Book Review: Negroes and the Gun - The Black Tradition of Arms

Negroes and the Gun: The Black Tradition of Arms. Nicholas Johnson, Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 379 pages, 2014.

In response to a nonviolent civil rights worker who was surprised to see a firearm in the house of a well known black southern civil rights activist, the activist explained, “That’s a non-violent gun.”

This is one of scores of telling incidents and historical events documented by Professor Nicholas Johnson as he traces the American black tradition of gun ownership from its painful beginnings in slave days, through the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras, the black diaspora to the industrial north, to the Civil Rights movement and on into the present.

The black tradition of arms is a neglected and, to some, perhaps, an inconvenient history. Although many will find it inspiring, modern progressives will probably wish to swish it away because it doesn’t align with their characteristic approach to social regulation, i.e., “We the government/elite will save you.” The progressive social cartoon poises black people as victims of the gun rather than proponents of the gun for personal defense and freedom. But history as revealed by Johnson says otherwise. American Blacks by necessity took up arms. They used them often and responsibly, and the presence of guns in black hands averted more violence than it caused, although as always the gun is a tool as well as a symbol, and taking up a gun can cause unforeseen (but not unforeseeable) problems.

Frederick Douglass counseled, “A good revolver, a steady hand and a determination to shoot,” as a way for former slaves to counter the man-hunters who attempted to seize blacks who had escaped to the North. Free state blacks often resisted and repelled incursions of slavers who came to reclaim what was then legally viewed as lost property. Armed groups of black men assembled at times to interdict slavers. Harriet Tubman of Underground Railroad fame was well known for carrying firearms and is often depicted rifle in hand. Many white southerners could not abide the idea of armed, independent black voters. This too much resembled true citizenship. After the Civil War when southern militias and nightriders attempted to disarm blacks, many of whom had been federal soldiers, there was often armed resistance. The subsequently adopted 14th Amendment attempted to assure that the rights, immunities and privileges of citizenship as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution also applied to the residents of the various American states, especially the new black citizens. Amazingly, in recent times in Chicago, the 14th Amendment had to be invoked once again in defense of the 2nd Amendment, a battle refought in a manner of speaking, in McDonald v Chicago, where a black man, the late Otis McDonald, had to go to all the way to the Supreme court to plead his right to own a gun in the city of Chicago. McDonald won. But Chicago, much like the southern Democrats of the Reconstruction Era, is still spending taxpayer money to impede the 2nd Amendment rights of good citizens. And as Johnson makes clear, there is also no doubt that many gun control laws of the last century-and-a-half were largely aimed at blacks.

And back in the Reconstruction Era South, the 14th Amendment, lawful authorities and the federal system were often a long way away, especially at night in the countryside. And as some of the accounts documented by Johnson reveal, when blacks resisted armed terrorists, it sometimes turned out after the sun rose that the bloodied attackers left behind were in fact the local authorities—sheriffs and deputies.

Violence was often lopsided. Early on in the days of the Underground Railroad blacks generally had only single shot weapons while the slavers tended to have the more modern repeating weapons. After the Emancipation and the War, blacks sometimes won, sometimes lost and often hung on, maintaining a sort of stasis made possible by the potential for defensive gun use. Armed blacks could not be attacked with impunity.

The storied NAACP enters the picture as a major player in legal cases involving armed self-defense by blacks, defending (unsuccessfully) WWI veteran Sgt. Edgar Caldwell for using his service revolver to kill a train conductor and wound a motorman who had been trying to stomp him to death after he resisted being thrown out of the white passenger section. Johnson presents more cases than can be recounted here, some virtually municipal in scale. In Elaine, Arkansas a white deputy was shot dead after he fired into a group of Negro farmers, veterans, who had formed a farmers union. In the ensuing violence, the governor mobilized troops, deputies roamed the countryside, resulting in 5 white and 25 black casualties. Murder indictments in the “scores” for the blacks were followed by kangaroo trials, some only an hour long. Eventually, with NAACP help, at the SCOTUS level of appeal the convictions were reversed. Justice Holmes justified the reversal on the grounds that the trials were merely an extension of mob violence. In Detroit, NAACP brought famous litigator Clarence Darrow into the Ossian Sweet case. Sweet, a dentist, along with friends and relatives, had been indicted for murder after a white mob attacked the house that he had purchased in an all white neighborhood on Detroit’s east side. Threats had been made and Sweet and friends armed themselves. Shots were fired and afterward a white man lay dead. The prosecutor’s office tried to present the case as incidence of armed Negroes firing on a peaceful community. In court, Darrow pointed out that prosecutors had called up a mob of eyewitnesses to testify there was no mob outside the house. After an initial mistrial Sweet was eventually acquitted. A compliment to Johnson as a scholar, being myself very interested in 2nd Amendment issues and having published extensively in this field, I had thought myself quite well acquainted with the Sweet case, but in this book I learned much more.

Of course the big problem to NAACP and black community leaders was balancing a non-violent political movement with the needs of personal home and self-defense. Non-violence wasn’t an effective political tactic for the dead. But neither was retaliatory violence good for the movement. The notion of armed aggressive black freedom fighters was more than enough to incite an unwinnable race war, and at the least could reverse progress and good will hard earned over the years. Hence the public commitment of Civil Rights Movement leadership to non-violence while privately their homes and sometimes their persons bristled with guns. It was a balancing act between political symbolism and survival. A movement of armed black men known as the Deacons protected non-violent marchers and the homes of community and movement leaders, all as unobtrusively as possible. When during the era of the Black Panthers, the Deacons and other organizational sympathizers morphed into a more militant movement, the checkbooks of northern white liberals closed to them, and support went to more moderate non-violent leaders.

