One of the earliest scenes of the Autobiography of Malcolm X takes us to the Lansing, Mich., of 1929. Malcolm's father, Earl Little, a Baptist minister derided as "uppity" for aspiring to own a store and live outside the city's traditional black neighborhoods, shot a pistol one night at a pair of white men who'd apparently set the family's home ablaze. In the following weeks, the police regularly searched the new Little residence, "looking for a gun." The pistol, which officials refused to issue the minister a permit to legally carry, was eventually sewn into a pillow.
The scene is a powerful reminder of why for much of American history, it was necessary for blacks to fight for the right to bear arms, often to protect our very existence.
The tricky relationship between blacks and guns is on the brain in part because of the response to the tragic case of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed 17-year-old high school junior fatally shot in late February by George Zimmerman, a volunteer neighborhood-watch patrolman who legally carried a weapon.
A little more than a week ago I suggested that the Martin case should open a meaningful debate about the future of gun policy. The most striking responses to that column boiled down to this: History binds blacks to the gun-rights movement. "Remember your history," one reader wrote me. So I started reading the history.
It's easy to forget that the 17th-century French slave code, Le Code Noir, explicitly prohibited colonial slaves from bearing weapons — except with their master's permission to hunt on plantation grounds. Later, in 1776, the Founding Fathers clearly did not view blacks as citizens to be given the Constitution's Second Amendment rights.
An important reminder on this comes — astonishingly — from Clarence Thomas, the Supreme Court justice. In his 2010 McDonald v. Chicago (pdf) opinion, Thomas notes that pre-Civil War lawmakers, particularly in the South, used highly restrictive gun laws to control freed blacks, slaves and certain whites. "It is difficult to overstate the extent to which fear of a slave uprising gripped slaveholders and dictated the acts of Southern legislatures," he wrote.
The conservative jurist, who was raised in the segregated South, points to two key Reconstruction-era cases. First, there's the 1873 Colfax Massacre in Louisiana, in which white militias killed dozens of blacks to maintain control of a courthouse in the wake of a contested election in which African Americans displayed new authority. One view held that the states would defend all the rights of all residents to bear arms — including blacks granted full citizenship by the 14th Amendment, in 1868. This, of course, did not happen.
Thomas also reminds us of the Hamburg Massacre in South Carolina, in which a white militia murdered a group of blacks simply because they'd held a Fourth of July parade. "The use of firearms for self-defense," Thomas wrote, "was often the only way black citizens could protect themselves from mob violence."
Polls (pdf) show that Generation Xers are as divided on the issue of gun rights as everyone else. But here's what shapes my view. My grandfather was a hunter who carried a pistol attached to his hip, mainly to protect his businesses. I grew up in a house with guns but never held one. Not long ago, while I spent 14 months reporting in Detroit, my dad suggested I get a gun. I resisted, partly because to do so would be acknowledgment that we had become a vigilante state; some of the response to Martin's death supports that view.
Just yesterday, a friend who is a proud gun owner raised in rural Pennsylvania said, "You're like a virginal black nun trying to preach about the dirtiness of sex." Not quite. But nearly 80 percent of the U.S. population now lives in urban areas — not on farms. It's hard to understand why we're forbidding public colleges from banning concealed weapons, as Utah has done. It's also astonishing that Americans own nearly one-third of the world's estimated 875 million civilian firearms. Like we're preparing to live in Kabul, Teheran or Nairobi.
It's important to remember the past, because certain ugly strains of history have a disturbing way of reappearing. We should never get too comfortable. There was a time when blacks were viewed as subhuman, and interracial relationships were illegal. Yet the product of an interracial relationship lives in the White House and proudly identifies as black. Gay people were once dismissed as deranged, but we now run some of the most influential institutions in America. The point is, our society has evolved.
The argument that we're historically bound to guns is antiquated. Even as we remember history, at some point we must move on and shape policies that are in a modern society's best interests. Voting is a right; gun ownership is a privilege. It's impossible to know whether policies that restrict gun access would have prevented the deaths in Florida or the recent school shooting in California, or countless others that won't make national headlines. But if those cases don't make the case for why we need to talk about guns, what will?