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Negroes and the Gun [Book Review]


Negroes and the Gun by Nicholas Johnson grabbed my attention from the beginning. While the book includes stats, figures, and general events much of the history of armed Black self-defense is told through the experiences of historical figures. In some instances, I’d heard about these events but the author takes special care in describing the mood and providing details. This allows you to imagine yourself witnessing these events in your mind’s eye. What could have been a boring topic springs to life because it’s told through these riveting stories and personal accounts.


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The major and somewhat surprising point of Negroes and the Gun is that it reconciles the widely known nonviolent tactics of the Civil Rights Movement with the lesser-known reality that Black people have a tradition of owning and using firearms in self-defense. Dating back to slavery and even on through the Civil Rights Era, throughout the South, and especially in rural areas, Black people had been using firearms to hunt. But they had also been using firearms to protect themselves and their families especially in circumstances where the government and/or law enforcement were either unable or unwilling to provide protection.

Negroes and the Gun explains the rationale behind why even people who participated in the Civil Rights Movement and subscribed to the tactic of non-violence still used firearms as a tool of personal defense. Black people are a minority within America and thus utilizing political violence would be an emotional rather than logical response to systemic racism and inequality. Violence or guns, in particular, could not be used as the first resort or even a primary weapon in the fight against racism.

The simple fact is that Black people do not have a large enough population or adequate resources to wage a direct fight against the United States military or even just law enforcement. Therefore it made more sense to utilize strategy rather than emotion and preserve the moral high ground by relying on nonviolent political action. Armed self-defense became a last resort in personal conflicts where little to no other alternatives for self-defense could be relied upon.

It’s noted throughout Negroes and the Gun that both many popular and less well-known figures in Black history subscribed to the ideology of political non-violence while also believing in the right to personal defense of oneself, family, and home with guns. At first, this sounds kind of crazy because how can you be non-violent while at the same time being okay with defending yourself with guns? But it makes sense in reading about the individual experiences of the various figures within Negroes and the Gun. Given the choice, they would prefer to live in peace and not bother or be bothered by anyone. But in going about their everyday lives and especially in instances where pushing for change, they were often faced with the threat of violence. With no protection and in some circumstances hostility from law enforcement, they had no choice but to arm and defend themselves.

Imagine whether you’re a man or a woman, you and your family are living in a neighborhood in a town where you are deemed second-class citizens and experience all of the disrespect and inequality that distinction signals. You join local organizations and participate in peaceful protests aimed at bringing about change. In response, racists drive through your neighborhood destroying property, throwing firebombs, shooting indiscriminately, and otherwise terrorizing your community. And you can’t call the police or sheriff because law enforcement is also participating in these terrorist acts. You might also be under the added discomfort of being in an isolated rural area.

These were the circumstances under which many Black people were living.

Most people would exercise the very human response of trying to defend themselves. And I think that is part of why some Black people back then and quite a bit of young people now recoil at the imagery that depicts the fight for Black rights as Black people being beaten and assaulted while seeming to passively sing hymns. The images feel unnatural because they’re at odds with the human response of fighting back when struck. It’s no one’s fault that they were a victim most but most people do not want to be victims. And wanting something to be proud of they turn away from images that might be incorrectly regarded as weak or passive.

Some go so far as to say what they would have done under those circumstances. This is without fully understanding that having grown up in those times and being accustomed to though uncomfortable with the social practices, they would have been different people. Without those first-hand experiences, you are not in a position to say what you would have done.

Negroes and the Gun starts with a bang as the first chapter details the life and experiences of Robert Williams, president of the Monroe, North Carolina, chapter of the NAACP. Williams was an active presence in the civil rights struggle but is less well-known in comparison to other figures. This is in part because he was most active in the 1950s but was less publicly visible by the early 1960s after his falling out with the NAACP. It’s also possible that he has a lower historical profile because unlike other figures in the struggle for civil rights he eventually turned more fully to armed self-defense.

Early on his chapter received some support from progressive White people. But over time this dwindled as he pushed for more access to resources for Black people and publicly showed himself to be a supporter of armed self-defense which made many people, both Black and White, uncomfortable. Often, activists in organizations who remained steadfastly nonviolent would continue to receive favorable coverage from the media as well as financial support from people outside the Black community. This points to why on a larger scale, some figures and organizations received continued support from progressive Whites while financial support for others disappeared.

