MLK Day + Virginia Gun Rights Rally =

a good reason to repost Prof. Nicholas Johnson's guest-post on 2014, based on his book Negroes and the Gun.

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

Here's Prof. Johnson's post: you can find his book here:

When W.E.B. Dubois patrolled his home with a shotgun after the 1906 Atlanta race riot, he was an aberration. But not how you think. Dubois reports that he was unusual among his contemporaries because until that point he did not own a gun.

Dubois's gun purchase and his aggressive statements following the riot were not passion-of-the-moment things that he would regret. They were part of a continuing engagement of the practice and philosophy of armed self-defense. As editor of the NAACP's flagship magazine The Crisis, Dubois continued to champion armed self-defense as a core private interest. Indeed, in some instances, Dubois seemed to cast self-defense as a duty. After a lynching in Gainesville, Fla., he wrote: "No Colored man can read an account of the recent lynching in Gainesville without being ashamed of his people. Without resistance they let a white mob whom they outnumbered two to one, torture, harry and murder. In the last analysis lynching of Negroes is going to stop when the cowardly mob is faced by effective guns in the hands of people determined to sell their souls dearly."

Dubois also offered an important caution that reflects the core principle of the black tradition of arms and models Martin Luther King's admonition decades later about respecting the line between self-defense and political violence. In commentary following the 1919 Chicago race riot, Dubois urged robust self-defense with "bricks and clubs and guns." But then he cautioned, "We must never let justifiable self-defense against individuals become blind and lawless offense against all white folk. We must not seek reform by violence." In 1921, he invoked self-defense again as he urged blacks to migrate to the comparative safety of the North. He acknowledged that "troubles will ensue with white unions and householders. But we have learned how to meet it by un-wavering self-defense and by the ballot."

In this respect, Dubois was no aberration within the early leadership of the NAACP. Walter White also would rise to pull heavy oars at the association. Walter White was from Atlanta. He was just a boy in 1906. While Dubois paced the floor with a shotgun, across town, Walter White sat with his father, both of them clutching guns. Later White wrote about his father's somber caution as the two of them crouched in the dark peering out the parlor window of the family's neat bungalow: "Son, don't shoot until the first man puts a foot on the lawn and then don't you miss."

The stories of Dubois and White begin chapters five and six of Negroes and the Gun. The decision to begin each chapter with a period leader who embraced armed self-defense might have been a problem. The instinct is that such things are rare. But actually the problem was the opposite.

The record is so thick that the difficulty was choosing who got top billing. Because they were of different generations, White and Dubois head separate chapters. But this meant that another NAACP stalwart, Louis Wright, the first black chairman of the NAACP and a graduate of Harvard Medical School, had to go deeper into the lineup. Louis Wright's armed preparations come to us secondhand from Roy Wilkins, who writes: "Louis came from Atlanta. Like Walter he had been through the 1906 riot, and like Walter he had watched through the darkened windows of his home, gun in hand."

The gun stories of Dubois, White and Wright make it easier to digest the fact that the NAACP cut its organizational teeth supporting black people who used guns in self-defense. The first major litigation that the NAACP supported was a case of armed self-defense by black sharecropper Pink Franklin against a planter who laid claim to him under a peonage contract. The NAACP took on the case in 1910, and by 1919, Pink Franklin, who had shot a planter and a deputy marshal in self-defense, walked free.

The saga of Sgt. Edgar Caldwell ended differently. Caldwell, a WWI veteran, shot and killed a trolley driver who was stomping him after throwing him from the whites-only section. The NAACP raised money for his defense with a plea in The Crisis: "We want 500 Negroes who believe in Negro manhood to send immediately one dollar for Caldwell's defense." His defense funded by the coins and bills of anonymous black folk, Caldwell survived two years on death row before he was executed. Under the deft editorial touch of Dubois, The Crisis spills over with reports and commentary that frame armed self-defense as a crucial private resource for blacks. Giving broader coverage to this material might easily have added another hundred pages to Negroes and the Gun.

