Author and Fordham Law Professor Nicholas Johnson has taken a contrarian and potentially controversial perspective on the civil rights movement in a new book titled “Negroes and the Gun: The Black Tradition of Arms.”
His central insight?
The non-violent theme of the civil rights movement “obscures…[the] parallel tradition of arms that…[tracks] for a period starting in the early 1900s all the way through the 20th century.”
“From very early on…even pre-Civil War…in many of the accounts of slaves fleeing from slave catchers, slaves in the north, free blacks actually freeing from slave catchers who were operating in the north, we see a variety of instances of armed self-defense by free blacks, by fugitive slaves, by individuals on the underground railroad…including Harriet Tubman.”
Title: Negroes and the Gun: The Black Tradition of Arms
Author: Nicholas Johnson
Johnson’s book was written to cover what he feels is an underappreciated black tradition of bearing arms for self-defense, a story he believes that has been lost in American history in light of the overarching historical themes of civil disobedience and peaceful resistance.
As Johnson put it in a post at the prominent legal blog, the Volokh Conspiracy:
“The book chronicles a tradition of church folk, merchants, and strivers, the very best people in the community, armed and committed to the principle of individual self-defense. 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.”
Johnson further extends this discussion to present-day America and the competing viewpoints on gun ownership in the black community in context of heavy inner-city armed violence and recent Supreme Court decisions in favor of gun ownership in such areas.