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Black gun tradition reveals courage and torment within 2nd Amendment

Cover Design by Andrew Nunez (97407)
Cover Design by Andrew Nunez Credit: Cover Design by Andrew Nunez

Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Bessie Winchester. Companions throughout the ages have often called  me ‘Ol Betsy.’ I was born in 1866, serving as the assault weapon of my day, and conceived from an urgent need to fire more rounds more accurately against my enemy than any weapon prior. Although I have cousins with names like Colt, Remington, Smith & Wesson, Glock etc.—some of which preceded my birth and many others born after—I came to represent self defense to my bearers when confronted with imminent threat and danger. I was there unexpectedly in 1850, just after passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, to protect runaway slaves against violent oppression and to provide them with a viable, confident pathway to freedom.

After passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, runaway slaves knew they could not survive without keen wits and a gun. The Pittsburgh Gazette, a Black newspaper, advised African Americans to “. . . arm themselves and fight for freedom as need be, but not to turn and run away.”

Consequently, slave catchers began to meet armed resistance from runaway slaves. This trend continued to the extent that some runaway slaves had been given new “repeater” rifles from White abolitionists and missionaries. Such actions reportedly enraged political leaders (i.e. Henry Clay,  John Calhoun) who authored the 1850 legislation (the Compromise of 1850, which included the Fugitive Slave Act).

Prior to the act, the Michigan Negro Convention, convened in 1843 and called on Blacks to wage “unceasing war” against slavery. Five years later at the Colored Suffrage Convention in Troy, NY, free Black abolitionist Rev. Henry Johnson stated emphatically “. . . the colored population [was] ready to take the musket, if necessary, to defend our churches, our family associations and the rights of our neighbors.”

In 1852, Frederick Douglass stated: “The motto of Virginia ‘Death to Tyrants’ is well the Black man’s, as the White man’s motto.” In response to the Fugitive Slave Act, Douglass opined then: “You have the fullest liberty to plunder, burn, kill as you may have occasion to do to promote your escape.” Douglass may have been inspired to say this in response to Nat Turner’s Rebellion of 1831 in which armed Virginia slaves took the lives of 57 White citizens before the rebellion was suppressed and Turner was later hanged. Fear of the slave uprisings would lead southern legislatures to take aim at the rights of free Blacks and slaves to obtain arms for their defense. “A man’s right rests in three boxes: The ballot box, the jury box and the cartridge box,” Douglass said then. In 1841, armed and free Blacks in Cincinnati defended themselves successfully for the first time from a racist White mob.

Years before, an 18th century Maryland law commanded that “no Negro or other slave shall be permitted to carry any gun or any offensive weapon.” By the 1850s, the nominal (ordinary) slave class (including some free Blacks who lived within the shadow of slavery) mostly outside of the Deep South, were armed more than history would reveal, according to author Nicholas Johnson’s 2014 book, “Negroes and the Gun: The Black Tradition of Arms.” Through a variety of methods, the access to firearms for free Blacks would soon provide slaves with weapons—an indispensable asset—to use upon their escape. Most often, though, slaves stole guns for protection against “slave catchers,” or received them from sympathetic White abolitionists (ex. John Brown) and White missionaries (Mormon, Quaker) after passage of the Missouri Compromise and the resulting Fugitive Slave Act.

Harriet Tubman, famous for her “Underground Railway” for escaped slaves, was widely reported to carry a rifle, musket or pistol. Proof of this arises from her duties as a scout for the Union Army in which she undoubtedly had to be armed for her   safety.

Harriet Tubman was one of my favorite companions. She earned the moniker “Black Moses” not because she could part the Red Sea, but rather her Colt 45 could split the scalp of a slave catcher. Not long after Harpers Ferry, we braced for the winds of war. Lincoln took office. I was there in 1862 when George Scott, a fugitive slave, became the first Black man armed for Union service.

Scott, the first Black person since 1791 to carry a gun for the U.S. military, was armed while on the run for about a year in the south. He accompanied a Union Army force one year before President Abraham Lincoln deployed Black troops. The members of the 35th United States Colored Troops were a courageous, if not head-strong contingent of men who were once disciplined for entering the homes of White residents of Charleston, S.C., and confiscating their guns. They also “sat a spell” (for about a week), unabashedly flouting the Third Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (no quartering of soldiers). The 54th and 55th Massachusetts Regiments (all Black units) would become legendary for their courage under fire, bravery in combat and character in representing the Black tradition of arms.

