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Gun Rights Benefited Black Americans During the Civil Rights Movement and Still Do

People demand "gun control" while grieving over the racist massacre in Charleston, but gun rights have proven pivotal to black Americans' safety and freedom.

Dylann Roof’s racially motivated murders of nine black churchgoers have brought predictable calls for new restrictions on the right to keep and bear arms. How ironic this is we shall soon see.

Advocates of gun rights argue that the best way to prevent such atrocities is for would-be victims to arm themselves; killers will break gun laws without hesitation (though Roof obtained his .45-caliber handgun legally), so legal obstacles to gun ownership only impede the innocent. Relying on the police for defense is futile—or worse.

This argument persuades few who are committed to "gun control" (a misnomer because law-abiding people, not guns, are subject to control). But those who demand it while grieving over the racist massacre at Emanuel AME church in Charleston, S.C., ought to understand that "time and again, guns have proven pivotal to the African American quest for freedom."

That sentence is found in Charles E. Cobb Jr.’s important book That Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible

Guns made the civil rights movement possible? What about the philosophy of nonviolence embraced by most prominent civil rights leaders, such as Martin Luther King Jr.?

As Cobb, a journalist and veteran civil rights activist, explains, for many civil rights activists in the South, nonviolence did not rule out "armed self-defense," which meant keeping firearms. "In these communities, where the law was generally weighted against them, armed self-defense was a natural response to white terror," he writes.

True, many activists believed in a turn-the-other-cheek strategy. But others rejected strict passivism. "Whether the question was one of picking up a gun in response to attack by night riders," Cobb writes, "or of curling one’s body tightly and protectively while being assaulted by a mob during a lunch-counter sit-in, or of shielding an elderly person under attack for trying to register to vote, the decision of what to do centered not on the choice between nonviolence and violence but on the question of what response was best in each situation." As one Mississippi activist and farmer, Hartman Turnbow, put it after scaring off night riders with his gun, "I wasn’t being non-nonviolent; I was just protecting my family."

Guns of course pervaded the South before the civil rights movement, and this was true of black culture too. Moreover, many black war veterans came home with guns, determined to win their freedom. As the black freedom movement emerged after World War II and the Korean War, it was only natural for guns to be seen as important in the defense against the daily threat posed by the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacists.

Cobb’s book is filled with accounts of incidents in which brutal racists were persuaded to retreat by black men armed and ready to defend themselves and their families. For example, "There is ... no shortage of examples of black resistance to the vicious and violent white supremacy that continued to prevail in Louisiana as CORE [Congress of Racial Equality] organizers began their work." Guns were no guarantee against white aggression, but Cobb’s message is that more blacks would have been killed had they been unarmed.

This book taught me, among other things, that 1) Martin Luther King’s home in the 1950s was "an arsenal" and was always guarded by armed men, 2) that King in 1956 applied for a concealed-carry permit (and was turned down), 3) that Daisy Bates, who advised the Little Rock Nine, carried a .32-caliber handgun in her purse, 4) and that Medgar Evers always was armed. (Evers of course was murdered; guns are no panacea.)

Cobb understands that "America’s first gun control laws … were designed to prevent the possession of weapons by black people," and he writes that “it can easily be argued that today’s controversial Stand Your Ground right of self-defense first took root in black communities." (Whites expected blacks to "back down or submit—never to stand up for themselves.") He concludes, "There was a time when people on both sides of America’s racial divide embraced their right to self-protection, and when rights were won because of it. We would do well to remember that fact today.”

This piece originally appeared at Richman's "Free Association" blog. 

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  • dan'o, waster of ammo||

    Guns don't kill people. I do

  • Enjoy Every Sandwich||

    Did Martin Luther King jr understand that his right to self-defense came at the cost of the blood of women and children? Tony wants to know.

  • SimonJester||

    Please provide citations.

  • Poppa Kilo||

    The required notice will now be given -

    UNTIL YOU ARE READY TO SHOOT, KEEP YOUR FINGER OFF THE TRIGGER.

    Or, more colorfully, "Keep your booger hook off the bang switch!"

  • sarcasmic||

    I was thinking the same thing.

  • Zeb||

    It does look like they are getting ready to shoot a target or something. Though I suppose you still want to wait until the gun is pointed in the right direction. Maybe the target is on the ceiling.

  • Poppa Kilo||

    Ceiling cat hardest hit.

  • Jordan||

    Popehat had an entertaining Tweet about this:

    We must change the law to prevent citizens accused of misdemeanors from owning weapons. Then no black man will be armed.

    Some Klansman.
  • Fist of Etiquette||

    ...understand that "time and again, guns have proven pivotal to the African American quest for freedom."

    But now the government is firmly in the hands of the right people, so no. No longer necessary.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    In fact, no one who isn't crazy believes the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution is in modern times about individuals protecting themselves from a possible tyrannical government and its official or unofficial agents reaching past their authority (if it ever was about that). That notion is outdated.

