For the most part, Rep. John Lewis had the right idea.
Battle-tested by the civil rights movement and still inclined to be driven by conscience rather than convenience, the 76-year-old Georgia congressman recently led his Democratic colleagues in a 26-hour sit-in to protest the House of Representatives’ refusal to do anything to stop people like Omar Mateen—who used an AR-15-type semi-automatic rifle to slaughter 49 people last month at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla.—from getting their hands on guns.
Not surprisingly, that sit-in, at least so far, has yielded more threats than actions—with some Republican lawmakers more intent on punishing the protesting Democrats for breaking rules of order.
Which should come as no surprise. People like that, people who want to maintain their power and privilege, tend to be more obsessed with order than with justice.
It’s always been that way.
But now I’m wondering whether African Americans should be following the lead of people like Lewis, who continues to build on the dream of creating a nonviolent society; or the lead of Robert Williams, who, while fighting off the Ku Klux Klan in Monroe, N.C., in the 1950s, filed for a charter from the National Rifle Association to create the Black Guard because he understood that in order to build on that dream, black people needed to protect themselves to wake up the next day.
Sadly enough, many of the circumstances that led Williams to push for black people to have guns back then are re-emerging.
Let’s face it: The advancement of black and brown people in this country—or at least the idea of it—is behind much of the steroid-fueled fervor for guns. Shortly after Barack Obama was elected as the nation’s first black president in 2008, gun sales soared. While some might attribute that initial spike to fears about Obama instituting new gun control measures, that doesn’t explain the yearly increases after he pretty much did nothing with gun control.
Then there’s this: Driven by resentment over Latino immigration and the fact that white people will no longer be in the majority by 2040—something that Obama’s presidency constantly serves as a reminder of—the number of Klan groups, anti-government militia groups and anti-Muslim groups has surged. Emboldened by the campaign of GOP presidential contender Donald Trump, even the KKK claims that it is experiencing a resurgence.
Then there were the times when white people grabbed guns to act on their resentment against a government headed by a black man. In 2014, Cliven Bundy attracted hordes of anti-government militia members armed with semi-automatic weapons during a standoff with federal officials over grazing rights in Nevada.
Even then, Bundy’s issues with the government weren’t as much about individual rights as they were about racial resentment: He implied that black people were better off during slavery.
Then, in 2015, Dylann Roof, fueled by racist manifestos and a simmering resentment for black people, slaughtered nine black people during Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.
And earlier this year, Bundy’s sons, Ammon and Ryan, led other armed militia-group members in occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon to protest the imprisonment of two of their rancher friends for committing arson on federal lands.
They were joined by racists and Holocaust deniers.
Oh, and then there are the gun shows, where people often wear racist paraphernalia and sport racist slogans to get more racist people to buy more guns to kill black people—like the person who paid $250,000 to George Zimmerman for the gun he used to kill Trayvon Martin.
This is scary.
Because of the proliferation of assault weapons and extremism, a few racist people can do far more damage now and kill far more people now than they could back in Williams’ day.
Racists such as the Bundys, Roof, Zimmerman and those who shoot at black targets at gun shows pose more of a threat to black people than those who may or may not be on the terrorist watch list that the Lewis-led sit-in was mostly about. These are people who are buying weapons not to protect their lives or their property but to protect their privilege. These are the people who see minorities as being in the way of all that, and they don’t mind killing black and brown people to get them out of the way.
So is it time for black people to channel Williams when it comes to gun control? Is it time for a black NRA?
Not necessarily. But it is necessary that, when it comes to restricting guns, black people understand what it is they’re asking for.
Especially when more and more people who hate us seem to have them.