MLK, the KKK and the NRA: A Brief History of Racists With Guns

Image for article titled MLK, the KKK and the NRA: A Brief History of Racists With Guns
Photo: William H. Alden (Getty Images)

A white supremacist with a gun killed Martin Luther King Jr.

That fact alone makes Monday’s white supremacist-palooza seem particularly disrespectful. However, the history of the Second Amendment reflects America’s obsession with firearms as a means of oppression. Guns have been the primary tool for racial oppression since America was founded, so MLK Day might be the perfect holiday to showcase white men’s fear of black resistance.


The Washington Post reports:

Thousands of gun rights supporters from Virginia and across the country gathered in Richmond on Monday for a rally in opposition to gun-control laws being advanced by the General Assembly’s new Democratic majority. After threats and indications of potential violence, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) ordered a state of emergency and banned guns from Capitol Square; other advocates who would normally come to the Capitol for citizens’ Lobby Day mostly stayed away.

To fully understand America’s gun obsession, one must travel back in time to before America was actually a thing. Black people with guns have always been Public Enemy No. 1.

But why are gun rights advocates marching today? And why, on Martin Luther King Day, is “Black Panther” trending on Twitter?

Because ... history.

Fear of a Black Planet

Even before the American Revolution, slaveholding states had created militias to patrol slaves and prevent revolts. In Virginia, N.C., S.C. and most Southern States, white men between 18 and 60 were required to register and serve on slave patrols to “search and examine all Negro-Houses for offensive weapons and Ammunition.” The individual state militias that fought in the American Revolution were formed from these already-created slave patrols.


By June 14, 1788, eight of the 13 original colonies had already signed off on James Madison’s draft of the Constitution when Virginia held its convention to determine whether or not it would become the ninth state to ratify the document, officially binding the U.S. Constitution.

Madison, a Virginian and a Federalist, wasn’t in favor of adding the amendments that would become known as the Bill of Rights. But Virginia Gov. Patrick Henry, Madison’s anti-Federalist nemesis, staunchly opposed ratification unless the Constitution included guarantees that ensured certain freedoms for slaveholding states.


One of the biggest concerns for powerful Virginia slaveowners like Henry and delegate George Mason was the fear of slave revolts. Both men were from Eastern Virginia, where enslaved Africans actually outnumbered free whites. Even though the Constitution allowed the federal government to raise an army to fight invasions, the enslavers argued for an amendment that allowed them to put down the armed insurrection of slaves and ensure that Northern states wouldn’t free blacks who joined the Army.

Henry explained:

In this state there are two hundred and thirty-six thousand blacks, and there are many in several other states. But there are few or none in the Northern States; and yet, if the Northern States shall be of opinion that our slaves are numberless, they may call forth every national resource. May Congress not say, that every black man must fight? Did we not see a little of this last war? We were not so hard pushed as to make emancipation general; but acts of Assembly passed that every slave who would go to the army should be free. Another thing will contribute to bring this event about. Slavery is detested...

May they not think that these call for the abolition of slavery? May they not pronounce all slaves free, and will they not be warranted by that power?


Madison argued that the Constitution included a provision that provided for: “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; a well armed and well regulated militia being the best security of a free country: but no person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms shall be compelled to render military service in person”

Notice, it said “country,” which irked Henry even more.

“If there should happen an insurrection of slaves, the country cannot be said to be invaded,” Henry retorted. “They cannot, therefore, suppress it without the interposition of Congress.”


By the time the Second Amendment became an official part of the Constitution, it had been revised, making it the shortest of all the amendments in the Bill of Rights:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”


The Second Amendment never had anything to do with defending citizens from the tyranny of the government. It was always about the fear of black people.

Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos

After the Civil War, former Confederates began to fear what would happen if the newly freed blacks armed themselves—especially in states like Mississippi and South Carolina, where blacks outnumbered whites. To solve this problem, terrorist organizations sprang up across the South, disarming and murdering blacks by the tens of thousands.


The most notorious of these organizations eventually forced Congress to pass the Third Enforcement Act, one of the only times in American history that the President of the United States has been handed the power to suspend habeas corpus—the right to be detained without appearing before a judge. The law also prevents groups from depriving citizens of their Constitutional rights. Although it is officially called “An Act to Enforce the Provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, and for Other Purposes,” the law is more commonly known by the name of the terrorist organizations that inspired it.

You may know it as the Ku Klux Klan Act.

On April 13, 1873, former Confederate soldiers, along with white members of the Ku Klux Klan and the White League attacked a group of armed black men at the courthouse in Colfax, La. It would become “the bloodiest single instance of racial carnage in the Reconstruction era,” according to Historian Eric Foner.


