Negroes and the Gun: The Black Tradition of Arms

Negroes and the Gun: The Black Tradition of Arms

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by Nicholas Johnson

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Chronicling the underappreciated black tradition of bearing arms for self-defense, this book presents an array of examples reaching back to the pre—Civil War era that demonstrate a willingness of African American men and women to use firearms when necessary to defend their families and communities. From Frederick Douglass’s advice to keep “a good


Chronicling the underappreciated black tradition of bearing arms for self-defense, this book presents an array of examples reaching back to the pre—Civil War era that demonstrate a willingness of African American men and women to use firearms when necessary to defend their families and communities. From Frederick Douglass’s advice to keep “a good revolver” handy as defense against slave catchers to the armed self-protection of Monroe, North Carolina, blacks against the KKK chronicled in Robert Williams’s Negroes with Guns, it is clear that owning firearms was commonplace in the black community.

     Nicholas Johnson points out that this story has been submerged because it is hard to reconcile with the dominant narrative of nonviolence during the civil rights era. His book, however, resolves that tension by showing how the black tradition of arms maintained and demanded a critical distinction between private self-defense and political violence. 

     Johnson also addresses the unavoidable issue of young black men with guns and the toll that gun violence takes on many in the inner city. He shows how complicated this issue is by highlighting the surprising diversity of views on gun ownership in the black community. In fact, recent Supreme Court affirmations of the right to bear arms resulted from cases led by black plaintiffs.

     Surprising and informative, this well-researched book strips away many stock assumptions of conventional wisdom on the issue of guns and the black freedom struggle.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
★ 10/28/2013
Expected to be subservient first as slaves and then as second-class freedmen, African-Americans spent generations expecting neither legal justice nor fair treatment from law enforcement. In this provocative book, Johnson (Firearms Law and the Second Amendment), a legal expert on gun issues, agrees with Ida B. Wells and Frederick Douglass that gun ownership for blacks helped level the disparity between races, allowing both men and women to protect themselves from being returned to slavery or becoming the next lynching victims while also allowing some to work as Buffalo soldiers or as cowboys. Johnson notes that the presence of guns sometimes unwittingly escalated violence, and he devotes a brief chapter to modern black-on-black violence, the result of a strain of historical gun ownership evolving into a “criminal microculture.” Filled with tightly packed, well-documented anecdotes—with some of the best centering on women such as “Black Mary” Fields, who worked for nuns and successfully dueled with a white man in front of them—this book redefines the image of black Americans who chose a strong, spirited fight for self-preservation. Photos. (Jan.)
From the Publisher
“America’s gun culture is often thought to be lily white. In this groundbreaking book, Nicholas Johnson shows how African Americans, from the abolitionists to the Deacons for Defense and Justice, have taken up arms time and again to fight for their rights and their lives. You’ll never look at guns and the Second Amendment in the same way again.”
—Adam Winkler, professor of law, UCLA School of Law, author of Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America

“With Negroes and the Gun, Nicholas Johnson has provided a definitive and compelling history of the importance of arms for a people who have not been able to rely on the state for protection. This is must-reading for those who are interested in the history of race in America and in the enduring controversy over the right to bear arms.”

—Robert J. Cottrol, Harold Paul Green Research Professor of Law and professor of history and sociology, the George Washington University, and author of The Long, Lingering Shadow: Slavery, Race, and Law in the American Hemisphere

“Race has always been part of the unspoken motive for gun control in the United States. Johnson provides the best, most thorough history of the topic, telling the story mainly from the perspective and voices of blacks themselves. Shattering the myth of black passivity in the face of violent racism, the book is full of inspiring stories of genuine American heroes—some of them famous and many who were not—who used their Second Amendment rights to defend the civil rights of their people. Never shying away from the hardest questions, Johnson addresses the moral and practical complexities of armed self-defense, past and present. A major contribution to cultural studies and to the history of race in America.”

