On MLK holiday, walking for civil rights and the Second Amendment
By Courtland Milloy,
When Charles “Chuck” Hicks does the Martin Luther King Jr. Day peace and freedom walks Saturday, he’ll also be taking a step for what the National Rifle Association has dubbed “National Rifle Appreciation Day.” That’s because Hicks is the son of Robert Hicks, a prominent leader of the legendary Deacons for Defense and Justice — an organization of black men in Louisiana who used shotguns and rifles to repel attacks by white vigilantes during the 1960s.
“The Klan would drive through our neighborhood shooting at us, shooting into our homes,” recalled Hicks, 66, who grew up in Bogalusa, La., and has been a civil rights activist in the District for more than 35 years. “The black men in the community wouldn’t stand for it. You shoot at us, we shoot back at you. I’m convinced that without our guns, my family and many other black people would not be alive today.”
As one of the organizers for the weekend’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day activities, Hicks’s pro-gun stance may seem like something of an anomaly. But even though King may best be remembered for his philosophy of nonviolent protest, the fact is that black civil rights activists in many small towns throughout the South carried guns or received protection from groups like the Deacons for Defense and Justice.
In the current debate over gun rights vs. gun control, predominantly white pro-gun groups such as the NRA and Second Amendment Foundation cite oppressive British rule over the American colonies as the basis for the “right to bear arms.” The terrorism cited by black gun owners such as Hicks, however, is much more recent.
Just last year, for instance, on the King holiday, arsonists burned a car that belonged to Hicks’s sister in Bogalusa and attempted to burn the home where she and their mother live. His sister is an outspoken advocate for civil rights in Louisiana. Last week, a car was seen circling the block around their home, parked, then suspiciously sped away when neighbors approached. The FBI is investigating both incidents.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, more than 1,000 hate groups are operating today in the United States, most of them neo-Nazis, Klansmen, white nationalists, neo-Confederates and racist skinheads with a particular antipathy for black people.
Infringe on the Second Amendment? No way, say 30 percent of African Americans (myself included), according to a recent Pew poll. No doubt many of them believe, like Hicks, that it’s better to have a gun and not need it than not have one and wish you did.
Of course, that leaves 70 percent of black people who favor more stringent gun control — in part because gun violence among blacks takes a higher toll than anything the Klan could inflict these days. Hicks sympathizes, but he believes more emphasis should be put on self-control.
For him, the King walk symbolizes a quest for peace and freedom through discipline and commitment to family and community. He wants black people to “rescue our neighborhoods from gangs and people who have guns illegally.” But, if the Deacons for Justice and Defense are any guide, reaching Hicks’s goal would require having a lot more fathers in the homes.
So, on one side of the gun issue, we have a call for fewer guns; on the other, a call for more fathers. Which would be easier to achieve?
The King walks certainly offer time to think about it. The first leg, called the Freedom Walk, begins at 8:30 a.m. at Landsburgh Park, at Delaware Avenue and M Street SW. It proceeds over the Fredrick Douglass Memorial Bridge and ends at the United Black Fund in the 2500 block of Martin Luther King Avenue SE.
The second, called the Peace Walk, picks up from there between 10 and 10:15 a.m. and proceeds to the corner of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X avenues SE.
Hicks, past president of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 1808, will probably pay homage to the Deacons for Defense and Justice and the courage they showed in protecting their communities.
“Growing up, we had a lot of admiration for the Deacons,” Hicks said. “Their philosophy was, ‘It’s better to die on your feet than live on your knees.’ ”
With guns in hand, they didn’t have to do either.
For previous columns by Milloy, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.