A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed. – Second Amendment to the US Constitution
“The great object is, that every man be armed. [...] Every one who is able may have a gun.” – Patrick Henry
“Gun control has not worked in D.C. The only people who have guns are criminals. We have the strictest gun laws in the nation and one of the highest murder rates. It’s quicker to pull your Smith & Wesson than to dial 911 if you’re being robbed.” – Lowell Duckett
“Our neighbors in Virginia are just as responsible for these killings as the criminals are because they won’t pass strong gun [control] legislation.” – former Washington, DC mayor Marion Barry.
“To make inexpensive guns impossible to get is to say that you’re putting a money test on getting a gun. It’s racism in its worst form.” – Roy Innis
“So Huey (Newton) says, “We’re going to the (California state) Capitol… they’re trying to pass a law against our guns, and we’re going to the Capitol steps. We’re going to take the best Panthers we got and we’re going to the Capitol steps with our guns and forces, loaded down to the gills. And we’re going to read a message to the world, because the press is always up there. They’ll listen to the message, and they’ll probably blast it all across this country. I know, I know they’ll blast it all the way across California. We’ve got to get a message over to the people.” ” – Bobby Seale on the Black Panthers armed protest in Sacramento in May, 1967.
“The end move in politics is always to pick up a gun.” – Richard Buckminster Fuller
History and time have a way of telling cruel jokes. So it is with the recent Supreme Court decision overturning the restictive gun ban in Washington, DC.
When black folks were outmanned and outgunned during the slavery, Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras, various Supreme Court decisions left blacks defenseless against a tide of white terrorism. But now that black communities are awash in a wave of black on black crime, the Supreme Court accepts and rules on a case concerning the right to bear arms.
It is the cruelest of ironies. Before I go further, consider this admittedly self-serving timeline of the history of blacks and guns:
1857 The Supreme Court issues the infamous Dred Scott decision, which states that blacks
…were so far inferior they… had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever profit could be made by it…
…[if negroes were] entitled to the privileges and immunities of [white] citizens, …it would give persons of the Negro race… the right… to keep and bear arms wherever they want… inevitably producing discontent and insubordination among them, and endangering the peace and safety of the state…
1865 The Civil War ends.
1865-1960s African Americans become the victims of brutal and violent white terrorism in the South and other parts of the country. Consider this from the book A Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynching, 1882-1930:
…we have identified almost 2,500 victims of lynch mobs killed between 1882 and 1930 in ten southern states. Of these black victims, 94 percent died in the hands of white lynch mobs. The scale of this carnage means that, on the average, a black man, woman, or child was murdered nearly once a week, every week, between 1882 and 1930 by a hate-driven white mob.
As staggering as the lynching toll was, it vastly underestimates the total volume of violence aimed toward African American citizens of the South. Our lynching inventory does not count casualties of the urban race riots that erupted during those years, nor does it embrace victims of racially motivated murders by single killers or assassins.
1868-1870 Following the Civil War, the 14th, 15th, and 16th Amendments to the Constitution are ratified. The amendments abolish slavery, guarantee equal protection and due process, and protect the right to vote (for black men).
1870-1871 As noted in Wikipedia, the Enforcement Acts are enacted to protect the rights of blacks following the ratification of the 14th Amendment. One act protected black votes; another provided federal supervision of southern elections; and another strengthened sanctions against those who attacked blacks or prevented them from voting, and allowed the President to use troops to enforce the law and suspend habeas corpus — it was also known as the Ku Klux Klan Act.
1873 On Easter Day, an armed white militia attacked Republican freedmen who had gathered at the Colfax, Louisiana courthouse to protect a recently elected black sheriff. Although some of the African Americans were armed and initially defended themselves, estimates were that 100-280 were killed, most of them following surrender, and 50 that night who were being held as prisoner.
The dead are gathered after the Colfax Massacre
Historians call this event the Colfax Massacre.
Some members of the white mob were indicted and charged under the Enforcement Act of 1870, which made it a felony for two or more people to conspire to deprive another person of his constitutional rights. A dispute arose about whether the Enforcement Act itself is constitutional; the case goes to the Supreme Court under the name United States v. Cruikshank.
1876 The Supreme Court issues its infamous Cruikshank ruling. By a 9-0 vote, the Court declares the charges files under the Enforcement Act were for state crimes that could not be prosecuted by the federal government. The ruling basically says that the federal government doesn’t have jurisdiction in cases where a persons’ rights are violated by other persons (as opposed to being violated by an action of the government itself); it is the state government that has authority to handle such cases.
The problem for blacks was that the likelihood of southern states prosecuting these crimes was small or non-existent, given that their law enforcement and legal systems were dominated by white racists. The Cruikshank opinion encouraged violence against blacks in the Reconstruction South, because southerners knew the US government would/could do nothing to prevent it. The Cruickshank ruling also declares that the states have the right to control who can keep and bear arms.
