Negroes With Guns: The Untold History of Black NRA Gun Clubs and the Civil Rights Movement


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Robert F. Williams and Armed Black Self-Defense

“To us there was no Constitution, no such thing as ‘moral persuasion’ – the only thing left was the bullet…I advocated violent self-defense because I don’t really think you can have a defense against violent racists and against terrorists unless you are prepared to meet violence with violence, and my policy was to meet violence with violence.” Robert Williams

In fact, African-Americans are very much a part of the increasing number of concealed carry permits obtained during the Obama Administration. Between 2012 and 2014, black permit holders increased from 10,389 to 17,594, with African-American women obtaining permits at the fastest rate – 3.44 times that of their white female counterparts. However, this increasingly positive attitude toward firearms might not be a new paradigm, but rather a return to form.

The NRA as an Organ of Individual and Collective Self-Defense

First, the narrative of the NRA as some sort of crypto-racist organization is simply false. In the first place, the NRA is a single-issue organization, which is how Harry Reid is able to obtain a “B” rating and get campaign cash from them, despite voting as a party-line Democrat on virtually every non-gun-related issue. More to the point, the NRA has historically opposed laws that were virtually tailor made to deny African-Americans the right to keep and bear arms. Many gun control laws to this day stem from the KKK’s fear of armed and independent minorities. The Rosewood Massacre in 1923 – a bloodbath led by a white mob that resulted in the destruction of an entire black community in Florida – was a clear example of how an armed black people could prevent future KKK raids.

Second, the uptick in gun ownership and firearms acceptability in the black community isn’t an anomaly, but a reconnection with a deeper past stretching back to Reconstruction. The right to keep and carry arms was even mentioned in the infamous Supreme Court case of Scott v. Sandford, where the enslaved Dred Scott sued for his freedom. He lost that fight, but the words from that courtroom live on to this day.

Second, the uptick in gun ownership and firearms acceptability in the black community isn’t an anomaly, but a reconnection with a deeper past stretching back to Reconstruction. The right to keep and carry arms was even mentioned in the infamous Supreme Court case of Scott v. Sandford, where the enslaved Dred Scott sued for his freedom. He lost that fight, but the words from that courtroom live on to this day.

“[If black people] were entitled to the privileges and immunities of citizens, it would exempt them from the operation of the special laws and from the police regulations which they considered to be necessary for their own safety. It would give to persons of the negro race, who were recognized as citizens in any one State of the Union… the full liberty of speech in public and in private upon all subjects upon which its own citizens might speak; to hold public meetings upon political affairs, and to keep and carry arms wherever they went. And all of this would be done in the face of the subject race of the same color, both free and slaves, and inevitably producing discontent and insubordination among them, and endangering the peace and safety of the State.” 1856 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Dred Scott v. Sandford

It’s not that black gun ownership is “good” per se or deserves to be lauded any more than white or Hispanic or Asian gun ownership. The point is that people who are in danger, or at least feel that they are, will often reach out to firearms to protect themselves – especially if state actors seem reluctant or incapable of enforcing the law and protecting them and their families. In this sense, the desire for weapons for self-defense isn’t just a universal impulse, it’s also a basic democratic right.

“The first right” is the one that secures all the others, sure. But an armed insurrection in the streets isn’t a necessary component. In the case of Monroe, North Carolina, all it took was returning fire against one attack.

Few are aware that weapons played a pivotal part in the American Civil Rights Movement, specifically through Robert F. Williams. A curious figure in American history, Libertarians are quick to lionize him and his radical approach to black self-defense, but they’ll quickly cool when they learn of his longstanding association with leftist totalitarian politics and governments. Conservatives likewise might initially find themselves infatuated with a man who did not wait for “big government” to deliver his people, but rather leveraged the Second Amendment. Liberals, for their part, might find something to admire in Williams’ notion of liberation, but will recoil in horror when learning that his preferred vehicles for change were the NAACP (great!) and the NRA (terrible!).

Williams was many things, but chief among them was a harbinger of things that would come long after he had fled the United States for what he considered greener pastures in Fidel Castro’s Cuba. He stands across the divide, separating the non-violent, electoral, protest-oriented phase of the Civil Rights Movement in the early 1960s from the later, more militant and direct-action-oriented phase that would arise in the mid-to-late 1960s as the movement became more frustrated (particularly after the assassination of Martin Luther King).

Born in North Carolina in 1925, Williams’ experience mirrors that of many African-Americans of his generation. He moved to Detroit as part of the Second Great Migration, where he was privy to race rioting over jobs. He served in the then-segregated United States Marine Corps for a year and a half after being drafted in 1944. Upon returning to his North Carolina hometown, Williams found a moribund chapter of the NAACP. With only six members and little opposition, he used his USMC training to commandeer the local branch and turn it in a decidedly more military direction. The local chapter soon had over 200 members under Williams’ leadership. If nothing else, his leadership was effective at building the movement from the ground up.

Black NRA Gun Clubs KKK An early incident is particularly instructive in how effective these new tactics were. The KKK was very active in Monroe, with an estimated 7,500 members in a town of 12,000. After hearing rumors that the Klan intended to attack NAACP chapter Vice President Dr. Albert Perry’s house, Williams and members of the Black Armed Guard surrounded the doctor’s house with sandbags and showed up with rifles. Klansman fired on the house from a moving vehicle and the Guard returned fire. Soon after, the Klan required a special permit from the city’s police chief to meet. One incident of self-defense did more to move the goalposts than all previous legislative pressure had.

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