Martin Luther King Jr. and his arsenal of guns

MLK and His Guns

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Adam Winkler Become a fan Professor of Law, UCLA
Posted: 01/17/2011 11:25 pm EST Updated: 05/25/2011 6:25 pm EDT

One issue on everyone’s mind this Martin Luther King Jr. day was gun control. King’s calls for resolving our differences through peaceful nonviolence are especially poignant after Jared Loughner gunned down six people and wounded several others in Tucson. Amid the clamor for new gun laws, its appropriate to remember King’s complicated history with guns.

Most people think King would be the last person to own a gun. Yet in the mid-1950s, as the civil rights movement heated up, King kept firearms for self-protection. In fact, he even applied for a permit to carry a concealed weapon.

A recipient of constant death threats, King had armed supporters take turns guarding his home and family. He had good reason to fear that the Klan in Alabama was targeting him for assassination.

William Worthy, a journalist who covered the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, reported that once, during a visit to King’s parsonage, he went to sit down on an armchair in the living room and, to his surprise, almost sat on a loaded gun. Glenn Smiley, an adviser to King, described King’s home as “an arsenal.”

As I found researching my new book, Gunfight, in 1956, after King’s house was bombed, King applied for a concealed carry permit in Alabama. The local police had discretion to determine who was a suitable person to carry firearms. King, a clergyman whose life was threatened daily, surely met the requirements of the law, but he was rejected nevertheless. At the time, the police used any wiggle room in the law to discriminate against African Americans.

Ironically, the concealed carry permit law in Alabama was promoted by the National Rifle Association thirty years earlier. Today, the gun rights hardliners fight to eliminate permits for concealed carry, as Arizona has done.

Eventually, King gave up any hope of armed self-defense and embraced nonviolence more completely. Others in the civil rights movement, however, embraced the gun.

One of the most indelible images of the 1960s is a photograph from Life magazine of Malcolm X looking out a window with a long M-1 carbine in his hands, the rifle pointed up to the sky. For blacks unhappy with the progress achieved by King’s marches, the gun became a symbol of the “by any means necessary” philosophy.

The Black Panthers took Malcolm X’s approach to the extreme, openly carrying guns as they patrolled for police abuses on the streets of Oakland. They even made guns part of their official uniform, along with the black beret and leather jacket. Every member learned about Marxism and firearms safety.

California passed a law to disarm the Panthers and then Congress, after King was assassinated by James Early Ray, passed the Gun Control Act of 1968 — the first major federal gun control since the 1930s. These laws fueled the rise of the modern gun rights movement, which self-consciously borrowed tactics from the civil rights movement.

One lesson the gun advocates took was from the early King and his more aggressive followers: If the police can’t (or won’t) to protect you, a gun may be your last line of defense. Inspired by that idea, the gun lobby has grown so strong that even after the Tucson mass murder there is almost no likelihood of new gun laws being passed.

Whether a broader acceptance of the King’s later pacifism would have made us safer than choosing guns, we will never know.





MLK’s Arsenal & The Racist Roots of Gun Control in the U.S.

By: Candice Lanier (Diary) | January 17th, 2013 at 02:45 PM

Martin Luther King, Jr., known for peaceful resistance, at the same time recognized the importance of gun ownership for self-defense. King understood the risks involved in being an outspoken civil rights leader, living in Jim Crow era Alabama, and took measures to protect himself, his family and others around him.

King was a gun owner. In fact, he had a few guns–one visitor to the King family home described King’s supply of weapons as an “armory.”

Additionally, William Worthy, a journalist who covered the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, reported that he almost sat on a loaded gun while visiting King’s parsonage.

King had also applied for a concealed carry permit, but was turned down. According to John M. Snyder:


“At one time, King applied for a permit to carry a concealed handgun, but was denied. He was concerned for his personal safety, just as are a lot of law-abiding American citizens. “

Even though King’s house had just been bombed, his application for the concealed carry permit was still rejected. Few people in the US needed a permit to carry more than Reverend King did in 1956, but since the local police had some discretion in their decision making, King, who no doubt met the requirements of the law, was rejected nonetheless. This was the norm when the applicant was black.
An example of discriminatory gun legislation, via Examiner.Com:

“This Reconstruction Era law in Louisiana is a perfect example:

No negro who is not in the military service shall be allowed to carry fire-arms, or any kind of weapons, within the parish, without the special written permission of his employers, approved and endorsed by the nearest and most convenient chief of patrol.”

Kurt Hofmann writing for Examiner.Com elaborates on the racism behind these laws:

“UCLA Constitutional law professor Adam Winkler–hardly likely to be mistaken for a fervent gun rights advocate–readily acknowledges bigotry as the father of “gun control,” as he explained in an interview with the Wall Street Journal:

In his research for ‘Gunfight,’ Winkler also noted a close intersection between guns and racism. ‘It was a constant pressure among white racists to keep guns out of the hands of African-Americans, because they would rise up and revolt.’ he said. ‘The KKK began as a gun-control organization. Before the Civil War, blacks were never allowed to own guns. During the Civil War, blacks kept guns for the first time – either they served in the Union army and they were allowed to keep their guns, or they buy guns on the open market where for the first time there’s hundreds of thousands of guns flooding the marketplace after the war ends. So they arm up because they know who they’re dealing with in the South.’”

Another example is Tennessee’s “Army and Navy Law” of 1879:

“Among these laws, the forerunners of so-called ‘Saturday Night Special’ legislation, was Tennessee’s “Army and Navy” law (1879), which prohibited the sale of any “belt or pocket pistols, or revolvers, or any other kind of pistols, except army or navy pistol” models, among the most expensive, and largest, handguns of the day. (Such as the Colt Model 1960 Army, Model 1851 Navy, and Model 1861 Navy percussion cap revolvers, or Model 1873 Single-Action Army revolver.) The law thus prohibited small two-shot derringers and low-caliber rimfire revolvers, the handguns that most Blacks could afford.”

Because laws could not explicitly prohibit gun ownership by blacks, due to the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment and the Civil Rights Act of 1875, more subtle methods were employed in order to keep blacks disarmed.

In the case of the Gun Control Act of 1968, one provision of the law was a ban on the importation of small, inexpensive handguns. It didn’t apply to domestically manufactured firearms, but at the time that market was served almost exclusively by imports. As noted by Roy Innis, of the Congress of Racial Equality, this law had the same malicious intent as its Reconstruction Era predecessor:

“To make inexpensive guns impossible to get is to say that you’re putting a money test on getting a gun. It’s racism in its worst form.”

Former Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley had some views on the subject:

“Outside the suburbs in the city, we have control, but what the hell, in the suburbs, there are — you go out to all around our suburbs and you’ve got people out there, especially the non-white, are buying guns right and left. Shotguns and rifles and pistols and everything else. There’s no registration. … There’s no, and you know, they’ve had trouble with this national gun law, but after the president’s assassination, someone ought to do something.”

For a more in depth study on discriminatory gun legislation, read The Racist Roots of Gun Control by Clayton E. Cramer.

Cramer’s analysis, and this excerpt on the history of gun control, globally, both demonstrate that gun control isn’t about controlling guns. It’s about controlling people.

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