Black Gun History
Black Gun History
The Unique History of Gun Ownership in our Community
The history of gun ownership in the United States was dramatically different for African Americans. Since the beginning of the birth of the United States all citizens have had the option to exercise their free will in purchasing or not purchasing a gun for self defense and/or hunting. The exception to that rule was African Americans. Black Codes or laws were put into place in just about every State preventing African Americans from legally owning any type of firearm or weapon. These laws were used to oppress and control African-American populations, especially in the Southern States.
Starting in 1751, the French Black Code required Louisiana colonists to stop any Blacks, and if necessary, beat “any Black carrying any potential weapon, such as a cane.” If a Black refused to stop on demand, and was on horseback, the colonist was authorized to “shoot to kill.” Because of fear of Indian attack, and the importance of hunting to the colonial economy, slave possession of firearms was at times a necessity in Louisiana. However, the colonists had to balance their fear of the Indians against their fear of their slaves. As a result, French Louisiana passed laws that allowed slaves and free Blacks to possess firearms only under very controlled conditions.
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.”
The end of slavery in 1865 did not eliminate the problems of racist gun control laws. The various Black Codes adopted after the Civil War required Blacks to obtain a license before carrying or possessing firearms or Bowie knives.
Buffalo Soldiers – In 1866, Congress approved legislation creating six all African-American Army regiments: two cavalry (the 9th and 10th) and four infantries (the 38th, 39th, 40th and 41st). These units represented the first African-American professional soldiers in a peace-time army.
When Blacks finally gained the ability for legal ownership of a firearm, it was used in many cases to protect themselves from the local criminal and from those organized groups in society that wanted to attack, kill, intimidate, rape, and oppress them based on their skin color. Historically, this reality was repeated in numerous cities in the United States, especially in the Deep South where the local Sheriff / Police, and majority populations often attacked African-American men, women, and children based on their skin color.
In some of those cases, a gun was the sole item that saved African-American lives. Even the original civil rights leadership publicly believed that, as Frederick Douglass put it in 1867, “a man’s rights rest in three boxes: the ballot box, the jury box, and the cartridge box.” With the rise of Jim Crow segregation at the end of the 19th century, civil rights leaders continued to advocate meeting fire with fire. The famed anti-lynching crusader, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, wrote in 1892, “A Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every Black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give.” These statements were made at a time when, on average, more than one Black person was lynched every three days in the South. Thousands of African Americans continued to fight for equality, and one of the best known civil rights organizations practicing armed self defense was the Deacons for Defense and Justice. The organization was formally incorporated in Louisiana in 1965 with the explicit purpose of providing armed protection for civil rights activists and the Black Panther Party for Self- Defense.
Deacons for Defense
On July 10, 1964, a group of African-American men in Jonesboro, Louisiana, led by Earnest “Chilly Willy” Thomas and Frederick Douglas Kirkpatrick, founded the group known as The Deacons for Defense and Justice (“Deacons”) to protect members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) against violence. Most of the Deacons were veterans of World War II and the Korean War. The Jonesboro chapter organized its first affiliate chapter in nearby Bogalusa, Louisiana, led by Charles Sims, A.Z. Young, and Robert Hicks. The Deacons emerged as one of the first visible self-defense forces in the South, and as such, represented a new face of the civil rights movement. Traditional civil rights organizations remained silent on them or repudiated their activities. They were effective, however, in providing protection for local African Americans who sought to register to vote and for white and Black civil rights workers in the area. The Deacons, for example, provided security for the 1966 March Against Fear from Memphis, Tennessee to Jackson, Mississippi. Moreover, their presence in Southeastern Louisiana meant that certain groups would no longer be able to intimidate and terrorize local African Americans without challenge. Eventually, they organized a third chapter in Louisiana. The Deacons’ tense confrontation with the Klan in Bogalusa was crucial in forcing the federal government to intervene on behalf of the local African-American community.
The Black Panther Party- Use of Firearms – 2nd Amendment Rights
In 1966, the Black Panther Party was founded. It was a Black political organization, originally known as the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. The Black Panther Party originated in Oakland, California, and was founded by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. It was the manifestation of the vision of Huey P. Newton, the seventh son of a Louisiana family transplanted to Oakland, California. In October of 1966, Newton gathered a few of his longtime friends, including Bobby Seale and David Hilliard, and developed a skeletal outline for this organization. The original six members of the Black Panthers included Elbert “Big Man” Howard, Sherman Forte, Reggie Forte, Little Bobby Hutton, Newton, and Seale. They adopted the Black Panther symbol from an independent political party established the previous year by Black residents of Lowndes County, Alabama.
The major difference in the structure of the Black Panther Party was that they believed in self defense through the use of firearms and exercising their 2nd Amendment rights as Americans. This was a dramatic view at that time. They established “armed” patrols in Black communities with rifles and other firearms in full public view to monitor police activities and to protect the residents from police brutality. It is the most recognized Black organization in U.S. history of Black struggle against slavery and oppression in the United States, particularly, in view of the fact that its members were armed and promoted a revolutionary agenda during the Sixties.
Presently 19% of African Americans nationwide own firearms. Since at least 2015, this percentage has grown, with doctors, lawyers, dentists, business men and women, plumbers, single moms, republicans, democrats, and many more all becoming active firearm owners in today’s society. The perception and reality of African Americans owning guns is changing. In 2012, the Pew Research Center conducted a national survey and found that only 29% of African-American households viewed guns as positive. In 2015, that same survey showed a dramatic jump to 59% where now a majority of African-American families see guns as not only a positive thing but, in many cases, a necessity. In today’s society, every member of our community, if they want, can legally purchase a gun. African Americans in record numbers are now joining gun clubs, going to the gun range, participating in outdoor hunting, and even participating in competitive shooting events. Single Black women are now one of the fastest growing demographic groups in the African-American community who are purchasing guns for protection. The future is bright for active firearm ownership within our community now and for years to come.
SUGGESTED READING ON OUR HISTORY WITH GUNS
The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement
“1919, The Year of Racial Violence: How African Americans Fought Back,” by David F. Krugler.
“Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America,” by Cameron McWhirter.
“This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed,” by Charles E. Cobb, Jr.
“We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement,” by Dr. Akinyele Omowale Umoja.
“Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party,” by Joshua Bloom.
“Negroes and the Gun: The Black Tradition of Arms,” by Nicholas Johnson.
“Negroes with Guns,” by Robert F. Williams.
“The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement,” by Lance Hill.
“Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power,” by Timothy B. Tyson.
“Up Against the Wall Violence and the Making and Unmaking of the Black Panther Party,” by Curtis J. Austin.