In response to the February 14 shooting at Stoneman Douglas high school, America once again finds itself in the grips of the controversial gun control debate. While both sides continue to highlight statistics to verify their position, there is one key fact missing from the mainstream narrative.
The racist roots of gun control:
The history of gun control laws goes back much further than most American are aware. Perhaps the first known attempt at disarming citizens in the new world occurred in 1751 when the French Black code was enacted requiring colonists to “stop any blacks, and if necessary, beat any black carrying any potential weapon, such as a cane.”
This attempt to disarm blacks was repeated under United States’ rule 50 years later when the U.S. purchased the Louisiana territory. According to a paper published in the Kansas Journal of Law & Public Policy:
When the first U. S. official arrived in New Orleans in 1803 to take charge of this new American possession, the planters sought to have the existing free black militia disarmed, and otherwise exclude “free blacks from positions in which they were required to bear arms,” including such non-military functions as slave-catching crews.
The Klan’s favorite law:
Upon the defeat of the confederacy in the Civil War, many southern states enacted “Black Codes” that barred the newly freed slaves from exercising their basic civil rights. One such example of these new laws was an act passed in the state of Mississippi that stated:
no freedman, free negro or mulatto, not in the military service of the United States government, and not licensed so to do by the board of police of his or her county, shall keep or carry fire-arms of any kind, or any ammunition, dirk or bowie knife, and on conviction thereof in the county court shall be punished by fine
After the passage of these laws, numerous studies concluded that the newly freed slaves had essentially been rendered defenseless against groups like the Ku Klux Klan. Disarming them, essentially made them slave once again.
When Republican congressmen passed the Freedman’s Bureau Bill attempting to secure the right to bear arms for Blacks in the south, the Supreme Court overturned it in what was known as The Cruikshank decision. This decision emboldened groups like the Klan, who in turn began gaining control over local governments to pass racist new laws. As Reason magazine noted:
In deference to the Fourteenth Amendment, some states did cloak their laws in neutral, non-racial terms. For example, the Tennessee legislature barred the sale of any handguns except the “Army and Navy model.” The ex-Confederate soldiers already had their high quality “Army and Navy” guns. But cash-poor freedmen could barely afford lower-cost, simpler firearms not of the “Army and Navy” quality. Arkansas enacted a nearly identical law in 1881, and other Southern states followed suit, including Alabama (1893), Texas (1907), and Virginia (1925).
As Jim Crow intensified, other Southern states enacted gun registration and handgun permit laws. Registration came to Mississippi (1906), Georgia (1913), and North Carolina (1917). Handgun permits were passed in North Carolina (1917), Missouri (1919), and Arkansas (1923).
Robert F. Williams and the ‘Black NRA’:
Before Martin Luther King Jr., before Malcolm X, before the Black Panthers, there was Robert F. Williams. Born in the segregated South, Williams’ grandmother was a former slave. His grandfather, a Republican, was the publisher of a local newspaper called The People’s Voice.
The young man seemingly had no choice but to endure racism. Union County, North Carolina, was a hotbed for racism with many active chapters of the Ku Klux Klan imposing tyrannical rule over the minority Black community, usually in the form of taunting, racist comments and beatings of Blacks.
One such beating of a Black woman by Police Officer Jesse Helms Sr., had a profound impact on the young man. Helms’ son would go on to become U.S. Senator Jesse Helms. Both the Senator and the Sheriff were considered racist in their core.
Williams recalled the day he witnessed the woman’s beating. He said Helms, “dragged her off to the nearby jailhouse, her dress up over her head,” and recalled the “tortured screams as the flesh was ground away from the friction of the concrete,” a scene Police the Police has reported is still taking place on the streets of America.
Williams escaped the racist and segregated South as a young man, traveling to Michigan for work where he witnessed race riots in Detroit. At 19, he was drafted into the Marines where he served a year-and-a-half before returning home to Monroe, North Carolina. Half of the city’s 15,000 residents at that time were reportedly members of the Klan.
After joining the local NAACP, and using his status as a former Marine, Williams petitioned the National Rifle Association and started the city’s first chapter of the NRA. In an interview later in his life, he recalled how he and his fellow Black veterans embellished their job titles to obtain approval from the NRA to do so. He presumed that if they knew they were all Black, they would have denied their request. After starting the NRA chapter, he later dubbed it the “Black Armed Guard.”
Led by James W. “Catfish” Cole, the KKK attempted to intimidate Blacks all throughout North Carolina into “staying in their place,” so to speak. One such showdown occurred at the local swimming pool, which had been segregated and deemed as “Whites only.” The year was 1957.
After successfully using the political influence of the NAACP to integrate Monroe’s public library, Williams set his sights on the local swimming pool. There, he staged a picket of the pool but was met with gunfire by the Klan. The police did nothing to stop the potentially deadly conflict and joined a mob in confronting Williams and his teenage activists. During the conflict, Williams armed himself and his companions with several guns but ordered them not to shoot on the mob that had surrounded them.
Williams recalled when one Monroe police officer attempted to shoot him in the back but said one of the teenagers put a gun in the officer’s face and told him he’d blow his head off if he didn’t holster his weapon.
It was during the conflict with the Klan that a small-scale armed racial conflict escalated in the city, principally following threats made against a Black doctor and vice president of the Union County NAACP, Dr. Albert E. Perry. In the summer of 1957, the Klan had already shot up many Black homes and had organized a caravan of cars to shoot up Dr. Perry’s home. But as the motorcade accompanied by two police cruisers approached Dr. Perry’s home, the Black Armed Guard opened fire on the cars, forcing the Klan’s retreat.
