Negroes and the Gun: Non-violent Winchesters and the fine art of concealed carry in the modern civil rights movement

January 31

The longest chapter in the book Negroes and the Gun is devoted to the modern civil rights movement. The record here is rich with oral histories, memoirs and other detailed firsthand accounts that illuminated the Black tradition of arms.

Local lore in Columbia, Tenn. says that in 1946, armed Negroes were a brake on plans to lynch Thurgood Marshall. The prodigiously armed T.R.M. Howard and the surrounding Black community were central in the quest for justice for Emmett Till. In 1956, Constance Baker Motley and Thurgood Marshall were guarded by armed Black men overnight and on the way to the courthouse when they were in Birmingham to press desegregation cases.

Rosa Parks recounts vividly a table filled with guns, as she and Ray Parks started hosting activist meetings at their house on Huffman Street. And Ray’s gun was a comfort when harassment began. Legendary activist Fred Shuttlesworth rode to the rescue with a fifteen car caravan of armed Black men when Freedom Riders were menaced by a crowd in Anniston. Shuttlesworth ’s good friend Reverend Ed Gardner would later capture the dichotomy that undergirded the movement in a quip about his “non-violent Winchester.” Condoleezza Rice was just a child at the time, but vividly reconstructs the scene of her father and the men of “Dynamite Hill” in Birmingham organizing an armed watch to deter bomb throwers.

Daisy Bates, who shepherded the Little Rock Nine through the integration struggle, offers a rich record of the culture of arms. Correspondence with Thurgood Marshall confirms that Bates kept “Old Betsey” at the ready. Her memoir shows that she often carried a gun and once actually fired on a seething little man who had launched a firebomb at her home.

Our eye is drawn to the famous names, but we are lucky that the surviving record is rich with unheralded characters. Some of these people deserve monuments, but we barely know them. Over time, one hopes, their names will rise in our culture, and people will recognize the images and appreciate the steel in the eyes of women like Winson Hudson, Leola Blackmon, Ora Bryant, Jackie Hicks, Fannie Lou Hamer, and the even deeper lineup of the sober, mature Black men who embraced armed self-defense as a crucial private resource.

These people not only owned guns and fired them in self-defense. They also carried guns in defiance of discretionary permitting schemes of the type that said a bombing at Martin Luther King’s home did not constitute good cause for granting him a permit to carry a gun.

There are hints in the culture that carrying concealed weapons in defiance of state “authority” was a minor art form. The delta activist T.R.M. Howard had a secret compartment built into his car. Fannie Lou Hamer’s mother carried a gun concealed in a bucket. Medgar Evers hid his pistol in a driver’s seat pillow. Others capitalized on the practice of church folk to carry around their Bibles in big leather covers, and stuffed guns in with the jumble of pens and papers.

But the prize for minimalist creativity goes to the lyrically named Sweets Turnbow, whose husband Hartman’s statement about “non-nonviolence” I mentioned in my first post. At the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, Sweets Turnbow strolled the venues casually carrying a brown paper bag. It looked like she was toting her lunch. Years later, those who knew the truth would tell that inside the bag was a loaded pistol and how “Sweets never went anyplace without her brown paper bag and gun.” It turns out this was a variation on the method employed by her husband Hartman, about whom Julian Bond reported, “It’s funny to see a man dressed like a farmer, with a briefcase. And he opens the briefcase and nothing’s in it but an army automatic.”

The narrative of nonviolence is always in the background here. And it is proper to acknowledge the unalloyed pacifism of people in the movement like Bob Moses and John Lewis. They had strong influence on the dominant narrative. That theme is demonstrated in the warning of a white minister from New Jersey that “the movement is no place for guns,” after spying a big pistol on the car seat of one of the Deacons for Defense, who Martin Luther King had agreed would provide security for continuation of the March against Fear.

But other northern activists, also among the unsung, reflected the sentiments of their hosts about the importance of private self-defense. Yale law student Don Kates drew enduring practical lessons about the value of private firearms from his Black hosts and translated that into a lifetime of gigantically influential Second Amendment scholarship. Native American activist John Salter explains that his preparations tracked those of the community, recounting, “Like a martyred friend of mine, Medgar Evers, I traveled armed with a .38 and a 44/40 Winchester Carbine.”

Medgar Evers’ brother, Charles also considered the gun an indispensable tool. We are left wondering how to value statements of John Salter and Charles Evers that guns saved their lives, against the bloody fact that a man with a gun took the life of their beloved brother and friend Medgar. One lesson is that a gun is no guarantee of safety. And some will argue that it makes things worse. Still, Evers, Salter, and countless others chose the gun, suggesting that amid conflicting empirical claims about the costs and benefits of firearms, much of this ultimately comes down to private assessments and private choice.

The dilemma posed by the different outcomes for Charles and Medgar Evers, also pushes us to grapple with the broader implications of the book. The easy claim about Negroes and the Gun is that it illuminates an under-acknowledged history and revives for our consideration a panoply of authentic American heroes whose stories complicate the common narrative of Black victimization.

But there is another harder thing to grapple with here. Beyond the history lesson, what are the current policy implications of the Black tradition of arms? The final chapters show how the tradition was supplanted within the Black political class by the current orthodoxy of stringent gun control, including measures that would make armed self-defense virtually impossible. On the other hand, what to make of the fact that recent momentous affirmations of the constitutional right to arms were pressed by Black plaintiffs who wanted a right to have guns for self-defense? The last two chapters of the book offer a foundation for thinking and talking about these questions.

Thanks for your comments to these posts. I will backtrack next week and try to respond to them. Thanks finally to the Volokh Conspiracy for allowing me to blog about the book.

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Jim Lindgren | January 31