“Negroes and the Gun: The Black Tradition of Arms,” by Nicholas Johnson, Prometheus Books, 379 pages, $19.95.
When the Civil War ended, most black soldiers in the United States Army when discharged were sent home with their firearms and 40 rounds of ammunition.
It was part of a two-century long black heritage of armed defense of their rights and freedom.
This issue is the subject of “Negroes and the Gun: The Black Tradition of Arms,” by Nicholas Johnson.
Johnson examines the relationship between blacks, firearms and freedom throughout American history. He reveals a robust history of black Americans defending their freedoms and their lives with firearms.
Before the Civil War ended slavery, blacks regularly used violence — including firearms — to escape slavery and to maintain their freedom once on free soil. As Johnson shows, slave catchers found their attempts to return runaways from free states opposed by the guns wielded by their intended black victims, often assisted by white neighbors.
During the Civil War, nearly 200,000 black men joined the Union Army and Navy. Afterward, blacks often formed local militias to protect themselves from night-riding Klansmen.
Southern states imposed segregation laws by the 1890s and maintained those laws for nearly 70 years. Regardless, blacks maintained their arms in face of attempts to disarm them.
The cost was high, and it often ended badly, yet Johnson shows examples of blacks successfully defending their lives or preventing lynchings throughout the period.
A key factor which Johnson examines is the use of firearms for self-defense versus political violence. Use of arms most frequently succeeded when it was obviously self-defense.
Blacks firing at those attempting to firebomb or shooting up their homes rarely faced retaliation. Revolutionary political violence, by contrast, was quashed.
Johnson shows even the nonviolent Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s endorsed armed self-defense. Hartman Turnbow of Mississippi fought off a Klan attack on his family in 1963 with a rifle. Turnbow explained. “I wasn’t being non-nonviolent. I was protecting my family.” His actions were approved, not condemned.
Despite the role armed self-defense played in abolishing segregation, once blacks achieved legal equality their leaders turned against the guns.
Much as white 19th century political leaders once attempted to disarm blacks, black politicians now champion gun control, even disarmament. Johnson examines the reasons for the shift, and its adverse consequences in the black community.
“Negroes and the Gun” presents a history different from the version widely accepted today, documenting this new version rigorously. The book is worth reading and considering.
Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.