Many of the traditional civil rights organizations were founded completely or in part by White people. During the movement, a lot of these organizations were funded at least in part by sympathetic White people, usually from the North. Organizations had to walk a fine line because detours from nonviolent tactics or perceived militancy/radicalism might alienate donors. For example, Johnson explains how as SNCC and CORE became more militant they lost outside support while the NAACP stayed the course and we see that it’s still comparably a rather prominent organization.

Keeping that in mind, it also plays a role in why certain leaders are still rather well known and celebrated while others are if not forgotten then less mentioned. It explains why so much focus is put on nonviolence and the mainstream history of the Black struggle would lead one to believe that Black people didn’t fight back. It’s in keeping with the saying that victors or at least those who survive are often the ones who write the history.

For example, we get greater insight into the complexities of some of the most prominent figures of the Civil Rights Movement. Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, the NAACP, etc. It’s revealed that all of them utilized non-violence as a tactic in protests such as marches and boycotts. Yet, all three figures at some point personally owned firearms for their self-defense.

In the case of Rosa Parks, her husband and grandfather owned guns that they used to protect her and the rest of their families. Martin Luther King, Jr. owned guns and had armed bodyguards until he came into contact with Bayard Rustin who was a pacifist and eventually more fully adopted the teachings of Gandhi. As the Mississippi field agent for the NAACP, Medgar Evers faced constant threats of violence and kept guns in his home and car for protection. The NAACP did not advocate for gun ownership or armed self-defense but a substantial part of its history was built on providing legal defense for Black people who had utilized guns in self-defense.

I picked up a lot of new information from the coverage of the civil rights era particularly with regards to Daisy Bates. Bates was a leader in the Arkansas NAACP who guided the Little Rock Nine in integrating Little Rock High School. Through prior research, I knew the impact racism had on her early life and the personal difficulties she and her husband faced as a result of their activism. Yet, despite reading various sources, I had no idea until reading Negroes and the Gun that she carried a gun and came quite close to using it on multiple occasions. (I’ve since added her memoir to my list of books to read.)

The name sounded familiar but I don’t think I had any real prior knowledge of the Deacons of Defense but learning about their role in the Civil Rights Movement blew my mind. After reading about them, I think we need to put an asterisk next to all of this nonviolent Civil Rights Movement business. The Deacons were a loosely organized group that was founded in Louisiana and pretty much provided an armed security presence for participants in the movement’s marches and protests.

For example, leaders and organizations within the movement such as MLK and the SCLC were nonviolent and didn’t carry any kinds of weapons during demonstrations. But the Deacons would be armed and present at the demonstrations while remaining mostly out of view of cameras. The organizations could then honestly state that they were unarmed while still feeling safe due to the notable presence of the Deacons dissuading individuals who might have otherwise attempted to harm the unarmed protestors. It’s like “I’m here and I’m unarmed marching for my rights. But don’t get it twisted, ol’ boy over there is a different story and will shoot.”

There is also something else interesting to note. The Deacons terrified a lot of people but some of them found the Black Panthers too radical. And some organizations such as the Black Liberation Army thought the Panthers were too tame. It just goes to show that you can’t please everybody.

It’s a bit ironic that groups such as the Black Panther Party would have their legacy be simplified to focus on members carrying guns while ignoring their political activism and community service. On the flip side, you have these icons from the traditional nonviolent Civil Rights Movement where their legacy is sanitized to make them appear as though they were against any form of self-defense. A perpetual turning of the cheek if you will.

The reality is that their ideologies accounted for the complexities of real life. They did not believe in perpetually turning the other cheek or swallowing ill-treatment as is often promoted. They simply made the distinction between defending your life or the life of others and committing acts of violence out of frustration or retaliation. Using logic, they realized that nonviolent protest and other acts of civil disobedience could and likely should coexist alongside personal self-defense. There was a time and place for both and they chose the tactic to be used according to what would be the best strategic decision.

