For Black Americans, gun culture is linked to a history of resistance against white terror

By Jason Flynn, Staff Reporter

Black American’s historic relationship with guns is a complicated one.

For most of U.S. history gun ownership was tied directly to colonial expansion as settlers from Europe made guns a keystone of the violent removal of native Americans. 

European settlers made laws mandating gun ownership well before the Revolutionary War or the drafting of the Constitution according to Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, an ethnic studies professor at California State University, Hayward. 

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“Male colonial settlers had long formed militias for the purpose of raiding and razing Indigenous communities and seizing their lands and resources, and the Native communities fought back. Virginia, the first colony, forbade any man to travel unless he was ‘well armed.’ A few years later, another law required men to take arms to work and to attend church or be fined,” Dunbar-Ortiz said in her book Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment. 

As land was cleared of its Native population the settlers imported slaves from Africa to provide labor, and formed armed patrols to police the enslaved population. 

Fearing uprisings of enslaved Black people many states passed laws that barred even freed Black people from having guns. 

“Especially after Nat Turner’s rebellion in North Carolina and Virginia there was states, especially North Carolina, Virginia, but other southern states began taking away more and more rights from free Black people,” teacher and historian Darrel Dexter said.  “They couldn’t be educated whereas before they were. They couldn’t even in some states carry or own firearms anymore which was almost necessary for hunting and things like that.”

While the history of Black resistance in the US extends back to the first slave ships and includes moments of armed insurrection, Black armed defense movements have their roots in the civil war and reconstruction when newly emancipated Black people have to use guns in their own defense. 

The Black militia tradition solidifies during Reconstruction 

After the Civil War a group of Republicans, labeled Radical Republicans, sought to formalize the civil rights of slaves newly emancipated during the war.

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After the massacres of Black people at the hands of former white slave masters, the Radical Republicans insisted on enforcing congressional legislation through a military occupation of the south.

The south was divided into five military districts until new state constitutions were drafted which guaranteed all men the right to vote and ratified the fourteenth amendment to the US constitution. 

As a result, Black men made up a massive contingent of voters.

“There’s what we call the Black belt, that stretch of 290 counties that goes from Virginia to Texas in which Black people are the majority and 180 of them that are somewhere between 30 and 49 percent,” said Sundiata Cha-Jua, a professor of African American studies at the University of Illinois.  “You would be looking at a significant section of the south in which Black people would control governments, and in the rest of the south, because they represent a significant minority, would have great influence on shaping governments”

As the former slave owners fought every change and new institution, organizations like The Union League of America, which set up nationwide chapters to support the war effort, formed defensive units in order to defend Republican candidates and voters from violence and intimidation.  

“Whether it was Black or white Republicans, they had to be able to defend them from attack,” Cha-Jua said. “The former slaveholders, they sought to ensure that people will not be able to exercise their power.” 

The southern Democrats devised the Mississippi Plan, or Shotgun Policy, to form paramilitary groups to terrorize Black people across the south. 

“They will simply begin to kill Black elected officials, Blacks running for office, white Republicans, and they launch a series of racial pogroms,” Cha-Jua said. “They simply overthrow the Republican governments.”

A particularly heinous example was a massacre of Black churchgoers in Colfax, Louisiana in 1873.

“They set the church on fire and they shoot people as they come out,” Cha-Jua said.  “They massacred about 100 folk.”

Of the nearly one hundred white people known to be involved in the massacre only nine were ever charged with a crime, and all of those were acquitted or overturned on appeals to the Supreme Court.

“In the wake of that kind of terror, right, Black people have to arm themselves,” Cha-Jua said.

Folks like Charles Caldwell and George Washington Albright in Mississippi, who led state militias made up Black freedmen, pushed back against encroaching former slavers. 

“We drilled frequently – and how the rich folks hated to see us, armed and ready to defend ourselves and our elected government,” Albright said according to a 1937 interview in the Daily Worker. 