1860s-1950s Southern states enact and enforce the so-called Black Codes. In his article “Are Gun Control Laws Discriminatory?,” Markus Funk writes
Following the Civil War, several southern legislatures adopted comprehensive regulations which were known as the “Black Codes,” because, fearful of race war and retribution, the mere sight of a black person with a gun was terrifying to whites. These codes denied the newly freed men many of the rights that were enjoyed by whites. In 1867, the Special Report of the Anti-Slavery Conference noted that under the Black Codes, blacks were “forbidden to own or bear firearms, and thus were rendered defenseless against assaults.”
By way of example, the Mississippi Black Code contained the following provision: “Be it enacted… [t]hat no freedman, free Negro or mulatto, not in the military… and not licensed to do by the board of police of his or her county, shall keep or carry fire-arms of any kind, or any ammunition… and all such arms or ammunition shall be forfeited to the former….”
1950s-1960s The Civil Rights movement era occurs. Although Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, the movement’s key figure, advocated for non-violent protest, many in the movement did not agree. Many instances of armed resistance occur throughout the South and North.
1957-1961 Robert Williams, a Marine veteran, becomes active in civil rights and heads an NAACP chapter in Union County, North Carolina. Williams says in his book Negroes with Guns, “We ended up with a chapter that was unique in the whole NAACP because of working class composition and a leadership that was not middle class. Most important, we had a strong representation of returned veterans who were very militant and didn’t scare easy.” Indeed, Williams had created a group called the Black Armed Guard with the National Rifle Association’s blessings, to defend the local black community from Ku Klux Klan activity.
In 1959, following a trial in which a local judge threw out charges against a white man who had sexually assaulted a pregnant black woman, Williams said that blacks must “meet violence with violence.” These and other comments, which reverberated through the press, led to the NAACP to suspend Williams for six months. The controversy over Williams’ comments was an issue during the 1959 NAACP convention, during which Williams and Dr King had a debate about the merits of nonviolent action.
In his book Negroes with Guns, Williams recounted the struggles of the time. An article from Revolutionary Workers Online describes a passage from the book:
In 1961, Williams organized youth in Monroe to struggle to integrate the swimming pool. They set up a picketline which forced the pool to close. There were a number of attempts on Robert’s life and one day as Williams was driving to the pool, a car rammed into him and forced him into a ditch. Williams describes what happened next:
“The crowd started screaming. They said that a n*gger had hit a white man. They were referring to me. They were screaming, `Kill the n*ggers! Kill the n*ggers! Pour gasoline on the n*ggers! Burn the n*ggers!’ We were sitting in the car. The man got out of the car with a baseball bat and started walking toward us and he was saying, `N*gger, what did you hit me for?’ I didn’t say anything to him. We just sat there looking at him. He came up close to our car, within arm’s length with the baseball bat, but I still hadn’t said anything and we didn’t move in the car. What they didn’t know was that we were armed….I had two pistols and a rifle in the car. When this fellow started to draw back his baseball bat, I put an Army .45 up in the window of the car and pointed it right into his face and I didn’t say a word. He looked at the pistol and he didn’t say anything. He started backing away from the car…The mob started to throw stones on top of my car. So I opened the door of the car and I put one foot on the ground and stood up in the door holding an Italian carbine.”
When a cop grabbed Williams and ordered him to surrender his weapon: “I struck him in the face and knocked him back away from the car and put my carbine in his face and I told him we were not going to surrender to a mob. I told him that we didn’t intend to be lynched. The other policeman who had run around the side of the car started to draw his revolver out of the holster. He was hoping to shoot me in the back. They didn’t know that we had more than one gun. One of the students (who was 17 years old) put a .45 in the policeman’s face and told him that if he pulled out his pistol he would kill him. The policeman started putting his gun back into the holster and backing away from the car, and he fell into the ditch.”
There were 3,000-4,000 white people at the pool and all the city officials were there, including the Mayor of Monroe. The police ordered Williams and his followers to surrender their guns, but they refused. Mabel Williams, who was standing next to her husband in this confrontation, recalled: “I knew that we couldn’t depend on the police to protect us…My feelings then were that if I must die, I’m going to take ‘em with me. I heard the chief of police tell my husband, `If you shoot any of these white people, here, I’m gonna kill you.’ And so I got my gun in my hand and I determined then that if he did anything to Robert, I was going to kill him…” Eventually, the police were forced to disperse the crowd of racists and escort Williams and his followers out of the area.
The book was influential among many blacks at the time, including a young man in northern California named Huey Newton. Williams wrote the book in Cuba – he fled the United States in 1961 with his wife following trumped up charges for “kidnapping” a white couple. Williams eventually returned to the US, and all charges against him were dropped.