After the war, gun prohibition became a common theme of the new “Black Codes.” Mississippi soon enacted its “Act to Regulate the Relation of Master and Apprentice Relative to Freedmen,” which prohibited Blacks from owning firearms, ammunition, “dirks” (a sidearm) or Bowie knives. Alabama prohibited “any freedman, mulatto or free person of color from owning a firearm or carrying a pistol or deadly weapon.”

With the majority of armed African Americans simply ignoring these new laws, the Ku Klux Klan in 1866 began its long campaign attempting to disarm Blacks. However, as result of the KKK’s efforts, many Black rifle clubs and militias emerged, but not all of these groups were headed by Black Civil War veterans. “Negro” militias were well established in the South, but so-called “radical” Republican leaders/politicians would not deploy them in emergencies for fear of a White backlash.

During Reconstruction, Black militias frequently fought against their White counterparts who, after passage of the 15th Amendment, tried to deny African Americans the right to vote. This practice continued unabated for more than a century. Southern White democrats, a distinct minority then, tried repeatedly to disarm African Americans.

The end of Reconstruction saw Blacks increasingly unable to address grievances at Southern state capitols. Democrats (who where then like current Republicans) by 1876 had begun to implement so-called “home rule” statutes which involved a series of laws meant specifically to disarm African Americans. Practices such Jim Crow laws, those that condoned lynching and peonage were put into place. Individual, armed self defense now became the mantra for Southern Blacks—a belief that would provide solace for these persons for the next 100 years.

“A Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every Black home.” That was the legendary Ida B. Wells-Barnett. She became famous for writing editorials and extorting the virtues of  “Ol Betsy’  as a means of self defense against lynching. She once told the Kansas City American Citizen: “What race or class of people on God’s footstool would tolerate the continual slaughter of its own without a revolt?” I was there in 1882 when Wells, Winchester in hand, began a fact-finding mission into the “Wild West.”

Black cowboys, many of which were formerly of the 10th Cavalry or “Buffalo Soldiers,” frequently had gunfights with White and Black counterparts in Kansas City, Texas and Oklahoma.

Three Black men rode with Billy the Kid. One notorious Black gang, the Lincoln County Riflemen of Cheyenne, Wyo., engaged in numerous “bloody, boozy conflicts and shutouts,” according to Johnson, as the Winchester and Colt 45 determined the “manhood/respect” of African Americans. Most often, though, these “showdowns” saw both parties in the shoot-outs stand down and abide by “discretion is the better part of valor.”

One reputed outlaw, Nat Love or “Deadwood Dick,” became an early version of “Buffalo Bill” Cody as a wild west humorist, according to Johnson. Many Black lawmen in Indian Territory attempted to uphold federal law, while the gunmen such as Dick Glass and Crawford Goldsby (aka “Cherokee Bill”) were outlaws as infamous as some of the most notorious Whites in Western lore.

The Rufus Buck Gang was composed of African Americans, mulattos and a few Native Indians who robbed banks and stagecoaches.

Other names that were generally not included in Hollywood’s take on the “wild west” were Buss Luckey, Tom Root and Will Smith, each of which was tried and convicted by “Hanging Judge” Charles Parker, who had several Black marshals under his charge, including Bass Reeves who reportedly killed 14 men “in the line of duty” during the 1880s.

“Stagecoach” Mary Fields, one of the most famous characters of the Old West, served as a forewoman/supervisor at a mission in Montana. A pair of White workers one day wouldn’t “take orders from a n*er” with one grabbing a bullwhip to threaten Mary. She walked away to get her gun, and upon seeing this, the two men complied. Two years later at the same mission, Mary gave orders, turned to walk away and one White man “sucker punched” her. “Fetch your gun and meet me behind the barn,” Mary said. The two “squared off.” As the nuns watched in sheer horror, Mary shot the man twice in the chest before he could clear his holster. “I learned  . . . as a slave to say “yes ’em,” and then do as I damn well pleased,” she once famously said. History would remember Mary Fields from her later years as a driver for Wells Fargo.