The effort was hamstrung by court cases and politicking that left the state militia unresourced and largely defenseless to the marauding southern Democrats. 

Caldwell was assassinated in 1876, and by 1877 the country gave up on reconstruction with the Hayes-Tilden compromise. 

Similar militias were formed across the south and some, like the McClellan Guard, Brown’s Zouaves, and Tennessee Rifles in Memphis, Tenn. successfully maintained a level of community safety into the 1890s according to historian Roger Johnson. 

“Ida B. Wells took Booker T. Washington’s phrase ‘self-help,’ and she coined the phrase armed self-help,” Cha-Jua said. “That phrase characterizes the way in which Black people responded throughout the first historical periods.” 

Their disbanding left the Memphis Black community open to lynchings and other terrorism sweeping the rest of the south. 

The Second Nadir

“The City of Memphis has demonstrated that neither character nor standing avails the Negro if he dares to protect himself against the white man or become his rival. There is nothing we can do about lynching now, as we are outnumbered and without arms,” Wells said. “There is therefore only one thing left that we can do; save our money and leave a town which will neither protect our lives nor our property.”

Continuing terrorism in the south combined with economic opportunity in other parts of the country led to an exodus from the region.

“The rich people gained control of Mississippi with the help of the Klan,” Albright said. “Unfortunately they got many of the poor whites on their side.”

Albright moved west with his family to Kansas and eventually California. 

Wells also moved west, though did so with thousands of other people from Memphis.

“In 1892 in Memphis, after three Black men who own a cooperative grocery were lynched, Ida B. Wells called for an exodus, and 6000 Black folks left the city of Memphis,” Cha-Jua said. 

She would eventually end up in Chicago, Ill. 

“I think migration, mass migration, is one of the things that falls along a continuum of resistance,” Cha-Jua said. “That flight I would equate to the same type of self-emancipation that happens during enslavement.”

Cha-Jua calls the period between the end of the short-lived reconstruction and around 1935 “the second nadir” or the next low point in the American history of race relations. 

Black people that fled the south were often greeted with animosity in the places they chose to settle, and Illinois was particularly unfriendly for a “free state.” 

It took til 1848 for Illinois to make a constitutional ban on slavery, and “Black Codes” officially barred free Black people from entering the state.

Those rules were only overturned by the Reconstruction amendments to the Constitution. 

When Black people fled the south they often gravitated toward rural areas where they’d be able to find work.

“They go to rural areas because that’s the kind of work that they’re used to,” Cha-Jua said. 

They also gravitated to places where they could find family members through networks developed by the underground railroad and Union leagues. 

“For mutual protection, often free Black people lived in communities, Black communities, which over time, by the 1900s, seemed to have disappeared,” Dexter said. 

As Black people and non-Anglo European immigrants migrated they’d continue to encounter animosity from white communities, which would boil over into violence. 

In the 1870s white coal miners attacked Black workers in O’Fallon and Braidwood, driving hundreds of people out of their camps. 

Wealthy industrialists exploited negative migrant sentiment and negative racial sentiment to stir conflict among laborers and bust unions that were growing increasingly powerful. 

In the 1880s miners shot and killed a Black man amid a strike in Rapid City, threatened workers outside Danville, and started brawls around Chicago stockyards.

“Beginning in the 1890s there’s a series of pogroms and lynchings in the small towns in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois,” Cha-Jua said.

Before Sam Bush was lynched in  Decatur, Ill. in 1893 local community members confronted the sheriff and volunteered to protect Bush, but the sheriff convinced the volunteers he didn’t need the help. 

“[The sheriff] takes his ass to The World’s Fair in Chicago, which was ironically billed as the white City,” Cha-Jua said. “The guy’s lynched.” 

The next year another Black man is accused of rape in Decatur, and this time the Black community rallied to deter another lynching. 