1960s A group of African American men in Jonesboro, Louisiana form the Deacons for Defense in November of 1964 to protect civil rights workers against the violence of the Ku Klux Klan. Most of them were war veterans with combat experience from the Korean War and World War II. The Jonesboro chapter later organized a Deacons chapter in Bogalusa, Louisiana. The Jonesboro chapter initiated a regional organizing campaign and eventually formed 21 chapters in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. The militant Deacons confrontation with the Klan in Bogalusa was instrumental in forcing the federal government to invervene on behalf of the black community and enforce the 1964 Civil Rights Act and neutralize the Klan.
1960s Racial violence erupts in cities across the country. At least 83-100 persons are killed, and hundreds of millions of dollars in property losses are sustained. Confrontations with the police are a factor in many of the riots. The Kerner Commission, which is created to investigate the violence, reports that
(The riots) did not erupt as a result of a single “triggering” or “precipitating” incident. Instead, it was generated out of an increasingly disturbed social atmosphere, in which typically a series of tension-heightening incidents over a period of weeks or months became linked in the minds of many in the Negro community with a reservoir of underlying grievances. At some point in the mounting tension, a further incident-in itself often routine or trivial-became the breaking point and the tension spilled over into violence. “Prior” incidents, which increased tensions and ultimately led to violence, were police actions in almost half the cases; police actions were “final” incidents before the outbreak of violence in 12 of the 24 surveyed disorders.
1960s-1970s In Oakland, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale form the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. Among other things, the Panthers advocate the use of guns as a means of protection against police brutality. In May 1967, 30 party members stage an armed protest in the California state Capitol against a restrictive gun control bill, carrying loaded shotguns and rifles into the Capitol building.
The gun control bill is eventually signed into law. In his article titled Don’t Blame Liberals for Gun Control, Richard Poe writes
It was Governor Ronald Reagan of California who signed the Mulford Act in 1967, “prohibiting the carrying of firearms on one’s person or in a vehicle, in any public place or on any public street.” The law was aimed at stopping the Black Panthers, but affected all gun owners.
The Panthers’ militancy results in law enforcement efforts at the state, local and federal levels which are aimed at destroying their organization. Many Panthers are killed in violent clashes with police across the country, and the group is eventually disbanded.
1968 The Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act and the Gun Control Act become law. These impose numerous restrictions on the ability to own, transport, and distribute guns. The laws come in the wake of racial riots and the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King.
The NRA and other gun rights advocates wryly quote from the book Saturday Night Special-written by “anti-gun” journalist Robert Sherrill-that “The Gun Control Act of 1968 was passed not to control guns but to control blacks. . . . Inasmuch as the legislation finally passed in 1968 had nothing to do with the guns used in the assassinations of King and Robert Kennedy, it seems reasonable to assume that the law was directed at that other threat of the 1960s, more omnipresent than the political assassin-namely, the black rioter. . . . With the horrendous rioting of 1967 and 1968, Congress again was panicked toward passing some law that would shut off weapons access to blacks.”
1960s-1990s Various municipalities enact gun control laws. Mentioned earlier, California enacts the Mulford Act to control the carrying of weapons. The District of Columbia enacts a strict ban on handguns, and restrictions on the keeping of rifles, in 1976. Chicago and other local area governments enact gun control laws. New York enacts stricter gun ownership/licensing rules in the 1990s.
1980s-2000s The scourge of Black on Black Crime comes to the forefront of American consciousness, and the doorsteps of African American neighborhoods. The Brady Center notes the chilling statistics in GUN VIOLENCE IN THE AFRICAN AMERICAN COMMUNITY:
Gun violence is a priority issue for African-Americans and other minorities. Nearly 350,000 Americans were victims to murders, robberies, and aggravated assaults in 2003 committed by perpetrators carrying a firearm, and our minority communities are the hardest hit:
• In 2002, firearm homicide was the number one cause of death for 15-34 year old African-Americans.
• In 2002, the firearm death rate for African-Americans was over twice that of whites.
• In 2002, an African-American male under age 30 was nearly 9 times more likely to be murdered than a white male under age 30.
• In 2003, 91 percent of African-American murder victims were slain by African-American offenders.
• In 2002, African-American males accounted for 47 percent of all homicide victims, while they only account for 6 percent of the entire population.
• Firearms have become the predominant method of suicide for African-Americans aged 10-19 years, accounting for 64 percent of suicides in 2002.
— June 2005
2008 The Supreme Court, in the case of Heller vs the District of Columbia, strikes down the District’s gun ban law.
It is against this backdrop of history that we now look at gun control in America, and in black America in particular.
The record makes it clear: for much of our country’s history, through acts of omission or commission, the Supreme Court was a willing participant in creating an environment where whites could terrorize blacks, in a manner that left blacks unable to defend themselves.
That was then, this is now. What should be today’s stance on guns in the African American community?