The what and why of Negroes and the Gun: The Black Tradition of Arms

January 27

Much of my scholarship over the last two decades has focused on gun issues. Some find this an odd specialty for someone like me. Negroes and the Gun is a sort of answer to people who wonder and often have asked, how is it that a black law professor at a New York City law school comes to write sympathetically about the Second Amendment and gun rights. But Negroes and the Gun also demands its own preliminary explanation.

No one really uses the word Negro anymore. I haven’t said it out loud in decades. So the title of this book is odd in that sense. But in other more important ways the title is entirely apt. Some will recognize the title as a variation on Robert Williams’ memoir, Negroes with Guns (readers will become acquainted with Williams in the first chapter and again in Chapter Seven as he provokes a conflict with the NAACP that captures the central theme of the black tradition of arms). Negroes is also evocative of the deep roots of the black tradition of arms which emerged at a time in the American story when most black people had the legal status of mules and would have been gratified to be called Negroes.

The book chronicles a tradition of church folk, merchants, and strivers, the very best people in the community, armed and committed to the principle of individual self-defense. This black tradition of arms takes root early and ranges fully into the modern era. It is demonstrated in Frederick Douglass’s nineteenth century advice of a good revolver as the best response to slave catchers. It is evident in mature form in 1963, when Hartman Turnbow of Mississippi fought off a Klan attack with rifle fire. Turnbow considered this fully consistent with the principles of the freedom movement, explaining, “I wasn’t being non-nonviolent, I was just protectin’ my family.”

The black tradition of arms has been submerged because it seems hard to reconcile with the dominant narrative of nonviolence in the modern civil-rights movement. But that superficial tension is resolved by the long-standing distinction that was vividly evoked by movement stalwart Fannie Lou Hamer. Hamer’s approach to segregationists who dominated Mississippi politics was, “Baby you just got to love ’em. Hating just makes you sick and weak.” But, asked how she survived the threats from midnight terrorists, Hamer responded, “I’ll tell you why. I keep a shotgun in every corner of my bedroom and the first cracker even look like he wants to throw some dynamite on my porch won’t write his mama again.”

Like Hartman Turnbow, Fannie Lou Hamer embraced private self-defense and political nonviolence without any sense of contradiction. In this she channeled a more-than-century-old practice and philosophy that evolved through every generation, sharpened by icons like Ida B. Wells, W. E. B. Du Bois and Daisy Bates, pressed by the burgeoning NAACP, and crystalized by Martin Luther King Jr., who articulated it this way:

Violence exercised merely in self-defense, all societies, from the most primitive to the most cultured and civilized, accept as moral and legal. The principle of self defense,even involving weapons and bloodshed, has never been condemned, even by Gandhi…. When the Negro uses force in self-defense, he does not forfeit support — he may even win it, by the courage and self-respect it reflects…. But violence as a tool of advancement, involving organization as in warfare … poses incalculable perils.

In practice and in policy, from the leadership to the grass roots, this view prevailed into the 1960s — right up to the point where the civil-rights movement boiled over into violent protests and black radicals openly defied the traditional boundary against political violence. That violent and radical turn was the catalyst for a dramatic transition, as the movement ushered in a new black political class. Rising within a progressive political coalition that included the newly minted national gun-control movement, the bourgeoning black political class embraced gun bans and lesser supply controls as one answer to violent crime in their new domains. By the mid-1970s, these influences had supplanted the generations-old black tradition of arms with a modern orthodoxy of stringent gun control. The first seven chapters of the book chronicle the rise and evolution of black tradition of arms. Chapter 8 details the pivot from that tradition into the modern orthodoxy of stringent gun control.

The secondary theme of the book, distilled in the last chapter, addresses an intriguing tension. On one side is the tragic plague of violent young black men with guns and the toll that this violence takes on many black communities. On the other is the fact that recent momentous affirmations of the constitutional right to keep and bear arms were led by black plaintiffs, Shelly Parker and Otis McDonald, who complained that stringent gun laws in Washington, DC, and Chicago left them disarmed against the criminals who plagued their neighborhoods. The modern orthodoxy would cast Parker and McDonald as dupes or fools. But the black tradition of arms places them in a more complex light and raises critical unexamined questions about the modern orthodoxy. Chapter 9 engages those questions, highlights the diversity of interests and views about the gun question, and assesses the current implications of the black tradition of arms.

In the several years that I have been working on this project, people have asked what broadly did I hope to achieve? My goal here is to answer a longing that I have observed in a variety of contexts. It is evident when people, especially young people of color, probing the narrative of the civil-rights movement, wonder plaintively whether anyone ever fought back. There is a palpable yearning for something more than the images of Negroes in church clothes assaulted at lunch counters, attacked by dogs and flattened by baton charges. The freedom movement is filled with these sorts of non-violent heroes. But they were also victims, and that leaves us unfulfilled, grateful for their sacrifice, but still not fully proud. The question lingers, where is our Leonidas? Where is our classic champion who meets force with force even in the face of long odds? Some will find an answer in the black tradition of arms.

Of course, many episodes chronicled in the book end badly for Negroes with guns. And any worry about over-glorifying violence is further diminished by accounts of prosaic black-on-black violence and desperate, failed efforts that are more pathetic than heroic. But other episodes, like Hartman Turnbow’s defiant stand, leave us wondering how different is this, really, from the tale of gallant young cavalrymen charging artillery placements with sabers?

The book tracks the black tradition of arms through every generation, through the words and deeds of black men and women from the leadership to the grass roots. Over the next four days I will give a sampling of this, beginning tomorrow with detail including the generally unacknowledged planning and practice of armed fugitive slaves and freemen who embraced Fredrick Douglass’s advice that a good revolver was the best answer to the Fugitive Slave laws.

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