“One hundred and ninety-nine Black men and one Black woman surround the central business district, including the courthouse and the jail, for three nights,” Cha-Jua said. “They literally frisk any white person at night who attempts to come toward the jail. That’s what I mean by community-armed self-defense.”

By the mid-1890s the mix of racial and labor animosity was reaching a fever pitch. 

In Spring Valley, Ill. in 1895 an Italian immigrant worker reported being robbed by a group of Black men, leading to a days-long race riot with an unclear death toll. 

The displaced Black families regrouped in the nearby town of Seatonville, Ill. and put out a call for assistance that started, “The time has come for us to take up arms in defense of our race. They are killing our people all over the country,” according to an article by Felix Armfield from 2000.

A combination of armed threat and political pressure from around the state led then-Governor Altgeld to mobilize, “Ten armed colored special policemen and forty-five white[sic] patrolmen,” to escort the Black workers back to their homes.

In 1898 the Spanish-American war added yet another spark to the tinderbox, and racially charged labor battles broke out in Pana, Virden and Carterville, Ill.

The collected incidents led Illinois legislators to ban companies from bringing in “squads” of workers from outside the state, and set the stage for conflicts after the turn of the century. 

A new generation of veterans’

Similar to how Civil War veterans and reconstruction-era militiamen seeded armed resistance movements in the late 19th century, Black veterans of the Spanish American war would seed the resistance movements of the early 20th.

Soldiers joined fraternal organizations, like the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF), National Afro American League (NAAL) and Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the World (IBPOEW).

“If you’ve read anything on Black communities then you know that this tradition, this military tradition, that comes out of the Civil War for Black folk translates into these drill teams,” Cha-Jua said. 

The drill teams practice marching and rifle sequences, and form the basis for protective units when conflicts arise. 

“There’s ten chapters of the national Afro American League in the state of Illinois in the late 19th and early 20th century. The National Afro American League has armed self defense as one of its planks,” Cha-Jua said. 

By the early 1900s these cliques have only the barest affiliation, if any, with the militias of the reconstruction era and they’re not very well resourced, but a combination of war experience and drill experience made them malleable to community defense. 

“In times of crisis when the community is being invaded by white terrorists intent on, you know, pillaging, raping, murdering and robbing they could immediately take form,” Cha-Jua said. “The structure existed through the fraternal networks.”

In 1903 there were two instances of group armed defense that sprang up in response to lynchings in Illinois. 

In Thebes, Ill. a Black teenager found sleeping in a barn was hunted down and lynched by a white mob that afterward decided to attack a nearby camp of Black railroad workers.

“They go in and start shooting at the Black folks, at the Black bridge workers who are camped along the Mississippi,” Cha-Jua said. “The Black folks fire back, you know, so there’s a shootout, and then at a certain point the Black people are overwhelmed, and they have to flee into the woods.”

In Belleville, Illinois a Black teacher named David Wyatt was lynched following an altercation with the white superintendent, and the nearby Black community quickly prepared for further violence. 

“David Wyatt is from the all Black town of Brooklyn, Illinois,” Cha-Jua said. “The mayor of Brooklyn immediately purchased 12 shotguns, and then he deputizes a lot of people and they, of course, quarter off Brooklyn from White supremacists who they expect to come and attempt to attack the village.”

The attacks steadily pressed Black communities out of smaller towns, and in many counties the Black population completely disappeared. 

“There was just simply, through at least the mid-1900s, kind of an unwelcoming attitude among many white residents,”  Dexter said. “It was worth a shot, I guess, to move and try it in the cities.”

Cha-Jua describes these attacks as pogroms, similar to expulsion of Jews from the Russian Empire around the same time. 

“Black folks leave small towns in Illinois to go to Chicago or leave small towns in Indiana to go to Indianapolis or go to Cleveland,” Cha-Jua said. “Because of those racial pogroms in those small towns, right, they turn a number of those places into sundown towns, right, free of any Black population.”

The Black populations of cities swell as a result of the combination of people displaced from small towns and continued migration from the south which, again, elicits violent responses from white communities. 