—David B. Kopel, research director, Independence Institute, Denver, Colorado

“Johnson opens a window on the increasingly airless and ever more heated dispute over the Second Amendment by examining blacks’ ambiguous relationship with guns over the centuries. He demonstrates that the right to armed self-defense was critical to saving black lives and livelihoods when confronted by violent hostility. This remarkable book remembers for us a long-forgotten, or possibly selectively forgotten, black tradition of arms—one too often overlooked in current debates over civil rights and gun legislation.”

—Alexander Rose, author of American Rifle: A Biography

“A fascinating and subtle history of the black tradition of armed self-defense. Carefully weaving social with political history from slave times to the present, Johnson explores the complex relation between this legitimate tradition and the occasional fruitless temptation of armed political resistance to oppression. He concludes with a strong argument for restoring the legitimate tradition even in the face of its rejection by the black political establishment and the inescapable reality that blacks are very disproportionately found among the perpetrators and victims of gun violence today. Provocative and illuminating.” 

—Nelson Lund, University Professor, George Mason University School of Law

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Prometheus Books
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Copyright © 2014 Nicholas Johnson
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ISBN: 978-1-61614-839-3



Robert Williams returned home from the army in the spring of 1946 to the same bitter irony that had confronted countless black veterans before him. They shed blood to protect democracy abroad, and bled again under racial apartheid at home.

Monroe, North Carolina, remained much the same as when Williams was a boy and witnessed a scene of petty brutality that confirmed what it meant to be on the wrong side of the color line. Turning the corner toward the courthouse, he stepped into the scene of a burly white cop arresting a woman in a fashion that captured the status of Negroes across the South. The man with a badge was "Big Jesse" Helms Sr., father of the future United States senator. For the rest of his life, Williams carried the image of Big Jesse flattening that woman with a sock to the jaw, and then dragging her off to jail with her dress up over her head and screaming as the concrete singed her back and thighs. As an old man, Williams the revolutionary—leaning on a cane, sporting a big, grey afro—would talk like it was yesterday about the laughter of the white bystanders and how the cluster of black courthouse loiterers hung their heads and scurried away.

The courthouse loiterers represented a particular stripe of man. Some would say that Robert Williams was a different kind of man. Maybe so. But more important is that Robert Williams was not alone. He is an exemplar, but he was not unusual. He was part of a long tradition of black men and women who thought it just and natural to answer aggression with corresponding force. They kept and carried guns and believed in self-defense as a fundamental right. Their story is obscured by the popular narrative of the nonviolent civil-rights movement. But alongside that narrative, deep in the culture, is a rich vein of grit and steel. Robert Williams was heir to that tradition. His bloodline was thick with it.

Williams's early experiences confirmed the privilege of white skin, but that did not cow him. Even though his people were no match for the power of the state and the culture of Jim Crow, when pushed to the wall, they bucked up and fought back. There is a hint of this in the Williams clan back as far as grandfather Sikes. Over the course of his life, Sikes Williams was a slave, a farmer, a reconstruction newspaper editor, a perpetual optimist, and finally, always, a realist. In the middle of a hostile environment, with powerful reasons to despair, Sikes Williams worked hard and hoped for the best for himself and his family. He also understood his responsibility in that moment where his next breath or the safety of those he loved was threatened by imminent violence. One of Robert's prized possessions was a rifle that, according to family lore, had been used by Sikes Williams in matters of life or death.

Grandpa Sikes was a hero of Robert's imagination. But the firsthand confirmation of the Williams family backbone came in another childhood episode, when word spread that a mob was forming to lynch a Negro who had fought with police. Rumor circulated that in addition to dragging the man from his cell for a hanging or burning, the mob also was planning to run some black folk out of town. The old people, and some young ones, who had witnessed the terror of the lynch mob, hid or prepared to flee.

Williams's father, "Daddy John" heard the rumors too. But when it was time to head out for work on the graveyard shift at the mill, he picked up his lunch pail and left the house as usual. The only difference this time was, before stepping out the door, he slipped a pistol into the pocket of his overalls. Fortunately, neither the lynching nor the chasing came that night. But Robert never forgot his father's steel in that environment of fear and carried with him the image of that pistol, slipped quietly into the overalls pocket of a man who was not looking for trouble.

