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.