The following day, the city banned Klan motorcades, a small victory for the tiny Black community against the tyrannical reign of the Klan. Predictably, the police denied there ever was a shooting and insisted that Williams was just stirring up trouble. But trouble was not hard to find in such a racially charged community.
In October 1958, two black boys aged 9 and 7 were arrested after kissing an 8-year-old White girl on the cheek. Known as “The Kissing Case,” the girl’s mother claimed her daughter had been raped and the boys were taken from their home, beaten and threatened by police investigators, and sentenced in juvenile court to a reformatory school.
James Hanover Thompson recounted the boys’ experience to his brother in an NPR recording. He said:
“They uh… took us down in the bottom of the police station to a cell. And they had us handcuffed — they started beating us…They was beating us to our body, you know? They didn’t beat us to the face, where nobody could see it; they just punched us all in the stomach, and back and legs. We was hollering and screaming. We thought they was gonna kill us.”
Williams and others decried the ruling and, following national and international outrage, the boys were released via gubernatorial pardon. But life in racist Monroe, North Carolina, did not change for blacks simply because the boys were pardoned. Brenda Lee Graham painted a picture of what the Black community endured following her brother’s release.
“I remember that at night, you could see them burning crosses…Right there in the front yard,” she said. “And my mom and them, they would go out in the morning, and sweep bullets off our front porch.”
Later that same year a Black woman accused two White men of attempting to rape her. After a Union County judge refused to believe the woman’s accusations and charge the men with attempted rape, Williams believed, as many Americans of all races today contend that justice could not be found in the court system. While standing on the Union County Courthouse steps, Williams decreed:
“We cannot rely on the law. We can get no justice under the present system. If we feel that injustice is done, we must then be prepared to inflict justice on these people. Since the federal government will not bring a halt to lynching, and since the so-called courts lynch our people legally, if it’s necessary to stop lynching with lynching, then we must be willing to resort to that method. We must meet violence with violence…the Negro in the South cannot expect justice in the courts. He must convict his attackers on the spot. He must meet violence with violence, lynching with lynching.”
Such a call for vigilante justice was a departure from Kingian non-violence and got Williams suspended from the local NAACP chapter, which continued its campaign for equal rights, one of which was the integration of the interstate bus travel. In 1961, at the Union County Courthouse demonstrations were held by the Freedom Riders along with the NAACP to integrate the bus system.
A White couple was traveling through Monroe and was stopped by an angry mob of Blacks who brought the couple to Williams. The civil rights activist placed them in a nearby home for their safety for a few hours until they could be safely released.
Unfortunately for Williams, that action was considered kidnapping by the FBI and a warrant was issued for his arrest. Williams, along with his family, upon discovering the federal government was attempting to arrest him, fled the state and the country. They spent time living in Cuba and China before returning to face the very justice system from which he fled.
Finding refuge in Cuba Williams penned the book “Negroes With Guns.” The publication was an attempt to justify his actions in arming his community against White tyranny. He wrote:
“Because a Negro community in the South took up guns in self-defense against racist violence-and used them. I am held responsible for this action (Kidnapping).that for the First time in history American Negroes have armed themselves as a group to defend their homes, their wives, their children, in a situation where law and order had broken down, where the authorities could not, or rather would not, enforce their duty to protect Americans from a lawless mob. I accept this responsibility and am proud of it. I have asserted the right of Negroes to meet the violence of the Ku Klux Klan by armed self-defense-and have acted on it. It has always been an accepted right of Americans, as the history of our Western states proves, that where the law is unable, or unwilling, to enforce order, the citizens can, and must, act in self-defense against lawless violence. I believe this right holds for black Americans as well as whites.”
The controversy surrounding Williams did not end with his armed resistance to tyranny in Monroe. From Cuba, he traveled to China and North Vietnam where he applauded the Chinese for developing nuclear weapons and called on the North Vietnamese to resist American aggression.
It was clear from his actions he did not trust the local authorities (police) nor the state authorities (courts) to protect the freedoms, rights, nor interests of Blacks. Having been designated a wanted man by the FBI, he had no reason to believe the federal government would protect his constitutional rights either, even after serving in the Marines. Nevertheless, he returned to the United States to stand trial, even after MLK and Malcolm X had both been assassinated.
Williams remarked that he felt a certain guilt in leaving his community to fend for themselves. In 1975, he was extradited from Detroit to Monroe to stand trial for kidnapping. Upon arrival and being flanked by a host of civil rights activists, the State of North Carolina dropped all charges against Williams.
He returned to Michigan and lived there until his death in 1996. He was 71 years old. At his funeral, Rosa Parks spoke of his life. She said for, “his courage and for his commitment to freedom”…The sacrifices he made, and what he did, should go down in history and never be forgotten.”
To this day, Williams is considered a “troublemaker” by some members of Union County’s now burgeoning population. But to many helpless blacks who used to live under the tyranny of the Klan, he is a hero.
The current “ban all guns” climate in the United States does not reflect the very real need for citizens to be able to protect themselves against mob violence or crooked cops such as those in Williams’ community in the 1950s and 60s. Instead, the push to ban guns is a change that will leave only the police and criminals with guns. And criminals far outnumber the police.
All responsible citizens who wish to protect their communities from outside as well as inside threats should be allowed to continue to exercise their Second Amendment rights. Gun ownership cannot be relegated to a locked cabinet of arms but a robust national right to carry firearms concealed.
The great experiment in Cook County, Illinois, has ended in failure. It is time, once again, for citizens to take back their communities from gangs, and corrupt police departments who are actively engaged in beating unarmed civilians, shooting and killing unarmed suspects, and stealing money from people using civil asset forfeiture schemes. Only an armed resistance by well-intentioned community members can prevail against tyranny. Williams’ life work is an example for the entire nation.