Prominent and indispensable among our rights is the "right of the people to keep and bear arms." Second Amendment rights, never to be infringed, were posited by our nation’s founders as among the most essential tenets of the free and just republic they sought to establish.
The empowering freedom of law-abiding citizens to keep and bear arms is particularly timely during Black History Month, for its role in the victory of civil rights for all is sorely overlooked.
As the nation reflects on the struggles and achievements of our African-American citizens, we must celebrate the actions of heroic civil rights activists known as the Deacons for Defense. In the fight for equality, these brave men utilized their right to bear arms to protect their families, possessions and liberties.
Unfortunately, these freedom fighters are seldom mentioned as an important part of African-American history.
Even prominent civil rights movement chronicler Taylor Branch gives the Deacons only passing mention in his three-volume work on the movement during the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. years.
In his 2004 book, The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement, Tulane University history professor Lance Hill tells their story. Hill writes of how a group of southern working class black men advanced civil rights through direct action to protect members of local communities against harassment at schools and polling places, and to thwart the terror inflicted by the Ku Klux Klan. He argues that without the Deacon’s activities the civil rights movement may have come to a crashing halt.
The spring and summer of 1964 were landmark periods for civil rights. In growing numbers, Southerners marched against segregation. The battle over race lit Louisiana aflame. In response to civil rights activism, the Klan wreaked havoc on black neighborhoods, but soon found itself face-to-face with the Deacons.
Following a KKK night ride in Jonesboro, the Deacons approached the police chief who had led the parade and informed him that they were armed and unafraid of self-defense. The Klan never rode through Jonesboro again. Local cross burnings ceased when warning shots were fired as a Klansmen’s torch met a cross planted in front of a black minister’s home. The initial desegregation of Jonesboro High School was threatened by firemen who aimed hoses at black students attempting to enter the building. When four Deacons arrived and loaded their shotguns, the firemen left and the students entered unscathed. It was this series of efforts by the Deacons that caused the Klan to leave Jonesboro for good.
Similar work in Bogalusa, Louisiana drove the KKK out of that town as well, and led to a turning point in the civil rights movement. Acting as private citizens in lawful employment of their constitutional rights, the Deacons demonstrated the real social impact of the freedoms our nation’s founders held dear.
As legendary civil rights leader Roy Innis recently said to me, the Deacons forced the Klan to re-evaluate their actions and often change their undergarments.
Their actions in the mid 1960s had perhaps more impact on the progress of civil rights than did President Eisenhower’s 1957 dispatching of troops to Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.
That gun rights have played such a pivotal role in racial equality makes the historical correlation between gun control and discriminatory policies unsurprising. From their beginnings, gun control measures have worked to create legal disparities, granting unequal rights to members of various socioeconomic groups.
In fact, restrictive gun laws have long been employed to the benefit of a select elite while circumscribing the liberty of populations less popular or less powerful.
Gun control measures, from the slave gun bans of the 1700s South to the Brady Bill regulations of the 1990s have unfairly targeted black Americans and have worked to curtail a disproportionate number of their constitutional rights. Access to firearms was understood by our founders and many early American jurists as an essential aspect of full US citizenship, and it was for this reason that the Black Codes established after the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment -- which constitutionally abolished slavery -- prevented black freemen from owning guns.
In prohibiting blacks from exercising the freedoms granted other Americans in the Second Amendment, the Black Codes emphasized the notion that African-Americans were not true citizens with full human rights. This point was raised by the Majority in Dred Scott v. Sanford in defense of the institution of slavery. By the 1870’s, preventing Blacks from having access to guns had become one of the primary goals of the Ku Klux Klan.
As Gun Owners of America President Larry Platt shared with me this summer and wrote in 2004 regarding the Deacons, the history of gun control appears to have been one of controlling people rather than reducing violence.
Examining both our nation’s constitution and the history of gun rights in America, the right to keep and bear arms has been at the forefront of our nation’s march to liberty and equality. The Second Amendment, which empowers Americans to embrace all of the freedoms and responsibilities their citizenship entails, has been the catalyst of tremendous social progress. While some may dismiss the centrality of gun ownership to “progressive” ideals, groups such as the Deacons for Defense have shown us that a citizenry understanding of their rights to bear arms is one likely to understand and defend our basic civil rights and the principles of equality and freedom.