“The laws for personal protection are not made for us and we are not bound to obey them. Whites have a country and may obey the laws. But we have no country.” — William Parker

Dating back to slavery some enslaved people had access to guns due to where they were located or the roles they played on plantations. As a safety precaution, some areas prohibited slaves from having access to guns. But, some slaves, especially those who participated in uprisings or ran away were able to obtain guns through the underground economy or by stealing them. It’s worth pointing out that while Black people in free states lived under different circumstances this didn’t guarantee full rights and in some places, they were also barred from buying and/or owning guns.

Many abolitionists of the time were pacifists with some being Quakers. In keeping with their views there was a tendency to support abolitionism but only under terms by which the enslaved would obtain freedom through non-violent means. While abolitionists believed that Black people should not be enslaved, some still held patronizing white supremacist views towards Black people. Radical White abolitionists who were not pacifists were quite fine with using whatever means to push back against slavery. This was especially true in defiance of the Fugitive Slave Law, going so far as to support slaves using guns to prevent themselves and others from being dragged back into bondage.

During the Civil War, Confederate soldiers took personal offense at Black soldiers taking up arms against them. As a result, they didn’t always observe the usual rules of engagement and committed atrocities against Black prisoners of war. Learning about these abuses Black soldiers sought revenge when the opportunity allowed. Having lost the war and their identity that was tied to white supremacy, Southerners took further offense at the Union Army’s occupation following the war and especially the presence of Black soldiers whom many saw as their lessors to rule over.

Johnson surmises that some of this resistance to the freedmen owning firearms was fear of retaliation against White people for the atrocities experienced during slavery and the Civil War. There might be some truth to that but I think more pressing than the fear of retribution was seeing the difficulty in attempting to continue dominating Black people who were now free and armed.

As Reconstruction came to an end and black codes were implemented with the aims of reviving the conditions and social norms of slave society, a key goal was the disarmament of newly freed Black people. No longer viewed as the property of a White person, the newly freed were especially vulnerable because they could expect little to no protection from local governments and thus had no choice but to take matters into their own hands. The gun became an incredibly important tool of survival.

There is a chapter in Negroes and the Gun that details how veterans from both sides of the war organized militias. So on one side, former Confederate soldiers and other uneasy White people unified to form militias that would go on to become entities that enforced the racist laws and social codes that were being implemented. On the other side, Black veterans formed militias alongside the political entities that emerged to defend the rights and address the needs of the newly freed.

In places where Black people were the majority, they were subdued through various means. (Ex: Whites working as or receiving assistance from law enforcement, Black people hoping for government intervention but receiving no help, or Black people assuming that White supremacists would leave them alone if they didn’t “cause trouble”.) As would later occur during the Civil Rights Movement, prominent leaders who pushed their communities to stand up and fight back against ill-treatment were singled out for murder. Quite often this would help to break the spirit of survivors and dissuade them from fighting back as a result of them believing that it would be easier to just go along to get along.

“This is what opened my eyes to what lynching really was. An excuse to get rid of Negroes who were acquiring wealth and property and thus keep the race terrorized.” — Ida B Wells-Barnett

Many in the South were unwilling and unable to adjust to Black people no longer being enslaved and tried to force them into new forms of slavery. Any achievements that pointed to Black progress or attempts that Black people made to elevate themselves were met with political violence on the part of racist White Southerners.

Passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments meant nothing if local and state governments were not respecting them, especially to the point of passing laws that directly contradicted their intent. The federal government abdicating enforcement and only reluctantly intervening in special circumstances left Black people in the South to their own devices. As with other areas of society and everyday life where Black people faced unequal access to resources, they would also have to provide security for themselves.

With the shift to the crisis of lynching, there were a few examples that rubbed me the wrong way. Descriptions of lynchings are harrowing because they’re terrible and thus I expected that from the topic. But, I was a little thrown off at points because there seemed to be some victim-blaming. There are a few instances where Black people fought back despite likely knowing that the chances of them surviving were slim. The author like other people might, questions why they didn’t just accept the disrespect or assault and likely live to see another day.

