Black Ambivalence About Gun Control

The gun-control debate is complex, particularly as it relates to African descendants in the United States. As with almost every other issue, the racial dimensions cannot be dismissed.

From the beginning, slave-holding society fought to block enslaved Africans’ access to weapons, to reduce the likelihood of insurrection. After emancipation, blacks sought arms not only to hunt but to protect themselves from white-supremacist terror. Since the “right to bear arms” was denied them during their enslavement, emancipated blacks associated gun ownership with citizenship and liberty. But segregationists continued trying to disarm blacks after emancipation.

In doing research into armed resistance during the Southern black freedom struggle in the 1950s and 60s, I found ample evidence—through interviews with movement participants and archival records, particularly those of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party—that blacks turned to armed self-defense to protect activist leadership and their communities from white-terrorist violence. It was a rite of passage for rural black families to teach children to use arms as a means of survival, for both food and protection. And black girls were trained to shoot to protect themselves from white rapists.

It is a myth that the civil-rights movement was exclusively nonviolent. I have the utmost respect for Congressman John Lewis and the sacrifices he made. But I disagree with his statement, in responding to opponents of President Obama’s original gun-control proposal, that he and his colleagues in the movement “believed the only way to achieve peaceful ends was through peaceful means. We took a stand against an unjust system, and we decided to use this faith as our shield and the power of compassion as our defense.”

In dozens of Southern communities, black people picked up arms to defend themselves—especially where federal officials failed to safeguard movement activists and supporters from the violence of racists and segregationists, who were often supported by local law enforcement.

One example of armed self-defense was during the Freedom Summer of 1964, in Mississippi’s Tallahatchie County, where Emmett Till’s body had been found nine years earlier. Vigilantes, or “night riders,” had terrorized SNCC workers and volunteers and local residents after trying to register to vote. The SNCC workers were housed on the family property of 89-year-old elder Janie Brewer. A week later, after SNCC workers and local residents returned downtown to try to register again, a racist posse followed the group to the Brewer family compound. Brewer organized her children, grandchildren, and neighbors, along with members of SNCC, to ambush the night riders. The night riders were surprised by the armed ambush and abruptly left the area.

Congressman Lewis’s statement is true for a small number of committed activists who engaged in civil disobedience and voter registration in Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. But those activists were often protected by grassroots black people armed with shotguns and rifles. Some members of SNCC (Lewis was chairman from 1963-66) picked up weapons and worked with community people to defend the activists’ lives against white terrorists. The Freedom House in Greenwood, Miss., was SNCC’s headquarters in the state. Members participated in an armed security detail around the Freedom House in January 1964 after several attacks by white racists. SNCC’s first recruit in Mississippi, Hollis Watkins, participated in an armed patrol in rural Holmes County the same year.

After the civil-rights and black-power era, the issue of guns in black communities took on new dimensions. Socioeconomic factors contributed to a crisis for black families: the destabilization of poor families due to cuts in the federal government’s welfare programs, increased individualism among blacks—many identified less with “the movement”—undermining community development and empowerment, and a decline in the manufacturing economy that employed significant numbers of black males.

At the same time, the federal “Cointelpro” assault on black leaders, organizations, and institutions weakened solidarity and black political consciousness in the 1970s. And black communities experienced a growth in gang activity and an influx of drugs.

Increased access to automatic weapons and assault rifles paralleled the crisis; now the most criminal and unstable elements of black communities had easy access to guns. Unlike previous generations of youth who had been trained by their elders to protect their families and communities, large numbers of black youth now were acquiring weapons in an underground economy that had no interest in protecting anybody.

The criminal use of guns still poses a challenge to urban and rural blacks and has motivated support for gun control in black communities. At the same time, some politically and socially conscious blacks are concerned about the application and consequences of gun control based on the history of white supremacy in the United States and the desire of racists to disarm blacks. Human-rights groups have reported the abuses of predominately white militia groups mobilized to bring “order” in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The growth of white-supremacist and right-wing paramilitary formations and militias since the 2008 election of Barack Obama, and the fatal shooting of young Trayvon Martin by a white civilian, have done nothing to decrease black fear of white violence.

Reminiscent of the lyrics of the late popular artist Gil Scott-Heron, some blacks feel this way: “When other folks give up theirs, I’ll give up mine.” Blacks do not want gun control that will leave our communities defenseless against white supremacists or right-wing paramilitary groups. They will not voluntarily return weapons while those groups are allowed to exist.

Gun control for many black activists is at heart an issue of self-determination, self-reliance, and self-defense. Some black people will not disarm in a political and social environment where black life is still challenged and not valued. It is in everyone’s interest to advocate for policies that take weapons out of the hands of unstable people.

But at the same time, we need to provide economic alternatives for black youths trapped in the drug economy; end the “war on drugs” through decriminalization and the treatment of substance abuse as a public-health issue; and provide accessible and culturally relevant education that prepares black students for professions and entrepreneurship. Those are sensible weapons that will create safe communities for people of all races.

 Akinyele Umoja is an associate professor and chair of the department of African-American studies at Georgia State University. He is the author of  We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement, to be published by New York University Press in April.

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