A few weeks ago, I linked to a picture of civil rights activist John Salter being attacked by a mob during a lunch counter sit-in during the 1960s. I also linked to a newspaper op-ed in which Salter explained how he and other civil rights workers used firearms for protection from Klansmen and other terrorists—when Klansmen knew that a homicide would not be witnessed by the news media. Since that blog post drew great interest from the readers, I thought that some persons might be interested in the longer version of Salter’s history of the role of armed self-defense in the Civil Rights Movement.
The longer version is John R. Salter, Jr., “Social Justice Community Organizing and the Necessity for Protective Firearms,” which is chapter 2 of The Gun Culture and Its Enemies , pp. 19-23 (William R. Tonso, editor, Merril Press, 1990.) (Merril Press is the press for the Second Amendment Foundation.) The chapter was first published as an article by Salter in Against the Current, July/August 1988. The magazine describes itself as an “analytical journal for the broad revolutionary left.” Since neither version is available on-line, I will provide a summary.
In the mid-1960s, Salter was a full-time community organizer for the Southern Conference Educational Fund, in the very poor and highly segregated North Carolina black belt. Klan activity was heavy, and “Local law enforcement was almost completely dominated by the United Klans of America.” Klan dues were collected at the police station in Enfield.
Having received many death threats, Salter carried a Smith & Wesson .38 special in his attaché case. One night, on a long stretch of isolated country road, a Klan vehicle tried to force Salter’s car into a high-speed chase, by tailing him nearly bumper-to-bumper. “But I continued to drive sedately, mile after mile…with my revolver in my hand.” Salter and the other community organizers had put out word on the grapevine that they were all armed, and he surmises that this was the reason that the Klansmen did not try to shoot him that night.
Soon after, “a local civil rights stalwart, Mrs. Alice Evans, of Enfield, opened fire with her double-barreled 12 gauge, sprinkling several KKKers with birdshot as they endeavored to burn a cross in her driveway one night and, simultaneously, approaching her home with buckets of gasoline.” The Klansmen fled and went to the hospital. Mrs. Evans donated the cross to the Smithsonian Museum.
Salter then recounts the story of the armed students and teachers who protected Tougaloo College, near Jackson, Mississippi, when Salter taught there in 1961-63. That story is recounted in the op-ed to which I linked in the previous post.
In late 1964, the Klan was scheduling a state-wide rally in Halifax County, N.C., near a black residential area. Rally posters were displayed at “most law enforcement offices in the county.” Salter and his fellow organizers asked the office of Governor Terry Sanford to provide state police protection for the black residents. Sanford’s office ignored the requests, until Salter went to Sanford’s office, got a meeting with the chief of staff, and told him that if the state police did not provide protection, “our people, armed to the hilt, would have no hesitation about utilizing armed self-defense in the event of Klan violence. Visibly shaken, the aide left me and conferred with Sanford. He returned quickly to promise the state police.”
Klan rallies continued for several more months in the area, and so did state police protection.
In 1965 in North Carolina, the FBI and Justice Department told Salter than an informant inside a United Klans klavern had reported on a plan to bomb Salter’s home in Raleigh.The FBI agent told Salter and his wife that the federal government could not do anything about it. Of course, “Local law enforcement was not reliable. Fortunately, we lived in the middle of a heavily armed Black community,” and Salter’s neighbors were “very protective.” They and Salter put out the word that the community was armed for defense. Thus, “We were not surprised when the bombing effort never materialized.”
In the summer of 1970, Salter was Southside Director for the Chicago Commons Association. As such, he was a community organizer for mostly “Black, Puerto Rican, and Chicano” people. On the South/Southwest side of Chicago, the racism was “often more violent and sanguinary than the Deep South of the previous decade. The Richard Daley machine was openly antagonistic to us . . .” In some but not all districts, the police were in league with the racists.
Death threats were frequent. When they were phoned in, Salter told the callers, “that I had a ticket for them, a pass to permanent eternity via my Marlin .444.” One day while Salter was at work and his wife was at home, some men with knives came to the home, but a vigilant neighbor with a revolver frightened them away.
In Chicago in 1973, Salter’s community network of nearly 300 block clubs “set up public citizen ‘watch-dog’ patrols.” These were generally unarmed, with “primary backup from a network of armed citizenry in the neighborhoods,” with whom the patrols stayed in contact via Citizens Band radio and telephone. “The effects of this well known campaign in deterring while racial violence were consistently substantial.” Soon, and as a result, politicians instituted “increasingly responsible and egalitarian law enforcement practices. But the patrols and vigilance of armed neighborhoods continued.”
Salter write that firearms are not an absolute guarantee of safety for community organizers; Medger W. Evers (NAACP Field Secretary for Mississippi) was murdered in June 1963, but being armed did help him to live for nine years longer than most people expected he would when he took the job in 1954.
In sum, “I am stating categorically that the number of fatalities” was “much smaller” because “organizers and their grassroots groups” were “sensibly armed for self-defense.”