Later, when Robert Williams became an inflammatory figure, white people would say he should be more like his father, someone they considered a good Negro who kept his place. Robert knew the only difference between them was that Daddy John had the luck never to face a threat that would have turned him into a bad Negro with a gun. While the casual observer might take his kindness for weakness, even as an old man, Daddy John thanked his luck and still prepared for the worst. "Always the shotgun was there," Robert remembered, "it was always loaded and it was always at the door. And that was the tradition."

Robert Williams was honorably discharged from the service, but only barely so. He served at least one stint in the brig for insubordination, or, in his words, "refusing to be a nigger." Back home, he faced a similar problem. Monroe in 1946 was Klan territory. And it was not long before the insubordinate soldier was in conflict with the Invisible Empire.

Bennie Montgomery was Williams's childhood friend. Bennie was wounded in the Battle of the Bulge and discharged with a metal plate in his head. He was never really the same after that. Out of the service, Bennie cycled quickly back to his ordained place in the Jim Crow South—into the fields, chopping and shoveling. Home only a few months, he got into a scrap with his white employer. With the pleasures of Saturday night on his mind, Bennie approached the boss around noon and asked for his wages. Workers were always paid at the end of the day, and Bennie knew it. The boss rewarded his impudence with a slap and a kick. They tussled. By the end of it, Bennie had pulled a knife and killed the man. Later, police found Bennie, still in bloody clothes, drinking beer at a local dive, just sitting there like nothing had happened.

The Klan threatened to lynch Bennie. So the authorities moved him from Monroe. He was quickly convicted of murder and executed. But the execution of Bennie Montgomery did not satisfy the Klan. When the state shipped his body back home for burial, the Klan proclaimed that the remains belonged to them. They planned to drag Bennie's body through the streets.

Before that could happen, the black men of the community met at a barbershop and worked up a plan. By the time the Klan motorcade reached the Harris Funeral Home to seize Bennie's body, forty black men with rifles and shotguns were already in place, hidden where the cover allowed. The motorcade stopped. The black men showed themselves and leveled their guns. Unprepared for a real fight, the Klansmen drove away and Bennie got a civilized burial.

Robert Williams was one of the men who drew down on the Klan that night. That same year across the South, black veterans marched and protested and armed themselves against reprisals in Birmingham, Alabama; Decatur, Mississippi; and Durham, North Carolina. Among these men was a young Medgar Evers, home from the army and pressed to the edge of an armed confrontation at the Decatur courthouse, where a mob rose against his attempt to register to vote. Robert Williams was not alone.

Monroe had a slippery hold on Williams. After marrying Mabel and seeing his first son born, he ranged north to Detroit for work on the assembly lines. But almost as soon as he was gone, he talked of returning home. By 1950, he had moved the family back south and enrolled under the GI Bill in the North Carolina College for Negroes in Durham. He wanted to be a writer. A year before finishing, with his government money spent, Williams moved north again for work. He and Mabel sublet a little apartment on Eighty-Eighth Street, in New York City. The building was not generally available to blacks, but the Williamses got in through some radical unionist friends Robert had met at work. The white neighbors were less enlightened than Williams's progressive coworkers. Retreating from the hostility, Mabel stayed in the apartment most of the time. She kept a 9-millimeter pistol close by. It was not a place to make a home, and the Williamses soon left, with Robert chasing work wherever there was promise or rumor of it.

In 1954, induced by promises of training in radio and journalism, Williams enlisted in the Marine Corps. Posted at Camp Pendleton, California, he was promptly installed as a supply sergeant. The promise of training in journalism evaporated with the explanation that blacks did not work in the Information Services. Angry and defiant, Williams fired off missives to Congress complaining about the bait and switch. Then he sent a nasty letter and a telegram to President Eisenhower, threatening to renounce his US citizenship in protest of his mistreatment. This ultimately was enough to earn him a dishonorable discharge from the Marines and a train ticket back to Monroe.