At first, I thought the author was being provocative and an apologist. But reading more closely, I chose to view it as a way of pointing out how few choices people had for dealing with these situations. And the reality that quite often when faced with such limited choices and choosing to exercise armed self-defense as a last resort, Black people would still be faced with questions about what they could have done to avoid their unprovoked murder. Throughout Negroes and the Gun, we have examples of people who are minding their own business being assaulted or murdered for no reason beyond simply living. For example, just imagine giving notice at your current job because you’ve received a better job offer only to have your old boss show up at your new job and open fire because he’s upset you made a decision on your own and quit.

There’s a theme throughout Negroes and the Gun of racist White people attempting to control or dominate Black people. Their feeling offended at any attempts Black people made to stand up for themselves, even just verbally. A minor disagreement might result in a White person violently attacking a Black individual or group of Black people. The Black person or group would defend themselves and whether they won or lost, the situation might escalate. They would then be met with violence or the threat of violence from lynch mobs or would face legal prosecution where more often than not they would be convicted.

The point is also made that sham trials before all-White juries were pretty much legal lynchings. Black defendants who were put on trial were pretty much guaranteed to be convicted while White people who murdered Black people would rarely face prosecution. For some, it came down to a matter of shooting it out and being killed in the process. Or surviving and taking a chance at being judged by a biased group of 12. Either way, there were good odds that you would end up being carried by six.

It was a bit unexpected but Negroes and the Gun also charts the history of Black people and guns in the Wild West. Negroes and the Gun is at its best during the chapters where an event is told through the story of individuals. Unfortunately, I thought the book remained incredibly interesting until the timeline shifted to the West. It continued to provide examples through the stories of individuals but because there wasn’t a larger theme or person beyond “the West” linking the stories, they began to run together. The chapter was just one incident after another and lost impact for me. It was a bit of a grind to get through.

Negroes and the Gun is kind of like a long peek behind the scenes of the Civil Rights Movement. The sanitized politically correct story that most people know is pushed aside for the more complex and honest reality of what took place. In a sense, you get the lowdown on some aspects of how it came together. (I chuckled a little at the bit of comedy that surrounded how the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church was commandeered as a gathering place for planning the boycott.)

But another eye-opening chapter is the last which covers Black people and guns from after the Civil Rights Movement to the present. In a bit of irony, we see how things have shifted from the establishment trying to disarm Black people in efforts to more easily preserve White supremacy to Black community leaders pushing for much of the same under the guise of decreasing gun violence in Black communities.

At first glance, it might seem like Negroes and the Gun goes off-topic in discussing suicide and intraracial violence but it’s all highly relevant to the history of Black people and guns. I understood Johnson’s perspective in pointing out that violence against Black people needs to be addressed regardless of the threat’s race. He briefly touches on the role that guns play in suicides which according to the author’s research account for the majority of firearm deaths. There’s also the topic of what are the factors that cause Black urban communities to be so plagued by gun violence. It might spark some conversation but I thought the book didn’t delve into enough detail on those topics.

To be clear, I’m from New York City, do not like guns, and believe in gun control. Years ago my views were very black and white on the topic to the degree that I would have been ok with blanket disarmament. I don’t think my views have changed drastically but are just now more nuanced. I believe in responsible gun ownership and would support requiring background checks, registration, and proof/demonstration of proper knowledge and training. Something along the lines of what you might go through to get a learner’s permit and driver’s license. With that being said, I still do not believe in private ownership of assault weapons but think they’re fine for people to use at a gun range. It’s like if you think of street-legal versus race track cars.

But with that being said, with time my views may change again in either direction. And that’s the thing about reading books or having conversations with people that at first glance are at odds with your personal beliefs. They challenge you to consider new and different points of view. Living in the South for the past few years has allowed me to better understand the culture around gun ownership. I still don’t have a personal interest in guns but understand that they are more than weapons to some people.

In discussing Black history with other people, quite often the topic comes up where some individuals are dismissive of the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement because they seemed to be so passive and willing to endure abuse. But taking a deeper look and getting past what we think we know offers a different and more complex view. And that’s why I highly recommend Negroes and the Gun whether you’re pro- or anti-gun control. It provides a wealth of insight specifically into the history of Black people and firearms which includes and goes beyond self-defense.

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