In the weeks since the election of Donald Trump, guns sales to black Americans have quadrupled, and black gun groups, such as the National African American Gun Association, report that attendance at their meetings has doubled. It is little wonder that racial minorities are seeking ways to protect themselves, with Trump having emboldened hate groups who see him as their long-awaited leader and with incidents of racial harassment and violence having escalated in the days after November 8. But history offers a cautionary tale about the role of guns in securing black lives and civil rights in the United States.
During Reconstruction, guns became important symbols of freedom for ex-slaves. Observers throughout the post-war South noted how eager freedpeople were to procure “pistols, old muskets, and shot-guns” in preparation for self-defense, as possessing a gun sent a clear signal that its owner would not be intimidated. When a group of white planters returned to James Island, South Carolina, in December 1865, to reclaim their abandoned plantations, armed freedmen refused to allow them to disembark from their boat. Near Charleston that same year, Gabriel Manigault felt personally insulted that his former slaves came armed to a meeting with Manigault and the local Freedmen’s Bureau agent to talk about the terms of a labor contract. Although unsure if the “old musket” he saw was loaded, Manigault supposed that the freedman carrying it brought the weapon “so as to be prepared for any tricks that might be attempted against his freedom.”
Anecdotal evidence also suggests that from time to time, armed freepeople successfully repelled Klan attacks on their homes. But more often than not, they were outnumbered and outgunned. Old single-shot muzzle-loaders were no match for the newest Colt repeating revolvers and rifles the Klan and White Leagues purchased from northern suppliers who had shipped them south. When freedmen organized to make a collective stand against white terror, it often ended in disaster. The discipline and precision of the white paramilitaries–many of whom were ex-Confederate officers–overawed even the most highly trained forces. In 1874, for example, a multi-state force of mounted white paramilitaries descended upon Grant Parish, Louisiana, and murdered more than 100 freedmen, some of whom were members of the state militia. A few months later, the mounted and heavily armed Crescent City White League routed the New Orleans Metropolitan Police, led by none other than former Confederate-general-turned-scalawag James Longstreet, in just a few hours.
Gun ownership may have symbolized freedom for many ex-slaves, but it could also symbolize their vulnerability. In East St. Louis, Illinois, white mobs had prowled the city’s streets for months in the spring of 1917, pulling black people off trolley cars and beating them with impunity after black workers had started replacing striking white workers at local steel plants. The police did little to stop these assaults, leading a number of black residents to arm themselves and help protect their community. When they shot and killed two police officers they believed had been involved in the attacks on black citizens, however, the response from local whites was vicious. Enraged by black resistance and fueled by rumors that blacks were arming themselves en masse, they set out to provide a lesson in the perils of carrying guns while black. On July 2, a white mob lynched, shot, and burned out much of East St. Louis’s black community. The riot left as many as 200 African Americans dead and thousands homeless in what black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey called a “wholesale massacre of our people.” It also led the son of a former slave and Union Army veteran in Tennessee to take his father’s gun for fear that paranoid whites might turn on his father. “I always wanted a home and a gun,” the father recalled. “I got both of them, but my boy took my gun when they had the riot in St. Louis,” he explained. “I never did buy another one.” What had been an emblem of the proud veteran’s freedom now signaled his exclusion from the national body politic.
A popular colloquialism says that “Abe Lincoln made men free, but Samuel Colt made them equal.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Historically, it has been perilous for black Americans to bear arms in the same way white Americans do. Paramilitary violence tacitly if not explicitly endorsed by the government has guaranteed that, far from making African Americans free or equal, carrying guns has made them targets. The call to armed resistance is central to many America’s sense of national identity, and it is understandable that blacks today find that call necessary and unavoidable. But guns provide no easy answer to the country’s perennial problems of racial exclusion, hatred, and violence.