Skip to Content

“When Other Folks Give Up Theirs…” Black Freedom and the Gun Control Debate

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

Akinyele Umoja

Contrary to Congressman John Lewis’ revision of history, “the notion that the Civil Rights movement was exclusively nonviolent is a popular mythology.” In fact, “Some members of Lewis’s Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee picked up weapons and worked with community people to defend their lives against white terrorists.”

When Other Folks Give Up Theirs…” Black Freedom and the Gun Control Debate

by Akinyele Umoja

Gun control for Black activists must be an issue of self-determination, self-reliance and self-defense.”

The recent debate concerning gun control is complex, particularly as it relates to African descendants in the United States. As almost every other issue in the US, the race dimensions of gun control cannot be dismissed. Slave-holding society fought to prevent enslaved Africans access to weapons to resist and increase potential for insurrection. After emancipation, Blacks sought arms not only to hunt, but to protect themselves from white supremacist terror. Gun ownership was associated with citizenship and liberty and as a means to protect those principles. The segregationists continued slave-holding society’s practice of attempting to disarm Blacks. Ultimately, Blacks utilized armed self-defense to protect activist leadership and their communities from white terrorist violence. It was a rite of passage for rural Black families taught children to use arms as a means of survival; for food and for protection. Black female youth were trained to shoot for defense from white rapists.

I have the utmost respect for Congressman John Lewis due to the sacrifice he made during the Civil Rights movement in the Deep South. In responding to those opposing President Obama’s gun control proposal’s Congressman Lewis offers that he and his colleagues in the Civil Rights movement, “… believed the only way to achieve peaceful ends was through peaceful means. We took a stand against an unjust system, and we decided to use this faith as our shield and the power of compassion as our defense.”

Blacks utilized armed self-defense to protect activist leadership and their communities from white terrorist violence.”

The notion that the Civil Rights movement was exclusively nonviolent is a popular mythology. In dozens of Southern communities Black people picked up arms to defend themselves. In particular, Black people relied on armed self-defense in communities where Federal government officials failed to safeguard Movement activists and supporters from the violence of racists and segregationists, who were often supported by local law enforcement. Congressman Lewis statement is true for a small number of committed activists who engaged in civil disobedience and voter registration in Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. These activists were often protected by grassroots Black people armed with shotguns and rifles. Some members of Lewis’s Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee picked up weapons and worked with community people to defend their lives against white terrorists.

The post-Civil Rights and Black Power era brought a new dimension of this issue for Black communities. A crisis in Black families resulted from welfare policy and increased individualism and the decline of the manufacturing economy that employed significant numbers of Black males. The federal, state, and local “Cointelpro” assault on activist Black leaders, organizations, and institutions weakened solidarity and Black political consciousness in the 1970s. Black communities experienced a growth in gang activity and an influx of drugs in this period. The access to automatic weapons and assault rifles paralleled the crisis in Black communities. Increased access of weapons to the most criminalized and unstable elements of the Black community only accelerated the crisis. Unlike generations of youth who were trained by their elders to protect their families and communities from emancipation through the Civil Rights and Black Powers era, large numbers of Black youth were supplied weapons in the underground economy.

Black people will never disarm in a political and social environment where Black life is still challenged and not valued.”

As a youth growing up in Compton, California in the early 1970s, I heard a plethora of rumors of elements external to the Black community providing caches of military weapons that contributed to the fratricidal war between the Crips and the Bloods in Compton, Watts, and South Central LA. While this sounds like a wild conspiracy theory, it has been well documented that the FBI and local police agencies utilized “divide and conquer” tactics to incite fratricidal conflict between the Black Panther Party and the Us Organization in the same streets that the Crips and Bloods would inhabit a few years later. The dilemma of the criminal use of guns still poses a challenge in several urban and rural places today. This situation has motivated support for gun control in our communities.

Other politically and socially conscious elements challenge the gun control position based on the history of white supremacy in the US and the desire of racists to disarm Black communities. The growth of white supremacist and right-wing paramilitary formations and militias since the 2008 election of Barack Obama and the fatal shooting of young Trayvon Martin by a white civilian has done nothing to decrease the fear of white violence in the Black community. Several elements of the Black community recant the lyric of the late popular artist Gil Scott Heron, “when other folks give up theirs, I’ll give up mine.”

Gun control for Black activists must be an issue of self-determination, self-reliance and self-defense. Black people will never disarm in a political and social environment where Black life is still challenged and not valued. The Black community must advocate for policies that take weapons out of the hands of unstable elements (e.g. checks for mental illness), but be vigilant to make sure these policies do are not utilized in a manner to weaken the capacity of our community to defend itself from white supremacists. At the same time, more solidarity and grassroots organization of Black communities is needed to gain control and socialization of unstable elements of our community. Cooperative economic projects to provide alternatives to those trapped in the drug economy. The fight for the decriminalization of drugs and quality and culturally relevant education for our youth is another pillar in the fight to bring community integrity and solidarity and a safer community back.