In 1908 a lynch mob of thousands attacked Black neighborhoods in Springfield, Ill. would send a shockwave through the country as “the land of Lincoln” became the site of terror. 

“[The mob was] repelled by these Spanish-American War veterans tied to the Illinois eighth,” Cha-Jua said. 

 Despite the defensive response, a reported 2000 Black people were displaced from the city, and further articles derided the refugees as they passed through outlying Illinois towns in search of new homes. 

These pogroms would continue in the US for decades, notably occurring in Illinois in Anna in 1909, Chicago in the 1919 “Red Summer,” Elco in 1924, and Vienna in 1954, but decreased considerably after the 1930s. 

An age of upheaval

In the years following the violence in Springfield a number of soon-to-be national organizations formed to counter the glut of white terrorism in the US, and many titans of the civil rights movement emerged.

Likely the most written about US civil rights organization, the Nation Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), formed in 1909.

Though the organization was started with input from many of Black academics, its early officers were mostly white, and W.E.B. Du Bois was the only Black person on the founding executive board. 

Another organization, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) founded in 1914 by Marcus Garvey, would have a shorter life, but would also be massively influential before its decline.

“Ideologically, Garvey is pretty backward, but programmatically he’s pretty advanced,” Cha-Jua said.

The Garvey movement, which had estimated millions of followers, included a newspaper, a clerical training university, a funeral fund, a nursing corps, soup kitchens, a church, and even an attempt at an international cruise ship line, all of which was funded by mass numbers of small member donations. 

Garvey’s organization became one of the most influential in the country, and seeded the Black power movement that would flourish in the 60s and 70s.

World events would have a particularly profound impact going into and following the first World War, as national independence movements began to take hold around the world in places like Ireland, and Egypt, and the Russian revolution brought about a new international Socialist paradigm. 

The whirlwind of national organizing, global upheaval and racial repression helped foment an increasingly militant Black civil rights movement in the US.

Cyril Briggs, the founder of the African Blood Brotherhood (ABB), joined the Communist Party after the Tulsa Massacre in 1921, and the party in turn provided funding for the ABB newspaper The Crusader according to historian Jacob Zumoff.

In 1923 a Black tenant farmer in Mississippi named Joe Pullen shot a white farmer in a debt dispute Georgia State University Professor Akinyele Umoja said in his book We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement. 

A white mob retaliated against Pullen, leading to a protracted shootout leaving Pullen and nine members of the mob dead.

The Negro World newspaper published by the UNIA hailed Pullen and headlined he “Should Have a Monument.”

Briggs and Garvey were both surveilled by US intelligence agencies who were at times assisted by NAACP members according to Department of Justice documents.

Garvey’s organization, Briggs politics and legal work by the NAACP set part of a foundation for civil rights groups in the following decades.

By the 1930s the character of violent racial conflict in the US altered considerably as a result of the professionalization of police forces and an increase in state executions. 

“The white citizenry can expect that anytime they have created a fear of some Black person, and they believe that that person should be killed … they come to accept that they will be executed,” Cha-Jua said.

A combination of mass organizing, militant defense, legal battles, press publication and systemic changes decreased lynchings and invasions of white civilians into the Black community significantly. 

In 1935, in the pressure cooker of the Great Depression, an Afro-Puerto Rican boy was alleged to have been beaten outside at a department store. 

Thousands of residents, later believing the boy had been murdered by the police, flooded the streets, battled with police and destroyed stores. 

“It’s an urban rebellion in which Black people respond to the agents of the state,” Cha-Jua said. “What happens in 1935, will become the dominant shape of that type of racial conflagration from the 60s forward.”

Staff reporter Jason Flynn can be reached at jflynn@dailyegyptian.com, by phone at 872-222-7821 or on Twitter at @dejasonflynn. To stay up to date with all your southern Illinois news, follow the Daily Egyptian on Facebook and Twitter.

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