, such things happened many hundreds of times…with just one result. Usually about 50 to 1 in terms of the score (50 blacks to each white)…plus, victory over the particular issue for whitey.

    That’s history. We may like it or not, but that’s the record.

    1. Yes, the fact that governments have more arms and can use them disproportionately on individuals or smaller groups of people negates the practicality and right to armed self defense. Evidenced by a massacre of unarmed black people after they had surrendered their arms. In the reconstruction-era Old South.

      Stick to the Democratic Underground copypasta. You’re not very good off-script. It usually doesn’t make much more sense, but it’s at least internally consistent.

      1. He thinks this is a simple equation, that there are whites with guns and blacks with guns, but there are more whites so they win.

        What he misses is that armed people aren’t easy targets.

    2. Hundreds of times and you name one.

      Where you the guy that counted everyone at the Million Man March?

      1. The researchers found that “for each 1 point increase in symbolic racism there was a 50% increase in the odds of having a gun at home,” as well as “a 28% increase in support for permits to carry concealed handguns.”

        The study noted that whites are twice as likely to own guns as blacks, and oppose gun control to a far greater extent. Unsurprisingly, “stronger Republican identification, being from a southern state and anti-government sentiment were associated with opposition to gun-control policies,” though not with having a gun in the home.”

      2. You need to read some history instead of learning online.

        I’ve read many tens of thousands of pages of US History and the brandishing of arms (or threat – which was carried out enough to be real) is what kept them on the other side of the tracks and made certain they didn’t so much as cast a glance at a white woman.

        Your assignment for starters. Read about Emmett Till. Then read the statistics for lynchings. After that, read “Black Boy” by Richard Wright. As the author himself said:

        “Indeed, the white brutality that I had not seen was a more effective control of my behavior than that which I knew.”

        After that, go through the old newspaper stories. Then ask yourself if you are really uninformed or just acting that way to be “Reason”able.

        “”Five White Men Take Negro Into Woods; Kill Him: Had Been Charged with Associating with White Women” went over The Associated Press wires about a lynching in Shreveport, Louisiana.
        “Negro Is Slain By Texas Posse: Victim’s Heart Removed After His Capture By Armed Men” was published in The New York World Telegram on December 8, 1933.
        “Negro and White Scuffle; Negro Is Jailed, Lynched” was published in the Atlanta Constitution on July 6, 1933.
        Newspapers even printed that prominent white citizens in local towns attended lynchings, and often published victory pictures — smiling crowds, many with children in tow — standing next to the corpse.”

        1. “I’ve read many tens of thousands of pages of US History…”

          And comprehended very little, judging by your posts.

    3. I’d really love to see what proposal you’d like to share to correct this sort of injustice.

      I’ll go make the popcorn…

      1. It’s not a matter of correcting it, it’s a question of recognizing that it is true and actual history and that allowing people to have guns didn’t solve the problems(s) – rather it often led to an even higher body count.

        The problem of slavery and racism is deep in the mind – not something you can flush out with a bullet.

        Sorry about that.

        From a simple economic perspective, whites have approx. 10X the net worth (average) as blacks. Therefore they will have more guns and ammo.

        Historically, of course, most guns were manufactured by white people in white-owned and white run lands and factories. That skews the table also.

  14. I’m surprised no one mentioned…..Cruikshank

  15. Hey, I read the blog and the rules of law, but if William doesn’t get the punishment of his crime so American citizen don’t understand their responsibility. For case all are learning, all crimes have big punishment.

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