I have always rejected armed political violence as strategic folly. But now the Ku Klux Klan had advanced into the existing 45 states. African Americans were forbidden to own a gun in the Deep South. I was there when Black bodies swayed from trees like some “strange fruit,” thereby compelling W.E.B. Du Bois to write in The Crisis: “We are cowards and jackasses, if now that the war is over, we do not marshal every ounce of our brain and brawn to fight a sterner, longer, more unbending battle against the forces of hell in our own land.”

By 1900, the Ku Klux Klan ran rampant throughout the 45 states. The crime of carrying a concealed weapon—enforced primarily against African Americans—became one of the most consistent methods of “dragooning” Blacks into the legal system. Southern Black men, once arrested for the crime, were often too poor to pay a fine and were thereby relegated into a system of peonage (hired out to work when someone posted their bail/fine).

During World War I, there was debate in many Black communities (i.e. Tulsa, Okla., East St. Louis, Ill.) as to whether preparing for armed self defense was a worse option than disarming and hoping for protection from the government. The NAACP early on had advocated armed self defense against racist White mobs. Legal teams began to take on numerous cases that today would be called “Stand Your Ground” where Black persons shot and killed many potential murderers within White lynch mobs.

Ossian Sweet, a Detroit physician, in 1925 attempted to move his family into an all-White neighborhood. Shortly after moving in, a crowd gathered in front of his house. Sweet knew there would be trouble, and asked some friends to arm themselves and hold watch overnight from an upstairs window. He was wise to ask for protection. Soon a cascade of bricks crashed into the living room and shots were heard. Two men from the crowd of Klansmen outside fell mortally wounded. Sweet and eight defendants were each charged with murder. Through the efforts of James Weldon Johnson of the NAACP, and Clarence Darrow (“Scopes Monkey Trial”), the eight defendants were acquitted and Sweet’s case ended in a mistrial. Darrow managed to coax the truth out of a neighborhood witness who had originally conspired to testify that there was no mob outside the Sweet home, and that the defendants started firing without provocation.

The trial made national headlines with the Black Washington Daily American applauding Sweet’s violent stand, declaring in print, “We have learned through the years since slavery passed to fight our enemies with their own weapons. If physical violence is offered, we will kill in self defense.” Shortly after the trial, Michigan enacted its Concealed Pistol License act at the urging of the Ku Klux Klan to prevent African Americans from arming themselves.

You‘ll remember how newsreel and television footage of Blacks demanding civil rights typically showed a picket sign hoisted by a marcher? I was frequently held in the opposite hand, unseen by the camera. I remember sitting on the front porch in 1963 with Condoleezza Rice’s father, a preacher in Birmingham, Ala., waiting patiently for a stick of dynamite to fly his way. I knew a young preacher from Atlanta, Ga., who had his Dexter Avenue Church threatened and his home bombed in 1956. He wanted a gun, but the authorities denied him the right.

African Americans in the Deep South found their moment of destiny during the 1950s and 60s. Great names in civil rights history such as Fannie Lee Hamer, Rosa Parks, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and many more, knew that the only pathway to their survival—and the future of Black progress—would be to arm themselves.

Parks, a beacon of passive resistance, who during the early 1950s with her husband hosted meetings of civil rights activists in their Montgomery, Ala. home, remembers: “It was the first meeting we had at our house . . . there was a little table where [they] sat around. The table was covered with guns. I didn’t even think to offer them anything . . . refreshments or something to drink. But with the table so covered with guns, I don’t know where I would’ve put any refreshments,” Parks said years later.

When asked how she survived so much racism and terrorism, Fannie Lou Hamer, founder of the National Women’s Political Caucus, explained quite simply: “I’ll tell you why. I keep a shotgun in every corner of my bedroom, and the first cracker even look like he wants to throw some dynamite on my porch won’t write his moma again.”

Rice, who many years later would become United States Secretary of State, said of her youth in “Bombingham”: “One time daddy just went outside and sat on the porch in the springtime heat with his gun on his lap. He sat there all night looking for White night riders. I’m a fierce defender of the second amendment and the right to bear arms. Had my father and his neighbors registered their weapons, Bull Connor surely would have confiscated them or even worse.”

Martin Luther King was denied a gun permit in 1956, but members of his congregation often sat with he and his family with an arsenal of weapons. “MLK said he would never himself resort to violence in self defense,” said former Ambassador Andrew Young. “That was a religious commitment into which one had to grow.”