Akinyele Umoja is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of African-American Studies at Georgia State University. He is the author of We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement (forthcoming by New York University Press, April 2013)

Share this

Comments

Not to Dispute the Premise of this Article - I Do Feel...

Where the Author's Coming From....

BUT- IMO this is a must see article especially when coupled w Bruce Dixon's article 'The Real & Racist Origins of the 2nd Amendment'. - From Mother Jones: 'How the NRA Helped Fuel the Largest Prison Boom in History' - The Big House That Wayne LaPierre Built: } The NRA spent millions in the 1990s pushing the largest prison construction boom ever—and harsh sentencing to keep them full. {[@ www.motherjones.com/politics/2013/02/wayne-lapierre-crime-strike-three-s... ]

Of course the article skirts the fact that Ole Slick Willie on one hand came up w the assault weapons band, but on the other co-opted & climbed in bed w the NRA's LaPierre & ole Newt Grinch-witch get tough on crime mantra by backing 100 to 1 sentencing RE: crack vs powered coke [FYI: the CIA's finger-prints were all over the 1980's crack epidemic w Mena AR as a focal point on Ole Slick Willie's watch] under the phony 'War on Drugs' paradigm, 3 strikes laws, 100,000 cops on the street, etc- which all fueled the racist Prison Industrial Complex [= BIG BIZ]. 

IMO the NRA / gun-lobby wants more guns out there because for them it means more Profit$$$! They could care less if  guns are in the hands of [Black & Brown] criminals [causing havoc in the Hood & the Barrio]- because that helps to secure cops' jobs & makes prisons a 'growth' industry- Furthermore the hype helps to convince whites that they need to pack even more heat to keep Black & Brown thugs at bay! All of that = BIG $$$ for the NRA  & Gun-lobby!

IMO: The problem w the current 'liberal' gun-control debate is the same problem w Gitmo / Abu Ghraib / Bahgram torture debate. Liberals often talk about gun control in a vacuum while conveniently ignoring discussing reigning in the US' exploding Military Industrial Surveillance Security Complex, which fuels US imperialism & Rapidly unfolding Police State- all of which is coupled to the fact that the US is by far the world's largest weapons dealer & spends as much on it's DoD / CIA / NSA / DHS as the rest of the world combined! Such a discourse is at-best short-sighted if not out-right hypocritical! - Just as 'Liberals' hyping torture at Gitmo & Abu Ghraib while ignoring the fact that torture in the US' Racist Prison Industrial Complex /  Criminalized {in}Justice System has been common practice for decades if not centuries- along w the fact that cops & cop wanna-be [ala Zimmerman] gun-down unarmed Blacks & Browns at the rate of 1/day w near impunity- is at best short-sighted if not out-right hypocritical! 

And when I see 'liberal' gun-control advocates hyping NYC mayor Mike Bloomberg as the US' foremost advocate for gun-control, even though he oversees the US' most notorious legalized racial profiling regime [aka 'Stop & Frisk'] for his entire tenure- as well as continously 'sanctioning' the NYPD's notorious track-record of gunning down unarmed Blacks w near impunity- It's enough to make me wanna PUKE!!!

Negro Puhleez

There aint one soul in predominantly Black, overwhelmingly Democratic Detroit that's giving up his "piece."  I overheard a conversation one day at the fitness center, an older Black man shot 2 home invaders, per protocol the police confiscated the weapon, he told his friend he was going out to purchase another one right away.  Only a fool believes in "gun control."

Given the creeping facism in America escalated by Obama, frankly even the White zenephobes ain't so crazy when they talk about defending themselves against the government.  Law enforcement is in bed with the corporatists and elitists, the US DOJ cooperates with Wall St.

Only Elitist Whites and Blacks who live in gated communities support gun control.

When dead Black kids were piling up this summer in Detroit and Chicago like wood cords, I didn't hear any outcry nor see any tears shed.  Why won't Obama deploy federal resources for Black on Black crime, or spearhead prison reform so non-violent offenders don't come out as monsters?

Even Obama does'nt believe in gun control, he's just giving it political lip service.  How can a man who presides over a "Kill List" and who has started more wars and conflicts, and created more death and destruction than George W. Bush talk about gun violence?  How many drone assassinations did he orchestrate when he gave his weak as water speech in Minneapolis?  As fire, police and EMS services are deeply cut nationwide, only a fool believes 911 is to the rescue.

With over 300 Million weapons (and counting) in the public domain, gun control is a liberal panacea and feel-good, jerk session.  Frankly, we should have all purchased stock in Smith and Wesson because since Obama got into office, you can barely buy a gun or ammo because White folks done gone buck wild over fears of gun confiscation.



Clicky Web Analytics
Dr. Radut | blog