One of the most important early cases supported by the NAACP anchors chapter six. Dr. Ossian Sweet had the grand ambition to move his family into a nice house on a neat corner lot in a white neighborhood. He was familiar with the risks. Several black families had been run out of their new homes by mobs. Sweet's colleague, Dr. Al Turner, did not even get to spend the night in his new home. Turner was reviled among blacks as the story spread of him fleeing the scene, cowering on the floor of his chauffeured car.

Ossian Sweet feared both mobbers and the shame of being called a coward when he walked into his new home, carrying a sack full of guns and ammunition. It was not long before the mob gathered. Missiles flew. And by the end of it, one of the white men in the crowd was dead from Negro gunfire.

The NAACP hired Clarence Darrow to defend the Sweets and used the case to fuel a fundraising juggernaut. After Darrow wrestled the prosecution to a mistrial, the Sweets became national heroes among black folk. Their tour of NAACP branches raised enough money to pay Darrow, with surplus left to fulfill James Weldon Johnson's dream of a standing fund that could support important litigation without pushing the organization to the brink of insolvency. This was the beginning of the storied NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

Of course, the NAACP was not the only game in town. It was the progeny of disparate early organizations, and that diversity reflects the potential divisions within the early 20th century leadership. When Dubois exhorted black men to fight in WWI, A. Philip Randolph countered that he would not fight to make the world safe for democracy, but was more than willing to die at home to "make Georgia safe for the Negro." Marcus Garvey represented another strand of thought and was disdained by both Dubois and Randolph. But on the question of armed self-defense, the three of them found basic agreement.

This reflects what we have long known. The principle of self-defense is near universal. It demands no sophisticated ideology. Even in the most civilized of societies, it is an essential practical allowance for self-help against imminent threats in situations where it is impossible for the state to act. As I will discuss tomorrow, this ancient principle runs like a torrent through the modern civil rights movement.

See also this article by my UCLA School of Law colleague Adam Winkler from 2011, about MLK (at least in his early years):

Most people think King would be the last person to own a gun. Yet in the mid-1950s, as the civil rights movement heated up, King kept firearms for self-protection. In fact, he even applied for a permit to carry a concealed weapon.

A recipient of constant death threats, King had armed supporters take turns guarding his home and family. He had good reason to fear that the Klan in Alabama was targeting him for assassination.

William Worthy, a journalist who covered the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, reported that once, during a visit to King's parsonage, he went to sit down on an armchair in the living room and, to his surprise, almost sat on a loaded gun. Glenn Smiley, an adviser to King, described King's home as "an arsenal." …




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  1. The link to Prof Johnson’s post is broken – it only points to the front page of the WaPo, a broken newspaper.

    1. Sorry — just fixed it (the link, not the newspaper).

  2. Taught a lot of black friends to shoot. Never ran across one who didn’t enjoy it and want more lessons.

    1. Taught a lot of black friends to shoot. Never ran across one who didn’t enjoy it and want more lessons

      Talking point: SELF-DEFENSE!

      The biggest threat to the 2nd amendment (as its understood today) are not liberals. Its gun owners like yourself.

      1. regexp: Why one or the other? Both the talking point and the reality are that (1) guns are useful for self-defense, and (2) target-shooting is fun.

        There are also other connections: Some people at first find guns viscerally offputting (a common reaction to an unknown deadly device), but when they get some experience with them, they come to accept them as dangerous but manageable, perhaps like other deadly things such as cars. Relatedly, to the extent that learning how to shoot safely and accurately is fun, that helps make guns more effective self-defense tools than if training to use them were just an unpleasant chore.

        None of this tells us, of course, whether various proposed restrictions on guns — or various proposals to lighten existing restrictions — are a good idea. And of course this doesn’t tell us that we should view them as carefree fun (as opposed to careful fun). But it does suggest that the fun and self-defense can work together.

      2. You can’t conceive of something being both useful and enjoyable? You must be a truly towering intellect.

    2. Given how dangerous it is to walk around with a phone if you’re black in America, I’m going to go ahead and call BS on that.

      1. This!

      2. Given how dangerous it is to walk around with a phone if you’re black in America

        It is really insane that you believe this.

