And so, black people have long turned to firearms in self-defense and collective defense of their communities against white supremacy. Nineteenth-century black abolitionists William Parker, Lewis Hayden, Robert Purvis and Frederick Douglass armed themselves to defend against slave catchers or others who sought to harm them, knowing the system would not protect them. In the 20th century, Ida B. Wells, Fannie Lou Hamer and even Rosa Parks owned guns to protect themselves from the Klan, again thanks to fears that law enforcement turned a blind eye to white supremacist terrorism.
But being armed went beyond simple self defense for black Americans. With political avenues for engendering change blocked, and lacking political rights, for black Americans violence became a last-ditch means for securing freedom in a society saturated with white supremacy.
During the antebellum period, many black abolitionists believed violence was required to overthrow slavery. Black abolitionist and physician James McCune Smith remarked, “Our white brethren cannot understand us unless we speak to them in their own language; they recognize only the philosophy of force.” The philosophy of force guided their principles all the way to the Civil War. In fact, black resistance, and in particular violent resistance, was central to emancipation. Force was used to rescue fugitive slaves, threaten slaveholders, compel Northerners to act on behalf of the enslaved and protect vulnerable communities from assault. For a black community without the ballot, violence was the double-edged sword of democracy.
While history emphasizes the nonviolent mentality of the abolitionist movement, violent actions just as frequently drove American emancipation. For example, the Underground Railroad is predominantly discussed in terms of heroic acts of escape; but fleeing often required fighting. In 1851, runaways William and Eliza Parker formed the black self-protection society to aid escaping slaves from the infamous Fugitive Slave Law.
When four fugitive slaves sought refuge in the Parkers’ home, they gave them shelter. And when the master from whom the slaves had fled, Edward Gorsuch, arrived with a team of men at Parker’s home to retrieve his property, they were met with violent resistance. There was gunfire and in the end, Gorsuch lay dead. When asked about the use of violence Parker claimed, “The Laws for personal protection are not made for us, and we are not bound to obey them…we have no country.” Parker believed that enslaved or free black people should not be forced to obey laws that did not grant them the rights to have a say in the shape of such laws.
Human bondage is warfare, and dismantling this system required war against it. That war took the form of threats, beatings, mob attacks and even murder. In 1861, former slave John Anderson gave a speech before an abolitionist audience in Canada. He spoke about being pursued by a slave catcher as he escaped bondage. Anderson had warned the slave catcher that if he continued to follow him, Anderson would kill him. The man would not relent and so Anderson made good on his word.
Anderson regretted his actions, but he felt he had no alternative. Despite being cheered on by the crowd, Anderson wondered out loud if he could still be considered a Christian. These were the agonizing decisions and strategies confronting those charged with the grueling task of creating political and social reform without an official (or recognized) political voice.
Where nonviolence failed, force succeeded. For slave catchers, fugitive slaves became “the deadliest catch.” Violence made black leaders some of the most discussed political figures who ran, not for office, but for freedom. Force and violence invigorated the abolitionist movement, accelerated tensions between the North and the South and hastened the Civil War. The war would not have been waged without the pressure of black Americans, and it could not have been won with the presence of black Americans. Our history is clear: violence abolished slavery.
Black abolitionist Joshua Easton presciently declared that “abolitionists may attack slaveholding, but there is a danger still that the spirit of slavery will survive, in the form of prejudice, after the system is overturned.” Easton claimed that “our warfare ought not to be against slavery alone, but against the spirit which makes color a mark of degradation.” Unlike white abolitionists or most Northerners, black abolitionists were committed to the two-fold mission of emancipation and equality. Freedom meant little if you couldn’t obtain citizenship, the vote or access public facilities and services.
This was the struggle that followed the Civil War, and once again, protective violence played an integral role in winning political gains for the civil rights movement of the 20th century. In 1965, the Deacons for Defense and Justice protected civil rights groups facing violence and intimidation from the Klan. When angry white protesters confronted black activists, the Deacons intervened and defended them when the mob refused to relent.
On one occasion, Deacon Henry Austin pulled out his gun, shot and hit a white man. Immediately, the crowd dispersed. While no one died that day, including the white man who was shot, Austin proved a valuable point: protective violence worked in the face of a mob. When the Klan realized their own lives could be at risk terrorizing black communities, racial violence came to a halt.
Opposing the slaveholding South and white supremacy nationally was not just difficult, it was deadly. And this is the challenge we confront today as we face another election and increasing tensions over access to the ballot, inequality, citizenship, police brutality and xenophobia. Joshua Easton was right: we have overthrown slavery, but the spirit of slavery persists. Our goals ought to be to listen and to act before violence becomes a way of communicating grievances, combating oppression and casting a proverbial ballot.
The ways in which black abolitionists used violence and defense deserves a more sustained and nuanced analysis. The past is our best predictor of paths forward. In resisting oppression, violence is, at the very least, instructive. When it came to black Americans’ freedom, Frederick Douglass admitted, “The American public…discovered and accepted more truth in our four years of Civil War than they learned in forty years of peace.” The truth held in violence is an invaluable lesson, one that black people have learned many times over.