Despite Williams's immediate circumstances, the outlook actually was brightening for blacks in 1954. The United States Supreme Court had ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that "separate but equal" was unconstitutional. But it would take far more than a Supreme Court opinion to kill off Jim Crow. White opposition to Brown was deep and often vicious. North Carolina governor Luther Hodges, immediately went nuclear, fulminating about black and white amalgamation. State government bureaucrats schemed to maintain de facto segregation. In Monroe, the white reaction against those who aimed to live the message of Brown ran from veiled warnings to economic reprisals, to threats and acts of violence.

In 1956, the Klan held a huge rally, led by Reverend James "Catfish" Cole, a tent evangelist and carnival barker from South Carolina. Cole stirred up support through a series of rallies, some drawing more than fifteen thousand people. In the space of a few months, two murders, a cross burning, and dynamite attacks were attributed to the Klan. The combination of economic pressure and violence dampened local enthusiasm for the NAACP's efforts to press enforcement of Brown.

When Robert Williams joined the Monroe NAACP, membership was down to six, and the chapter was ready to disband. Fearing economic sanctions as well as Klan violence, the comparatively middle-class folk who had run the branch handed Williams the presidency and soon abandoned the organization. Set adrift by the cautious strivers, Williams recruited new members from people who had been ignored by the clique of black bourgeoisie. He went to the pool halls, the street corners, and the tenant farms, and to the black veterans, some of them comrades in the 1947 defense of Bennie Montgomery's remains. Within two years, Williams would grow the Monroe branch from basically just him, to more than three hundred members.

One of Williams's first controversial acts as chapter president came after a young black boy drowned at a local swimming hole. Monroe had a pool for whites. It was built with public money but excluded blacks, who were relegated to ponds, lakes, or old quarries. Every summer black children drowned in these makeshift swimming holes. The Monroe Parks Commission briefly considered granting black kids one or two days a week to swim. But that was deemed too expensive because of the need to change the pool water after Negroes used it. When Williams and his allies continued to press the issue, including one encounter where he brandished a pistol to escape a threatening crowd of counter-protesters, whites circulated a petition asking that "local Negro integrationists especially Williams and NAACP Vice President, Dr. Albert Perry, be forced to leave Monroe."

The petition was at least nominally democratic compared to the work of Klan potentate Catfish Cole. Cole whipped up sympathetic crowds screeching that "a Nigger who wants to go to a white swimming pool is not looking for a bath. He is looking for a funeral." Cole held five rallies over as many weeks. At the end of each one, the Klan drove through Monroe's black section, blaring horns, throwing debris, and shooting into the air. At the head of these drives was Monroe Police chief, A. A. Mauney, who described them as "motorcades" that he led simply to keep order. On at least one occasion, members of the motorcade fired shots into Dr. Albert Perry's home. Williams complained and requested intervention from the mayor and the governor and with notable persistence sent another letter to President Eisenhower. The only evident response was from local politicians who explained that the Ku Klux Klan had a right to meet and organize, same as the NAACP.

Around the same time, the death threats started. The main targets were Williams and Dr. Perry. Williams began wearing a Colt .45 caliber automatic pistol wherever he went. The gun was familiar, identical to the US Army Model 1911 sidearm. Surplus Colts were widely available in the civilian market and sometimes sold through the US government's Civilian Marksmanship Program, administered by the National Rifle Association, which Williams promptly joined. Williams carried the big gun in a hip holster, "cocked and locked," the hammer clicked back (some would say menacingly), so with a quick swipe of thumb safety, the gun would fire eight fat 230 grain slugs as fast as he could press the trigger.

Williams carried the .45 out of legitimate fear of attack, but it was still an inflammatory act. Up to that point, the Monroe NAACP had enjoyed a smattering of support from progressive whites. That support had faded when Williams pushed the swimming-pool issue. It ended entirely when he began wearing the Colt.

