How the right to arms saved the non-violent civil rights protesters

Over at The Faculty Lounge, there are some pictures of sit-ins from the early 1960s.  Regarding a 1963 sit-in in Jackson, Mississippi, TFL writes: “By one account, members of the all-White Jackson police force stood guard outside, while several FBI agents (the guys in back wearing shades) ‘observed’ from inside. That White guy at the counter, that’s Tougaloo professor and community activist Hunter Gray (John R. Salter) who helped organize the Jackson sit-ins.  And that’s blood on his shirt.  All of the protesters had been covered in slop, and some were beaten with brass knuckles and broken bottles.”

The non-violent Civil Rights protesters allowed themselves to be beaten in public while the media watched; the images helped win sympathy for the Civil Rights Movement in the North, and proved to be crucial in developing the political will for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In a limited sense, the media’s presence provided some protection for the protesters; there was never a case in which a civil rights protester was murdered in front of media cameras. At night, when everyone had gone home, things were very different. As Salter later explained:

I was beaten and arrested many times and hospitalized twice. This happened to many, many people in the movement. No one knows what kind of massive racist retaliation would have been directed against grassroots black people had the black community not had a healthy measure of firearms within it.

When the campus of Tougaloo College was fired on by KKK-type racial night-riders, my home was shot up and a bullet missed my infant daughter by inches. We received no help from the Justice Department and we guarded our campus — faculty and students together — on that and subsequent occasions. We let this be known. The racist attacks slackened considerably. Night-riders are cowardly people — in any time and place — and they take advantage of fear and weakness.

Later, I worked for years in the Deep South as a full-time civil rights organizer. Like a martyred friend of mine, NAACP staffer Medgar W. Evers, I, too, was on many Klan death lists and I, too, traveled armed: a .38 special Smith and Wesson revolver and a 44/40 Winchester carbine.

The knowledge that I had these weapons and was willing to use them kept enemies at bay. Years later, in a changed Mississippi, this was confirmed by a former prominent leader of the White Knights of the KKK when we had an interesting dinner together at Jackson.

In the 1970s, I was Southside director of the large, privately-funded Chicago Commons Association. Our primary focus involved assisting minority people in developing sensible community organizations — vis-a-vis schools, city services, anti-crime.

We were opposed by white racist organizations (e.g., Nazi Party) and various youth gangs of many sorts. My staff and I received countless death threats, there were arson attacks on our offices, and, on one occasion, men with weapons came to my home and told my wife and children that they intended to kill me. (I happened to be at work.)

Again, I was glad I had many firearms and, again, we guarded our home and let this be known. We responded to hate calls on the telephone by telling the callers we were quite prepared for them.

For Salter, the right to own a handgun was apparently a crucial part of his ability to exercise his right to defend himself and his family, which was a sine qua non of his ability to stay alive in order to exercise his First Amendment rights to advocate for enforcement of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Yet in modern Chicago, decent law-abiding citizens are forbidden to own handguns. As I detailed in my amicus brief  in McDonald v. Chicago (pages 39-45), many people find that a handgun is best choice for family defense, especially in urban areas such as Chicago. As the history of the Civil Rights Movement demonstrates, the denial of the constitutional right to own a handgun could endanger other constitutional rights, particularly the rights of community organizers.

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