February being Black History Month, David Kopel and Joseph Greenlee present something that should make liberals uncomfortable:
Guns have historically protected Americans from white supremacists, just as gun control has historically protected white supremacists from the Americans they terrorize.
One month after the Confederate surrender in 1865, Frederick Douglass urged federal action to stop state and local infringement of the right to arms. Until this was accomplished, Douglass argued, “the work of the abolitionists is not finished.”
Indeed, it was not. As the Special Report of the Paris Anti-Slavery Conference of 1867 found, freedmen in some southern states “were forbidden to own or bear firearms, and thus were rendered defenseless against assault.” Thus, white supremacists could continue to control freedmen through threat of violence.
Congress demolished these racist laws. The Freedmen’s Bureau Bill of 1865, Civil Rights Act of 1866, and Civil Rights Act of 1870 each guaranteed all persons equal rights of self-defense. Most importantly, the 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, made the Second Amendment applicable to the states.
Kansas Senator Samuel Pomeroy extolled the three “indispensable” “safeguards of liberty under our form of government,” the sanctity of the home, the right to vote, and “the right to bear arms.” So “if the cabin door of the freedman is broken open and the intruder enter…then should a well-loaded musket be in the hand of the occupant to send the polluted wretch to another world.”
Because of the 14th Amendment, gun control laws now had to be racially neutral. But states quickly learned to draft neutrally-worded laws for discriminatory application. Tennessee and Arkansas prohibited handguns that freedmen could afford, while allowing expensive “Army & Navy” handguns, which ex-Confederate officers already owned.
The South Carolina law against concealed carry put blacks in chain gangs, but whites only paid a small fine, if anything. In the early 20th century, such laws began to spread beyond the ex-Confederacy. An Ohio Supreme Court Justice acknowledged that such statutes reflected “a decisive purpose to entirely disarm the Negro.”
When lynching increased in the 1880s, the vice-president of the National Colored Press Association, John R. Mitchell, Jr., encouraged blacks to buy Winchesters to protect their families from “the two-legged animals … growling around your home in the dead of night.”
Ida B. Wells, the leading journalist opposing lynching, agreed. In the nationally-circulated pamphlet Southern Horrors, Wells documented cases in Kentucky and Florida, “where the men armed themselves” and fended off lynch mobs. “The lesson this teaches,” Wells wrote, “is that a Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give.”
After the thwarted lynching in Florida, the state legislature enacted a law requiring a license to possess “a pistol, Winchester rifle or other repeating rifle.” A Florida Supreme Court Justice later explained: “the Act was passed for the purpose of disarming the negro laborers” and “was never intended to apply to the white population and in practice has never been so applied.”
While lynching began to decline in the early twentieth century, race riots increased. According to historian John Dittmer, blacks fought “back successfully when the mobs invaded their neighborhoods” during the Atlanta riots in 1906. When police stood idle as 23 blacks were killed during riots resulting from a black man swimming into “white” water near Chicago, blacks used rifles to kill 15 attackers.
During the Tulsa Race Riot in 1921, whites (with government approval) burned down a square mile of the prosperous district nicknamed “Black Wall Street,” killing 200 blacks. There would have been more devastation had blacks not fought back, killing 50 of their attackers.
Firearms made possible the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Charles Cobb’s excellent book, “This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible” describes how pacifist community organizers from the North learned to accept the armed protection of their black, rural communities.
The Deacons for Defense and Justice was an armed community defense organization, founded in 1965. With .38 Special revolvers and M1 carbines, they deterred terrorism in the “Klan country” region of Louisiana and Mississippi. When Dr. King led the “Meredith March against Fear” for voter registration in Mississippi, the Deacons provided armed security.
Condoleezza Rice became a self-described “Second Amendment absolutist,” because of her experiences growing up in Birmingham. She recalled the bombings in the summer of 1963, when her father helped guard the streets at night. Had the civil rights workers’ guns been registered, she argued, they could have been confiscated, rendering the community defenseless.
Similarly, when the Klan targeted North Carolina’s Lumbee Indians in 1958 because of their “race mixing,” the Lumbee drove off the Klan in an armed confrontation, the Battle of Hayes Pond. Klan operations ceased in the region.
Justice Clarence Thomas’s opinion in the 2010 McDonald v. Chicagoexplicated the history of gun control as race control. Historically, people of color in the United States have often had to depend on themselves for protection. Sometimes the reason is not overt hostility by the government, but instead the incapability of government to secure public safety, as in Chicago today.
Self-defense is an inherent human right. The 14th Amendment is America’s promise that no law-abiding person will be deprived of that right, regardless of color.