  • OldMexican||

    Re: Fist of Etiquette,

    In fact, no one who isn't crazy believes the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution is in modern times about individuals protecting themselves from a possible tyrannical government [.]


    Which explains all those attempts by the government that never happened at confiscating everybody's firearms or restricting access to their possession.

    Oh, no, wait. They did happen, they're still happening to this day! Imagine that! If our government officials know that only a few crazies think the 2nd Amendment is to defend themselves from tyrannical government, then why is the government so keen on the restrictions?

    By the way, the 2nd Amendment confers NO POSITIVE RIGHT to bear arms but PRECLUDES the government from abridging that right. That Amendment exists under the principle that gun ownership is a Natural Right.

  • prolefeed||

    I think FOE was being sarcastic.

  • OldMexican||

    We're all being sarcastic here, pro. Everybody who posts here does it because they're either bored or want to wind down a little bit.

  • SimonJester||

    Or, you know, post legitimate threats and create clear and present danger to our non-robot/alien overlords.

  • OldMexican||

    Gun Rights Benefited Black Americans During the Civil Rights Movement and Still Do


    We all already knew that most gun-grabbers hate blacks.

    No, really ─who are the primary victims of gun control restrictions? Inner-city blacks. What was the stated purpose of the first attempts at gun control in the South? Keeping guns away from recently-freed blacks. Who wants to ban all gun ownership as the ultimate goal? The Democratic Party. Which party instituted Jim Crow laws and segregated governments? Why, the Democratic Party, of course!

    It's like the same hooded people are running the place, hiding behind red herrings, distractions and smokescreens, doesn't it? Where's our little red Marxian now?

  • Loki||

    Where's our little red Marxian now?

    Probably still getting his talking points from his handlers.

  • prolefeed||

    Which party instituted Jim Crow laws and segregated governments? Why, the Democratic Party, of course!

    To be fair, a lot of the racists in the Democratic party switched to the Republican party after that. It's not like the agglomeration of people and ideologies comprising the major parties isn't constantly changing.

  • In League with the Dark Ones||

    Gun control has historically been used as a means to keep guns out of the hands out of the hands of anyone who wasn't a WASP male.

    And the true founders of the modern gun movement are the Black Panthers.

    "The Secret History of Guns"

  • OldMexican||

    True, many activists believed in a turn-the-other-cheek strategy.


    A Mexican Archbishop, who passed away a long time ago, used to say that "Dying for your cherished beliefs is the surest way to sainthood, but getting yourself being killed for being a pendejo is the surest way to ignominy."

    Those activists who believe turning the other cheek have not faced aggression in their lives and do not understand what Jesus meant when saying "turn the other cheek".

  • OldMexican||

    Shoot ─ forgot to edit out the second "being".

    Where's that Edit button for which I placed the work order? I haven't seen a lot happening here, guys!

  • John Thacker||

    What's impressive is Salon publishing an article agreeing on this. "Gun control’s racist reality: The liberal argument against giving police more power"

  • Bubba Jones||

    "Few who are committed to "gun control" understand "

    There. I fixed it.

  • Calidissident||

    I always laugh when people try to make opposition to gun control out to the be the exclusive cause of right-wing white people. Let's just conveniently forget people like Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, not to mention some pretty radical groups and individuals like the Black Panthers and Malcolm X, who were not exactly the biggest fans of gun control.

  • Longtail||

    What? Are you nuts? A thirteen year old black kid can be shot for having a toy gun. I don't think the south is quite ready for "well ordered" black militias either.

  • AD-RtR/OS!||

    Yes, and a 13-yr old can be a suicide bomber: White, Black, Brown, or Yellow.
    That "toy gun" was an authentic looking replica that had had the Orange muzzle device removed or taped over.

  • EvilWayz||

    If you're referring to Tamir Rice, that happened in Cleveland, Ohio, in that nebulous area we sons of the South call " Up North." How far up do you think the South goes?

  • AD-RtR/OS!||

    Efforts at Gun-Control were always directed at "those people" who were a threat to the establishment:
    Freed Blacks in the post Civil War South;
    Immigrant Minorities (Jews, Germans, Irish, Italians) in Urban Centers.
    In fact, in Heller (and the various Amici on file), you can find references to the disarming of Blacks leading to the passage of the 14th-A.

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  • Tanstaafl||

    For more info, first-hand interviews, and a fascinating bit of overlooked history you should read DEACONS OF DEFENSE, which describes the armed safe houses slept in by the day-time (for the media) unarmed activists. The brave black men guarding these houses risked their lives to protect their families and their representatives and their story deserves to be heard. A lot of scholarship is now discussing the need and actual use of firearms for self-defense during the civil rights movement.
    A strong argument is made that Wash DC / JFK ignored the movement until the blacks stood up and began to literally shoot back........

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