This black tradition of arms takes root early and ranges fully into the modern era. It is demonstrated in Frederick Douglass’s nineteenth century advice of a good revolver as the best response to slave catchers. It is evident in mature form in 1963, when Hartman Turnbow of Mississippi fought off a Klan attack with rifle fire. Turnbow considered this fully consistent with the principles of the freedom movement, explaining, “I wasn’t being non-nonviolent, I was just protectin’ my family.”
The black tradition of arms has been submerged because it seems hard to reconcile with the dominant narrative of nonviolence in the modern civil-rights movement. But that superficial tension is resolved by the long-standing distinction that was vividly evoked by movement stalwart Fannie Lou Hamer. Hamer’s approach to segregationists who dominated Mississippi politics was, “Baby you just got to love ’em. Hating just makes you sick and weak.” But, asked how she survived the threats from midnight terrorists, Hamer responded, “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 mama again.”
Like Hartman Turnbow, Fannie Lou Hamer embraced private self-defense and political nonviolence without any sense of contradiction. In this she channeled a more-than-century-old practice and philosophy that evolved through every generation, sharpened by icons like Ida B. Wells, W. E. B. Du Bois and Daisy Bates, pressed by the burgeoning NAACP, and crystalized by Martin Luther King Jr., who articulated it this way:
Violence exercised merely in self-defense, all societies, from the most primitive to the most cultured and civilized, accept as moral and legal. The principle of self defense,even involving weapons and bloodshed, has never been condemned, even by Gandhi…. When the Negro uses force in self-defense, he does not forfeit support — he may even win it, by the courage and self-respect it reflects…. But violence as a tool of advancement, involving organization as in warfare … poses incalculable perils.
In practice and in policy, from the leadership to the grass roots, this view prevailed into the 1960s — right up to the point where the civil-rights movement boiled over into violent protests and black radicals openly defied the traditional boundary against political violence. That violent and radical turn was the catalyst for a dramatic transition, as the movement ushered in a new black political class. Rising within a progressive political coalition that included the newly minted national gun-control movement, the bourgeoning black political class embraced gun bans and lesser supply controls as one answer to violent crime in their new domains. By the mid-1970s, these influences had supplanted the generations-old black tradition of arms with a modern orthodoxy of stringent gun control.