In a time of threats, church bombings and burnings, Martin Luther King applied for a concealed carry permit and was turned down on the grounds that he had not demonstrated need. This is how the old unreformed “may issue” concealed carry licensing boards worked—back when boards had total discretionary power, the concealed carry permit became a boon granted to friends, cronies and brothers-in- law. Still, King was uneasy about the political ramifications of guns, so he stressed a low profile for his armed protectors. Another civil rights activist packed her gun in a paper bag everywhere she went, people thought it contained her lunch. Activists are quoted as stating that non violent or not, there were guns everywhere in the homes of movement leaders and members.

Back in the 19th Century, journalist/social commentator and provocative black essayist Ida B. Wells wrote: “The Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home. The more the Afro-American yields and cringes and begs, the more he is insulted, outraged and lynched.”

Unlike most professors Johnson knows whereof he writes when it comes to firearms. In an apt analogy he shows that the Winchester repeating level action rifle was the “assault weapon” of its time, being capable of a high rate of fire and easily reloadable. I know from personal conversations with Professor Johnson in the context of academic conferences (e.g., last year’s Second Amendment Symposium at Fordham Law School on that island of antigun sentiment known as Manhattan) that he owns and delights in an old Winchester .351 caliber rifle from 1907 or so. He enjoys showing antigun academic acquaintances that the idea of a semiautomatic so-called assault rifle has been around for a long time, and is not some new satanic invention causing havoc on society, but has long been part of the healthy social order. In the same way the Winchester rifle became a useful, freedom-preserving part of the emergent social order of the South, the Black tradition of arms. I may be attributing my own construal of meaning to Professor Johnson’s work here, if so I apologize, but you, dear reader, will get the idea. My point is that Johnson is not one of the hoplophobic hysterics that one encounters so frequently in academia. He is knowledgeable; his language is restrained, objective; his interpretations buoyed by an abundance of facts, documentation and experience.

Johnson’s book is extremely well researched. A Professor at Fordham Law School, Johnson’s scholarship is carefully anchored in citations. The depth of the research is impressive. This is not the sort of book that one takes in at a sitting. Its chapters and organization lend themselves well to episodic reading, however. Overall, though, one thing becomes certain: a commitment to non-violent political means and peace does not equate with lying down and dying when it comes to matters of self, life, home and family. Defense of home, hearth and family is the opposite of violence.

Johnson’s last chapter is especially impressive. He faces down many of the current progressive objections and myths concerning guns in private hands, even looking at the troubling differences between black and white homicide/victimizations. Recent and early 20th century victimization and crime studies show rates of blacks as victims and perpetrators at 10 times (or more) higher than the white population. Modern academics and journalists tend to blame this on the NRA and evil gun manufacturers. Johnson more rationally attributes the disproportion to a criminal “microculture,” even quoting W.E.B. Dubois on the subject. One of the big negative effects of unjust, broadly sweeping gun legislation is that it makes it difficult or impossible for blacks to defend themselves against this criminal microculture, the promise of imminence/omnipotence of the progressive state, being so much nonsense. The police or the state cannot defend: they can only appear after the fact. We should recall the reason that Otis McDonald was forced to litigate so that he could effectively defend self and family against Chicago gangs in his own home and city.

Also dealt with and dismissed is the myth that guns in the home are more of a risk to the home owner than to invaders, a much cited myth based on a lopsided study based on bad sampling and comparisons published in the consistently hoplophobic New England Journal of Medicine. Johnson also dispels the common myth that high numbers of guns are correlated with high levels of gun violence, showing that the amazing increases in gun ownership and owners in recent years have not correlated with increases in crime, quite the reverse. He sheds light on DGUs (Defensive Gun Uses), using a variety of survey sources that show most gun uses are non-violent, good citizens use guns to deter but not necessarily shoot social predators. Johnson attributes current antigun policies of black urban leaders to political alliances with progressives, who provide a great many incentives and blandishments to black communities in exchange for what are regarded as reliable voting blocks for progressive causes. He cites survey information that suggests current blacks are not as antigun as some imagine, providing guns go to good people.

A final anecdote, not from Johnson’s book, but which suggests some reasons for the disappearance of the black tradition of arms under an educational and informational system dominated by modern so-called progressive values. A professor and lawyer of my acquaintance, a black man, well educated and urbane, fairly affluent, returned recently with his family to Atlanta to set in order the effects and property of his recently deceased grandfather. In the home in a drawer by the old man’s bed they discovered a revolver in a box along with ammunition. It should be mentioned Atlanta had been, long ago, the scene of one of the race riots discussed in Johnson’s book, wherein many blacks armed themselves to resist attackers. My acquaintance and his family were terrified and alarmed by the gun and worried that it would go off or harm them in some way. They placed the box with the gun in a plastic garbage bag and put it in the trashcan behind the house, and called police. The police removed the gun. A few hours later, it must have been a nice revolver with an unsullied history, a police officer came back with a waiver the professor could sign transferring the gun to the officer personally. The professor did. So the revolver wasn’t wastefully destroyed. The moral? You see here what progressive propaganda can achieve in a generation or so. An item of utility, a means of freedom from terror and coercion, an heirloom, was transformed into a symbol of death and evil. As you can imagine, Dear Reader, Johnson’s account will not be well received in some circles because it says things that for some are unthinkable.

Johnson’s book is a blow against Orwellian history. A fine and illuminating book it is!

Dr. Brian Anse Patrick is a Professor of Communication at the University of Toledo and author of Rise of the Anti-Media: In-Forming the American Concealed Weapon Carry Movement and The Ten Commandments of Propaganda.

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