      3. Martinned: There are 40 million blacks in the U.S., likely translating to about 30+ million black adults. As best we can tell, nearly a third live in gun-owning households — not quite the nearly half of whites, but not far below that.

        This means that 10 million black adults live in households with guns — time marching on as it does, that means every year some considerable number join those ranks. Why do you think that you have a better idea of the net cost-benefit analysis of owning a gun for blacks than they do? And presumably, at least some of the remaining 20 million are gun-curious, whether they want to carry guns themselves or not — plus presumably some people who are concerned about walking around with guns in public might still want to have a gun at home.

        Given this, why do you think it’s BS that “The original jack burton” may know a lot of those people, and that they enjoy going to the shooting range as much as whites do? (Recall that the people whom he taught to shoot are also likely a self-selected group of people who are interested in guns, so it’s quite plausible that the ones who wouldn’t want to keep going are ones who wouldn’t have gone with him in the first place.)

        1. Because, like I said in the other thread, a survey about gun ownership doesn’t tell you how many African Americans would dare to leave the house with their gun.

          1. This is true. A black person with a gun is at risk from the front door on, and the NRA will never defend them. The 2A – as applied – is for whites only. .

            1. Does it hurt being that ignorant Pacific?
              Or just normal for a Progressive serf?

          2. Martinned: Help me understand this. You have a guess about especially low black rates of carrying handguns. It’s a plausible guess, but it’s just a guess. (As I note on the other thread, it doesn’t really match the data on concealed carry licenses in states that keep track of applicant race, such as Texas, but let’s set that aside.)

            Now “The original jack burton” never said a thing about teaching people who wanted to carry outside the home. Indeed, most gun owners of all races don’t carry outside the home most of the time; many never do. Burton’s comment is completely consistent with teaching black friends who merely wanted to possess a gun at home (again, just as many white owners do). All he said was, “Taught a lot of black friends to shoot. Never ran across one who didn’t enjoy it and want more lessons.”

            And yet based on your conjecture about low rates of black gun carrying in public, you “call BS” on Burton’s claim, which relies not one whit on black gun carrying in public. How does that make sense?

            1. O, sorry, there’s an additional unstated premise in there, about the relative probability of a commenter on this blog speaking to a black person versus the probability of them making stuff up. I tend to treat these comment threads pretty much the same as Twitter: fiction abound.

              1. Given the complete lack of factual basis behind some of your posts, Martinned, I guess you would know.

  3. Its interesting to note if MLK had lived theres a good chance he’d be considered a Jesse Jackson type figure and not the only person in human history revered enough to have a near universally accepted major US holiday all to themselves.

    1. Always interesting to see which conservatives are ‘MLK woulda been a Republican’ types and which are the ‘MLK actually sucked’ types.

      1. King was a man shaped by his time. What would he have thought and done had he lived to a ripe old age? It’s speculation. He said he could no more be a capitalist than a communist. That’s radical. He called for massive government spending, putting him comfortably in line with Bernie Sanders, but I doubt he would have approved of most of the Sanders program. He certainly was under no illusion about the Soviets, though he opined that Americans had a “morbid fear” of communism. Finally, he was a strong supporter of Israel, saying that to be against Zionism was to be antisemitic. Oh, at one point he was a gun owner and was turned down for a concealed carry permit.

        1. This is a dumb game to play.

      2. Always interesting to see how Progressives and Liberals ignore the fact that MLK was a Republican.

        1. Got which camp you’re in.

          Never doubted you, Flame.

    2. The, uh, Rev. Jackson tried to make like he was tight with King when, in reality, King had little use for him. I recall something about a bloody garment. And King would not have tied the Christian right into Nazi Germany.

      1. I dunno about that. He claimed to see “dangerous signs of Hitlerism” in Barry Goldwater’s campaign.

  4. Pretty sure this largely white militia/gun rally in largely black Richmond on MLK day isn’t chosen because of the nexus between racial justice and gun rights.

