African American Union Soldier with Pistol, circa Civil War era (1860s). It was very common for Civil War soldiers to take pictures with their firearms. Source: Library of Congress; Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-ppmsca-11298; see more information about the photo here.
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
“[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…”
- Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney, in the 1857 Dred Scott decision
“Remember that the musket – the United States musket with its bayonet of steel – is better than all mere parchment guarantees of liberty. In your hands that musket means liberty; and should your constitutional rights at the close of this war be denied, which in the nature of things, it cannot be, your brethren are safe while you have a Constitution which proclaims your right to keep and bear arms.”
- Frederick Douglass, in an 1863 recruitment speech imploring black to join the Union army during the Civil War
The current debate about gun control, spurred by the Newtown Tragedy, causes me to reflect on the history of firearms access for African Americans. This history does not paint a pretty picture, but it adds a new perspective on our discussion of the right to bear arms.
A review of the history indicates that for over two centuries, the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the national, state, and local governments have been engaged in a project to limit African Americans’ access to guns. This project was not conducted in secret; the people involved made it unequivocally clear that they did not want people of African descent to have firearms. Blacks with guns were seen as a threat to the safety, politics, and domination of the white majority, and the law was used to remove that threat. For African Americans, “gun control” has almost always been synonymous with “keep African Americans from getting guns.”
Now wait! I’m not taking any position (in this post, anyway) regarding gun access policy. I hope that no one who reads this piece will assume that I am advocating a particular viewpoint concerning gun rights and gun control issues.
What I do want to do, is provide an abridged and selective timeline of African Americans’ experience with bearing arms. There is so much to this story, it’s impossible to contain it all within one blog post – and this post is somewhat lengthy as it is. But for those who are not familiar with the subject, this will be informative and useful.
There is a sadly ironic, perhaps tragic aspect to this history. Guns have become the scourge of the urban landscape. So-called “black on black” crime has become endemic in certain communities, and guns are an unfortunate aspect of this. During the slavery, Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras, laws left blacks relatively defenseless against a tide of racial terrorism; African Americans were outmanned and outgunned. But now many black communities are awash in guns, and instead of firearms being used for self-defense, they are being used for self-destruction. Sometimes the arc of history bends in the wrong direction.
For more information on this subject, two good “starter” pieces on this topic are here and here. A useful book on the subject is Freedmen, the Fourteenth Amendment, and the Right to Bear Arms, 1866-1876 by Stephen P. Halbrook. But there are many other journal articles, books, and other references that are availble via Internet search for those who want to really get in depth on this subject.
I will begin at the middle of the 18th century, and go forward to the 21st century.
1779 During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress – which represents American colonists seeking independence from Britain – offers slave masters in South Carolina and Georgia $1,000 for each slave they provide to the Continental army. However, the legislatures of both states refused the offer. Apparently, the risk of arming slaves, who might want or demand freedom in exchange for their service, is more threatening than the British Army.
1792 Congress passes the Militia Acts, which limit service in militias to free white males. This restriction is prompted in part by fears that, as in the case of the Haitian slave revolt, free blacks will unite with slaves and use their guns and military training to mount an armed insurrection against slaveholders. The measures are interpreted as meaning that blacks cannot join the United States army.
1811 Hundreds of slaves, armed with guns, knives, and axes, become part of the largest slave rebellion on American soil, in New Orleans, Louisiana. The importance of taking arms is noted in the book American Uprising: American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt by Daniel Rasmussen,
Baptized with the blood of his former master, Charles (the leader of the slave rebellion) and his men broke into the stores in the basement (of his master’s) mansion, taking muskets and militia uniforms, stockpiled in case of domestic insurrection. Many of the slaves had learned to shoot muskets in African civil wars, while others would fight mor efeectively with tha cane knives and axes they weilded in the hot Louisiana sun. As his men gathered weapons and shoved ammunition in bags, Charles and several of his fellow slaves cast off the distictive cheap cotton slave clothes and put on the (master’s) uniforms.
