When W.E.B. Dubois patrolled his home with a shotgun after the 1906 Atlanta race riot, he was an aberration. But not how you think. Dubois reports that he was unusual among his contemporaries because until that point he did not own a gun.
Dubois’s gun purchase and his aggressive statements following the riot were not passion-of-the-moment things that he would regret. They were part of a continuing engagement of the practice and philosophy of armed self-defense. As editor of the NAACP’s flagship magazine The Crisis, Dubois continued to champion armed self-defense as a core private interest. Indeed, in some instances, Dubois seemed to cast self-defense as a duty. After a lynching in Gainesville, Fla., he wrote: “No Colored man can read an account of the recent lynching in Gainesville without being ashamed of his people. Without resistance they let a white mob whom they outnumbered two to one, torture, harry and murder. In the last analysis lynching of Negroes is going to stop when the cowardly mob is faced by effective guns in the hands of people determined to sell their souls dearly.”
Dubois also offered an important caution that reflects the core principle of the black tradition of arms and models Martin Luther King’s admonition decades later about respecting the line between self-defense and political violence. In commentary following the 1919 Chicago race riot, Dubois urged robust self-defense with “bricks and clubs and guns.” But then he cautioned, “We must never let justifiable self-defense against individuals become blind and lawless offense against all white folk. We must not seek reform by violence.” In 1921, he invoked self-defense again as he urged blacks to migrate to the comparative safety of the North. He acknowledged that “troubles will ensue with white unions and householders. But we have learned how to meet it by un-wavering self-defense and by the ballot.”
In this respect, Dubois was no aberration within the early leadership of the NAACP. Walter White also would rise to pull heavy oars at the association. Walter White was from Atlanta. He was just a boy in 1906. While Dubois paced the floor with a shotgun, across town, Walter White sat with his father, both of them clutching guns. Later White wrote about his father’s somber caution as the two of them crouched in the dark peering out the parlor window of the family’s neat bungalow: “Son, don’t shoot until the first man puts a foot on the lawn and then don’t you miss.”
The stories of Dubois and White begin chapters five and six of Negroes and the Gun. The decision to begin each chapter with a period leader who embraced armed self-defense might have been a problem. The instinct is that such things are rare. But actually the problem was the opposite.
The record is so thick that the difficulty was choosing who got top billing. Because they were of different generations, White and Dubois head separate chapters. But this meant that another NAACP stalwart, Louis Wright, the first black chairman of the NAACP and a graduate of Harvard Medical School, had to go deeper into the lineup. Louis Wright’s armed preparations come to us secondhand from Roy Wilkins, who writes: “Louis came from Atlanta. Like Walter he had been through the 1906 riot, and like Walter he had watched through the darkened windows of his home, gun in hand.”
The gun stories of Dubois, White and Wright make it easier to digest the fact that the NAACP cut its organizational teeth supporting black people who used guns in self-defense. The first major litigation that the NAACP supported was a case of armed self-defense by black sharecropper Pink Franklin against a planter who laid claim to him under a peonage contract. The NAACP took on the case in 1910, and by 1919, Pink Franklin, who had shot a planter and a deputy marshal in self-defense, walked free.
The saga of Sgt. Edgar Caldwell ended differently. Caldwell, a WWI veteran, shot and killed a trolley driver who was stomping him after throwing him from the whites-only section. The NAACP raised money for his defense with a plea in The Crisis: “We want 500 Negroes who believe in Negro manhood to send immediately one dollar for Caldwell’s defense.” His defense funded by the coins and bills of anonymous black folk, Caldwell survived two years on death row before he was executed. Under the deft editorial touch of Dubois, The Crisis spills over with reports and commentary that frame armed self-defense as a crucial private resource for blacks. Giving broader coverage to this material might easily have added another hundred pages to Negroes and the Gun.
One of the most important early cases supported by the NAACP anchors chapter six. Dr. Ossian Sweet had the grand ambition to move his family into a nice house on a neat corner lot in a white neighborhood. He was familiar with the risks. Several black families had been run out of their new homes by mobs. Sweet’s colleague, Dr. Al Turner, did not even get to spend the night in his new home. Turner was reviled among blacks as the story spread of him fleeing the scene, cowering on the floor of his chauffeured car.
Ossian Sweet feared both mobbers and the shame of being called a coward when he walked into his new home, carrying a sack full of guns and ammunition. It was not long before the mob gathered. Missiles flew. And by the end of it, one of the white men in the crowd was dead from Negro gunfire.
The NAACP hired Clarence Darrow to defend the Sweets and used the case to fuel a fundraising juggernaut. After Darrow wrestled the prosecution to a mistrial, the Sweets became national heroes among black folk. Their tour of NAACP branches raised enough money to pay Darrow, with surplus left to fulfill James Weldon Johnson’s dream of a standing fund that could support important litigation without pushing the organization to the brink of insolvency. This was the beginning of the storied NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
Of course, the NAACP was not the only game in town. It was the progeny of disparate early organizations, and that diversity reflects the potential divisions within the early 20th century leadership. When Dubois exhorted black men to fight in WWI, A. Philip Randolph countered that he would not fight to make the world safe for democracy, but was more than willing to die at home to “make Georgia safe for the Negro.” Marcus Garvey represented another strand of thought and was disdained by both Dubois and Randolph. But on the question of armed self-defense, the three of them found basic agreement.
This reflects what we have long known. The principle of self-defense is near universal. It demands no sophisticated ideology. Even in the most civilized of societies, it is an essential practical allowance for self-help against imminent threats in situations where it is impossible for the state to act. As I will discuss tomorrow, this ancient principle runs like a torrent through the modern civil rights movement.
See also this article by my UCLA School of Law colleague Adam Winkler from 2011, about MLK (at least in his early years):
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.” …
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