    1. Ask them about the people mentioned in this article, and you’d get blank stares at best.

    2. I am pretty sure you are right — but so what? I said I reposted Prof. Johnson’s post because of the MLK Day / rally coincidence, not that they organized the rally on MLK Day because of the information gathered in Prof. Johnson’s post.

  5. Yes, when I saw those pictures today, the civil rights movement is definitely what came to mind.

    1. Given your posting history I’m sure a great many things come to your mind all the time, seeing as how nature so abhors a vacuum.

  6. I think someone misjudged his audience.

    1. It’s actually a pretty good story. Quirky, largely overlook and interesting. Just a distractingly tone deaf title/transition.

  7. Certain people were really craving violence at this rally (as they perceived it would help their own political ends) but fortunately it seemed to be very peaceful

  8. I have nothing positive to say about the gun-toters, and nothing in common with them. I also have nothing positive to say about those who believe that such people are safeguarding their well-being, let alone any rights that protect me from government attack.

    Stay far away from me, please. You are very unwelcome.

    1. May you bear your chains lightly…

    2. I’m sorry to hear about your mental illness. Have you sought professional help?

    3. Don’t worry, we have nothing positive to say about you, and most of us think you’re evil, stupid, disloyal to America, or a combination of the three.

    4. IOW you’re an average Progressive Plantation serf.

  9. I think this tells half the story.

    The other half is that the white conservatives who we now think of making up the gun rights lobby, in that era, pushed for strict gun control that they assumed would be enforced against black people. The NRA did not take nearly the position on the Second Amendment then that it does now.

    1. Why judge NRA for what is was then rather than what it is now? People criticize NRA for changing its mission from hunting to 2nd Amendment but do they criticize NRA for its younger and more urban/suburban membership too? NRA and its members determine their own mission and position – not gun control activists who say NRA have gone off their 1950s rails…

      1. Regardless of the NRA’s position on guns, it’s a pretty good vehicle to make a lot of money doing next to nothing.

    2. The gun rights lobby back then, the people who formed the NRA, were Republicans. You’re thinking of the party of slavery and Jim Crow, the Democrats. They were in favor of gun control. More particularly, gun control enforced against the population of freed slaves.

      1. The 19th century is calling you back.

        1. Jim Crow was in the 20th Century. Southern Democrats were racist right into the 1990s. And now the modern Democrat Party is so obsessed with race, it has tipped right back over into racism.

          1. “Democrat Party” is a term favored by illiterate bigots.

            1. Fuck you. Now I realize why everybody here breaks your balls, you ad hominum piece of garbage.

              1. I’m not quite so harsh as RAK, but it does indicate a certain partisanship.

                Of course, your narrative about the modern Democratic Party being the real racists, as well as eliding the Southern Strategy of the GOP, is also revealing of your preferred narrative.

                1. The modern Democrat Party is a party of evil white racial agitators who use race to cement their own power.

                2. Have you ever noticed that as the South became more tolerant and less racist, moving away from Jim Crow and other policies, it also became more Republican? Makes you think.

            2. Fuck off, slaver.

    3. You’re confusing Southern Democrats, who created Jim Crow, with the NRA. Perfectly understandable from some sources unfamiliar with the NRA and its members.

      1. The 19th century is also calling you back.

    4. Given that the NRA-ILA (the organization dedicated to 2A issues) didn’t even exist until 1975, I’m not sure how it could have taken the same positions then that it does now.

    5. “The NRA did not take nearly the position on the Second Amendment then that it does now.”

      Can you explain the background there, or give some citations? That seems at odds with what I’ve heard. For example:

      “The NRA has helped the Deacons for Defense in the late ‘60’s with [Rev. Martin Luther] King. In DC, in the ‘60’s, [The NRA] had the only non-racially segregated gun range [which lasted] over 20 years.”

      Ebony Magazine

      1. That’s not the same thing as taking an absolutist position on the Second Amendment. That came later.

    6. Are you really that ignorant Dilan?
      Or just playing to the Progressive crowd?

      BTW: It was Progressive Dems that started the KKK, instituted Jim Crow Laws, opposed Civil Rights laws, denied MLK his Constitutional Rights including concealed carry, etc.

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