Guns Have Always Been Vital to Black Political Struggle

From slave revolts to self-defense, Black revolutionary history is often ignored in the gun control conversation.

Charles Cobb Jr. March 1, 2018

An unidentified member of the Detroit chapter of the Black Panther Party stands guard with a shotgun on Dec. 11, 1969. Black political struggle North and South has long relied on guns for self-defense. (Bettman/Contributor)

Guns them­selves are not cen­tral to gun vio­lence. My think­ing on this is shaped by my expe­ri­ence as a Stu­dent Non­vi­o­lent Coor­di­nat­ing Com­mit­tee orga­niz­er in Mis­sis­sip­pi in the 1960s, where guns helped keep us alive. Indeed, the cen­turies-long his­to­ry of Black armed rebel­lion against slav­ery and resis­tance to white suprema­cist ter­ror illus­trates that guns have always been vital to Black strug­gle. To be clear, there should be gun con­trol. You can con­trol guns, how­ev­er, with­out tak­ing them away.

Guns were used to fend off night riders seeking to murder civil rights activists and their supporters.

Let’s exam­ine the argu­ment. From the Right we hear expres­sions of fear and hos­til­i­ty — fear of immi­grants, of Black peo­ple, of a gov­ern­ment they con­sid­er inher­ent­ly oppres­sive. NRA head Wayne LaPierre defend­ed gun rights at the Con­ser­v­a­tive Polit­i­cal Action Con­fer­ence just a week after the Park­land, Fla., mas­sacre, denounc­ing Barack Oba­ma, the media, Hol­ly­wood, Euro­pean-style social­ist con­trol of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, George Soros, Michael Bloomberg, Mex­i­cans, Chi­na, Black Lives Mat­ter and NFL players.

From the Left-lib­er­al arena’s often elite and enti­tled quar­ters, we hear a kind of class bias — the idea that there is some­thing off, even dan­ger­ous, in the minds of gun pro­po­nents. Take Obama’s com­ments that small-town res­i­dents cling to guns and religion.”

Quite frankly, I do not know why any­one needs an AR-15. But there are peo­ple where I live who like to shoot paint­ball guns and pre­tend they are Ram­bo, and I do not under­stand this, either. What I do under­stand is that guns are unique­ly roman­ti­cized in this coun­try. For those who desire them, an AR-15 is the equiv­a­lent of the toy cow­boy pis­tol kids are giv­en at Christ­mas. Slave revolts notwith­stand­ing — roman­ti­cized in my own African-Amer­i­can fam­i­ly life — it is often the worst aspects of gun use that are most roman­ti­cized: their use in the con­quest of Native Amer­i­cans and in main­tain­ing white suprema­cy, even their use by killers like Al Capone or Bon­nie and Clyde. This has bred a dan­ger­ous tol­er­ance for gun pos­ses­sion and gun vio­lence in U.S. cul­ture unlike any other.

It is only when it comes to the Black free­dom strug­gle that gun use is large­ly ignored, and often demeaned. Con­sid­er the mid-20th cen­tu­ry South­ern Free­dom Move­ment. Peo­ple are often star­tled when I insist that guns helped make that move­ment pos­si­ble, but guns were a rou­tine part of South­ern life. They helped put food on the table in poor rur­al com­mu­ni­ties. They were used to fend off night rid­ers seek­ing to mur­der civ­il rights activists and their sup­port­ers. Indeed, few South­ern homes — Black or White — were with­out guns.

Guns were not the prob­lem — but how they were used was crit­i­cal. Klans­men and the like defend­ed White suprema­cy through vio­lence. Their actions were backed by state and local gov­ern­ments and large­ly ignored by the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment. The armed resis­tance of local move­ment sup­port­ers was invalu­able to the movement’s sur­vival. Groups such as the Dea­cons for Defense and Jus­tice of Louisiana, formed to pro­tect non­vi­o­lent work­ers of the Con­gress of Racial Equal­i­ty (CORE), or the Black Guard” formed in Mon­roe, N.C., by NAACP leader Robert Williams, were con­scious­ly polit­i­cal, high­ly dis­ci­plined and vis­i­bly active in pro­tect­ing move­ment activists. But their con­tri­bu­tions are erased by a canon that defines the Move­ment as non­vi­o­lent.”

What about today? Gun vio­lence has unques­tion­ably grown, and more guns are in more hands. But it remains unproven whether the lat­ter is the pri­ma­ry cause of the former.

In poor inner-city com­mu­ni­ties, the prob­lem of gun vio­lence seems to have grown because of society’s will­ful refusal to cre­ate a lev­el play­ing field. Ban­ning cer­tain types of weapons will not solve the issues of rage, alien­ation and lack of oppor­tu­ni­ty that under­lie such prob­lems. As I once heard Nation of Islam leader Louis Far­rakhan remark: If you cre­ate a jun­gle don’t be sur­prised if there are preda­tors in it.”

And noth­ing short of some kind of mil­i­ta­rized con­fis­ca­tion will even begin to remove the more than 300 mil­lion guns in pri­vate hands. It may be pos­si­ble nonethe­less to achieve some lim­it­ed forms of gun con­trol: I like to sug­gest manda­to­ry gun insur­ance, nation­al reg­is­tra­tion and pro­fi­cien­cy test­ing, a 21-year-old age require­ment and tough penal­ties for the wrong­ful use of guns. But real gun con­trol, that which could reduce or end gun vio­lence, requires a val­ues rev­o­lu­tion, a rad­i­cal human­is­tic reset of our thoughts and behav­ior toward our­selves and oth­ers. That may be impos­si­ble in this coun­try at this point.

Charles Cobb Jr. is a jour­nal­ist, author and for­mer field sec­re­tary for the Stu­dent Non­vi­o­lent Coor­di­nat­ing Com­mit­tee (SNCC). His lat­est book, pub­lished by Duke Uni­ver­si­ty Press, is This Non­vi­o­lent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civ­il Rights Move­ment Possible.
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