Adam Winkler, a law professor at UCLA and author of  “Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms” (2011) stated: “Indisputably, for much of American history, gun-control measures, like many other laws, were used to oppress African Americans. And when it came to Black men taking up arms in the civil rights struggle, the NRA was on the other side of the gun control fence, too.”

The 1960s was a violent decade. I was often used, unfortunately, as a pawn between those who wanted to secure Black progress, and those steadfastly against it. Famous names marched and prayed and were blown away. Famous names held high office and were blown away. Now too many Black youth were being blown away. . . .often at the hands of law enforcement. I marched up the capitol steps with the Black Panthers in protest in 1967. The young people would begin to adopt the lyrics of a popular British songwriter (himself blown away years later): “Happiness is a Warm Gun.”

The Black Panthers, the newly reformatted Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, Congress of Racial Equality and their offshoot security force Deacons of Defense did not abide by the philosophy of nonviolence. A younger, college-educated and far less socially patient generation including Stokely Carmichael, Floyd McKissick, Angela Davis, Bobby Seale, Huey Newton and H. Rap Brown broke away from the passive-resistance philosophy of social change. In fact, the Black Panthers began a campaign of “policing the police.”

In a rare shift of political conviction, Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1967 signed the Mulford Act (authored by Bay Area assemblyman Dan Mulford) in response to a series of demonstrations by fully-armed members of the Black Panther Party. The law prohibited the public carrying of loaded firearms in California. For the only time in its history, the National Rifle Association (NRA) sided with a politically-charged gun control law. Upon passage, the Black Panthers proceeded to march up the capitol steps in Sacramento with their guns.

The 1968 Gun Control Act was signed into existence in the wake of the 1967 riots in Newark, NJ, and Detroit, Mich.; the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. (and subsequent riots); and the assassination that June of Sen. Robert Kennedy. The law was an offshoot of the “Crime Control and Safe Streets Act.”

It saddens me when I am used irresponsibly in cities like Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C. etc. Too many Black youth have mistaken a gun for bravado. Too many kids have learned, mistakenly, to command respect via bloodshed. I was there when a Chicago resident, Otis McDonald, had to go to the U.S. Supreme Court to regain his right to armed self defense. He never expected his new tormentors would be fresh-faced Black teenagers.

In 2010, McDonald vs. Chicago had reached the U.S. Supreme Court. The case involved McDonald who alleged that city rules prohibiting private gun ownership violated his constitutional right to own a gun. In his concurring opinion that the law violated the Second Amendment, Associate Justice Clarence Thomas explained that during the 19th century Whites’ fear of slave revolts compelled them to ensure that Blacks had no weapons. “I agree with the court that the 14th Amendment makes the right to keep and bear arms set forth in the Second Amendment ‘fully applicable to all the states.’” Thomas further wrote: “An uprising by Nat Turner took the lives of scores of White people before it was suppressed. The fear generated by these and other rebellions led Southern legislatures to take particularly viscous aim at the rights of free Blacks and slaves to speak to or to keep and bear arms for their defense. [These] legislatures prohibited slaves and free Blacks from carrying firearms that Blacks wanted for protection from White mobs,” Thomas concluded.

Last year, the NRA debuted a new campaign that links the Civil Rights Movement and non-violent resistance to gun ownership, arguing that Blacks need firearms to protect themselves from the government. They even produced a video to attest to such. Robert Fargo, a columnist for the website “The Truth About Guns,” in 2012 attended a St. Louis conference and noted that he counted only 12 Black attendees one evening at a week-long gathering that attracted more than 73,000 persons.

“The NRA has not made any significant progress or inroads towards increasing the number of Black people in the organization at its annual conventions,” Fargo said. “Despite the fact that many Black people who love guns and enjoy the right to own them live in cities where the NRA holds its annual meetings, they don’t attend because of a sense of ‘fear/trespassing.’ Their inner-city plight is mentioned during speeches, but not by inner-city  Blacks, Hispanics, Asians and other besieged minorities.” Fargo suggested that the NRA could easily “lobby for” and operate rifle teams in inner-city schools (until the mid-1970s, the sporting group originally focused on gun use and safety as opposed to becoming a singular defender of gun rights when it), and could work with community organizers to help “law abiding African Americans get their concealed carry permits.”