Unfortunately for the slaves, their revolt was beaten back by the superior force of local authorities, and they suffered a horrible punishment after the smoke cleared.
1831 Nat Turner leads a slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia. The rebels kill over 50 white people, the highest number of fatalities caused by slave uprisings in the South. The rebellion was put down within a few days, but Turner survived in hiding for over two months.
After the rebellion, legislatures in the slave states passed new laws prohibiting the education of slaves and free blacks, restricting rights of assembly and other civil rights for free blacks, and requiring white ministers to be present at black worship services.
1831 Three states – Florida, Maryland and Virginia – enact laws which ban black ownership of guns.
1834 In Tennessee, Article XI, 26 of the state Constitution is changed from: “the freemen of this State have a right to keep and to bear arms for their common defence,” to: “the free white men of this State have a right to keep and to bear arms for their common defence.”
1843-1844 In 1843, the North Carolina Supreme Court recognizes the right of citizens to bear arms; in 1844, the Court says that right does not apply to free blacks.
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…
1862-1865 The Militia Act of 1862 authorizes the use of people of African descent in the United States army. At least 180,000 black men – the majority of whom are former saves – will enlist with the Union.
1863 The abolitionist Frederick Douglass offers a number of reasons for African Americans to enlist in the Union army during the Civil War. The destruction of the Confederte slave regime is key, but he also says
You should enlist to learn the use of arms, to become familiar with the means of securing, protecting and defending your own liberty… Men must either be governed by love or by fear. They must love to do right or fear to do wrong. The only way open to any race to make their rights respected is to learn how to defend them. When it is seen that black men no more than white men can be enslaved with impunity, men will be less inclined to enslave and oppress them. Enlist therefore, that you may learn the art and assert the ability to defend yourself and your race.
1865 The Civil War ends. Thousands of black Union soldiers leave the service with the end of the war, having fought for and achieved their own freedom; it is only through the military victory of the Union over the Confederacy that the end of slavery can be achieved.
1865-1870 The 14th, 15th, and 16th Amendments to the Constitution are ratified. The amendments abolish slavery, guarantee equal protection and due process, and ensure the right to vote for black men.
1860s-1950s Southern states enact and enforce the so-called post-war 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….”
1865-1960s African Americans become the victims of a wave of violence throughout the South. 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.
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 voters; 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.
1873-1876 Publicized battles between black militiamen, who are often Union army veterans, and white paramilitary groups, such as the Klan and the Red Shirts, make true democratic rule in parts of the South difficult, if not impossible. Among the most notable of these occur in Hamburg and Ellenton, South Carolina, and Colfax and New Orleans, Louisiana.
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.
Historians call this event the Colfax Massacre.
The dead are gathered after 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 supremacists. 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.
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 of Columbia’s gun ban law.
2010 In the case MCDONALD ET AL. v. CITY OF CHICAGO, ILLINOIS, ET AL, the Supreme Court, by a 5-4 vote, overturned Chicago’s handgun ban and ruled that the Second Amendment applies to the states. The lead plaintiff in the case is a 76 year-old African-American who wants a handgun for self-defense.
In his concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas stated
The use of firearms for self-defense was often the only way black citizens could protect themselves from mob violence. As Eli Cooper, one target of such violence, is said to have explained, “‘[t]he Negro has been run over for fifty years, but it must stop now, and pistols and shotguns are the only weapons to stop a mob.’” Sometimes, as in Cooper’s case, self-defense did not succeed. He was dragged from his home by a mob and killed as his wife looked on. But at other times, the use of firearms allowed targets of mob violence to survive. One man recalled the night during his childhood when his father stood armed at a jail until morning to ward off lynchers. The experience left him with a sense, “not ‘of powerlessness, but of the “possibilities of salvation”’” that came from standing up to intimidation.