Although Williams was president of the Monroe chapter, many whites felt that the vice president, Dr. Albert Perry, was the greater threat. He was comparatively affluent, and many suspected he was the group's primary financial backer. Unlike many middle-class black folk, Perry was relatively immune from white economic pressure.

One night, Perry's wife interrupted a chapter meeting with a panicked call. They had received another death threat. She knew about the earlier threats, of course. But this was the first time she had answered the phone herself and heard a voice dripping with venom say we are going to kill you.

Dr. Perry rushed home. The rest of the men disbanded the meeting, retrieved their guns, and went to guard Perry's house. They camped that night in his garage, some sitting up in folding chairs with shotguns and rifles across their laps, others standing watch and napping on cots, with rifles and shotguns stacked nearby. They soon determined that the threat was too serious for such ad hoc measures and developed an organized system of rotating guards. Off and on, more than sixty of them guarded the Perrys in shifts.

In October 1957, Catfish Cole held another big Klan rally in Monroe, followed by the traditional motorcade. The destination was Dr. Albert Perry's house. As they approached, some of the hooded revelers fired shots at Perry's neat brick split-level. They were surprised at the response. Anticipating the threat, Williams and the black men of Monroe fired back from behind sandbags and covered positions. One account puts it this way:

It was just another good time Klan night, the high point of which would come when they dragged Dr. Perry over the state line if they did not hang him or burn him first. But near Dr. Perry's home their revelry was suddenly shattered by the sustained fire of scores of men who had been instructed not to kill anyone if it were not necessary. The firing was blistering, disciplined and frightening. The motorcade of about eighty cars, which had begun in a spirit of good fellowship, disintegrated into chaos, with panicky, robed men fleeing in every direction. Some abandoned their automobiles and had to continue on foot.

Maybe exaggerated in memory, another defender recalled, "When we started firing, they run. We run them out and they started crying and going on.... The Klans was low-down people that would do dirty things. But they found out that you would do dirty things too, then they'd let you alone. [They] didn't have the stomach for this type of fight. They stopped raiding our community." In the aftermath, the local press was actually critical of the Klan, attributing the incident significantly to the provocative motorcade. The city council agreed. In an emergency meeting, it passed an ordinance banning KKK motorcades. Outside Monroe, however, the defiance of Williams and his neighbors prompted sympathetic responses like the $260 contribution from a congregation in Harlem to purchase rifles and requests from other communities for help in setting up black rifle clubs.

This was a time of tremendous stress for Williams. His financial situation was precarious. White employers or lenders often tightened the screws on blacks who pressed the civil-rights agenda. At least partly due to his activism, Williams had difficulty finding and keeping work. His frustration is evident in an article he wrote for the newsletter, the Crusader. He disdained "Big cars, fine clothes, big houses and college degrees." Manhood, Williams claimed, was more elemental. It meant standing up and taking care of people who depended on you.


Excerpted from NEGROES AND THE GUN by NICHOLAS JOHNSON. Copyright © 2014 Nicholas Johnson. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Nicholas Johnson (New York, NY) is professor of Law at Fordham Law School, where he has taught since 1993. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he is the lead author of Firearms Law and the Second Amendment: Regulation, Rights, and Policy (Aspen 2012).

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Negroes and the Gun: The Black Tradition of Arms 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Traction_Bob More than 1 year ago
A very different side of the Civil Rights movement A side of the history of blacks in America I hadn't known.  Mr. Johnson's scholarship covers from the beginning of American history to modern day, though naturally it only concerns itself with the focal points of black gun rights along the way.  Discussing the origins of "successful" gun control in Jim Crow laws, the unjust treatment of black men and women who chose to defend their lives and families with firearms, and where their rights were upheld.  A very unique perspective, one I had not known.
WilliamBT More than 1 year ago
This is a must read for all African Americans living in the United States and other parts of the world. Nicholas Johnson has done a great job on this book. He explains how African Americans use the power of the gun to protect and defend themselves during racism in America and around the world. I highly recommend this book for all to read. William B. Turner Author