How Guns Helped Secure Civil Rights and Expand Liberty

Firearms played a key role in the Civil Rights Movement.


Yesterday's brutal shootings in San Bernardino, California, have reignited America's long-running debate over guns. Much of that debate is currently focused on violent criminal acts committed with the help of firearms. That focus is understandable in the aftermath of this horrific event. But it's important to remember that firearms routinely serve noble purposes as well. For example, guns played a key role in the Civil Rights Movement and its long campaign to achieve racial equality. To illustrate that point, here are three stories from the Reason archives that discuss the ways in which privately owned guns helped to expand freedom and secure civil rights for countless numbers of black Americans.

Why Civil Rights and Gun Rights Are Inseparable:

[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.

Yes, Guns Are Dangerous, But They Also Save Lives and Secure Civil Rights:

"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."

Civil Rights and Armed Self-Defense:

Mississippi doctor, entrepreneur, and civil rights activist T.R.M. Howard saw no reason to separate the struggle for racial equality from the case for armed self-defense. A founder of the pioneering Regional Council of Negro Leadership and a longtime ally of the NAACP, Howard acted as unofficial head of security during the highly publicized murder trial that followed the death of Emmett Till—a 14-year-old African American savagely murdered in 1955 for whistling at a white woman. Among other duties, Howard transported Till's grieving mother, Ebony reporter Clyde Murdock, Rep. Charles Diggs (D-Mich.), and others who gathered to observe the trial to and from the courthouse each day in a heavily-armed caravan. Back at his large, lavishly provisioned home, Howard slept with a Thompson submachine gun at the foot of his bed. Like [Frederick] Douglass before him, Howard understood all too well the deep ties between the white supremacist regime and a disarmed black populace.