After firing a cannon, the terrorists began shooting the black men at the courthouse. Then they went through the countryside and slaughtered anyone with black skin. No one still knows how many black people were killed. They fished 15-20 dead bodies out of the river. The number of dead is estimated at 105 to 150 but the exact number will never be told.

Three white people died.

Nine of the white defendants were tried and convicted under the Ku Klux Klan Act. One of the reasons that the KKK Act was invoked was that the lynch mob deprived black citizens of their right to assemble and bear arms. The convictions were appealed all the way to the Supreme Court. In United States vs. Cruikshank, the Court decided that the white citizens had indeed targeted the black victims and denied them of their right to own guns because of their race. But the court overturned the convictions because:

The right to bear arms is not granted by the Constitution; neither is it in any manner dependent upon that instrument for its existence. The Second Amendments means no more than that it shall not be infringed by Congress, and has no other effect than to restrict the powers of the National Government.


The first time the U.S. Supreme Court had ever ruled on the Second Amendment was to free a white mob for one of the worst massacres in history.

The Enemy Strikes Back

In 1965, a young black activist with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was organizing voters in Lowndes County, Ala. Even though the county was 80 percent black, only one of the county’s 12,000 registered voters was black. Because the area was known for its historic number of lynchings, many of the area’s black residents had armed themselves.


By 1966, Lowndes County’s registered voters were majority black.

That young Lowndes County activist, Stokely Carmichael, became the SNCC’s president in 1966, taking over from some dude named John Lewis. In June 1966, while participating in a “March Against Fear,” another activist, James Meredith, was shot by a sniper. Carmichael vowed to continue the march, and on Oct. 29, 1966, standing with Martin Luther King Jr., and other activists, Carmichael delivered a rousing, unapologetic speech that recalled his time in Lowndes County.


It is known as the “Black Power” speech.

On May 2, 1967, armed black men “invaded” California’s state Capitol carrying rifles and shotguns. Like the founders and former Confederates, the display of power frightened California’s legislature so much that lawmakers quickly passed the Mulford Act. Signed by Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1967, it would become the basis for modern gun control legislation


In an attempt to thwart the activists’ quest for armed self-defense, the California law repealed the right to open carry in the state. One of the reasons that the Mulford Act passed so quickly was because a powerful organization, the National Rifle Association, feared what would happen if militant black activists were allowed to carry weapons. Unbeknownst to many, when Carmichael gave that black power speech, he had already been contacted by those young activists from California a year before they stormed the capitol.

At the “March Against Fear,” Stokely recounted how the symbol of Alabama’s right-wing Democratic Party was a white rooster, symbolizing white supremacy.


“In Lowndes County, we developed something called the Lowndes County Freedom Organization,” Carmichael explained. “It is a political party. The Alabama law says that if you have a Party you must have an emblem.”

Image for article titled MLK, the KKK and the NRA: A Brief History of Racists With Guns
Image: Wikicommons

Carmichael continued:

If we were to be real and to be honest, we would have to admit, we would have to admit that most people in this country see things black and white. We have to do that. All of us do. We live in a country that’s geared that way. White people would have to admit that they are afraid to go into a black ghetto at night. They are afraid. That’s a fact. They’re afraid because they’d be “beat up,” “lynched,” “looted,” “cut up,” etcetera, etcetera. It happens to black people inside the ghetto every day, incidentally, and white people are afraid of that. So you get a man to do it for you–a policeman. And now you figure his mentality, when he’s afraid of black people. The first time a black man jumps, that white man gonna shoot him. He’s gonna shoot him. So police brutality is going to exist on that level because of the incapability of that white man to see black people come together and to live in the conditions. This country is too hypocritical and that we cannot adjust ourselves to its hypocrisy.”


Those people who are marching in Richmond are the people who rode on slave patrols. They’re the people who wore white sheets to massacre freedmen. They’re the same brand of white people who rejoiced when a white supremacist’s bullet shattered MLK’s jaw.

Stokely Carmichael had seen James Meredith shot. He had been on the Freedom Rides when they were bombed. He had seen his predecessor, John Lewis, get his skull fractured in Selma on “Bloody Sunday.”


That’s why the LCFO chose a mascot that “symbolizes the strength and dignity of black people, an animal that never strikes back until he’s backed so far into the wall.”

Carmichael knew that America’s fascination with guns had nothing to do with freedom or liberty. This nation’s fascination with firearms is about the fear of black people. It is a historical fact.


“We chose for the emblem a black panther.”

And that’s why it’s trending on Twitter.



In honor of half dollar, "get the strap".