Cold Dead Hands and the Civil Rights Movement

What do Charlton Heston and Rev. Martin Luther King have in common? Along with the fact that both men pursued callings in which they portrayed the Biblical role of Moses descending from the mountain top, both men were committed to the struggle for civil rights. In fact, Heston marched with Rev. King in the South and often stated that his commitment to Second Amendment issues was a natural corollary to the struggle for racial equality. The history of that struggle reveals that Heston was not engaging in mere NRA rhetoric.

The NRA was the first national organization to become integrated when it was founded in 1871. No other association existed in the U.S. in which integration was the rule. Quite possibly this was because General Ambrose Burnside, one of the NRA’s founding members, was a leader of Black Union troops during the Civil War. Even by the time of the Korean War (1950-1953), most white officers were reluctant to lead Black troops because of the perception that this would ruin an officer’s prospects for promotion.

President Truman was the first President to begin desegregating the United States Army. In fact, the United States government still practiced rigid segregation in the civil service during and after Woodrow Wilson’s administration.

Modern gun control started with post-Civil War laws enacted in the former Confederate states restricting the right to keep and bear arms to whites only. Newly freed black citizens returning from military service on the sides of both the North and the South were forced to submit to weapons searches in their homes.

Resistance to such gun control measures would often lead to lynching. In 1921, a whole section of Tulsa, Oklahoma was destroyed and as many as 300 may have died (most of them blacks) after some black men, many of them returned WW I veterans, attempted an armed defense of their neighborhood against a violent white mob.

Tulsa’s black section was a shining example to the world of what black professionals and business people had accomplished in the United States. Its destruction by angry white mobs raises the issue of whether a member of a racial, ethnic or religious minority should trust exclusively in government for safety.

Mahatma Gandhi, the architect of nonviolent resistance, lamented that one of the greatest injustices was the colonial restriction on the right of the Indian people to possess firearms.

Gandhi recognized that nonviolent resistance, the strategy adopted by Rev. King, was not an end in itself, but that nonviolence was the only way to gather the moral force to persuade England to give in to the demands of justice.

Would Northern liberals have supported the civil rights movement if pictures of armed black men had appeared on the evening news?

One important group within the civil rights movement, the “Deacons for the Defense”, showed up at marches and demonstrations all over the South with shotguns, rifles and pistols. These were armed churchmen like Condoleezza Rice’s father, a theologian and preacher. According to Ms. Rice, they guarded each other’s homes and families from night riders when the lives of civil rights protesters were at risk in Birmingham, Alabama.

Cities like Chicago and Washington, DC (two of the most segregated cities in the U.S.) still favor gun control. The Founding Fathers anticipated that democracy would be a bumpy road.

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