What The History Of Black Gun Ownership Can Tell Us About About Today : Code Switch Guns. They're as American as apple pie. They represent independence and self-reliance. But ... not so much if you're Black. On this episode, we're getting into the complicated history of Black gun ownership and what it has to tell us about our present moment.

Black And Up In Arms

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/944615029/1199265274" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


What's good, y'all? So if you rock with us on CODE SWITCH - first of all, thank you for rocking with us; I appreciate that - you should know that what we do is only possible because of the generous support from people like you to your local public radio member station. So if you want to support CODE SWITCH, you can do that by going to donate.npr.org/codeswitch and lending your financial support to your local public radio member station because that is what makes CODE SWITCH and other NPR podcasts possible. All right, y'all - on to the show.


DEMBY: Just a heads up, y'all - this is a story about guns, and so you're going to hear some guns being fired in parts of it.



LAKEIDRA CHAVIS: How do y'all not jump when...


CHAVIS: Oh, you get used to it.

UNIDENTIFIED GUN INSTRUCTOR: Once you start - so I'm going to load it with one.


UNIDENTIFIED GUN INSTRUCTOR: You're going to load it, finger straight off the trigger until you're ready to fire.


Lakeidra Chavis is a reporter with The Trace, which is a nonprofit news organization covering guns and gun violence in America.


UNIDENTIFIED GUN INSTRUCTOR: All right. You're hot. You're ready to go - finger off the trigger till you're ready to fire.


DEMBY: Lakeidra shot a gun for the very first time this past June. It was a handgun.

UNIDENTIFIED GUN INSTRUCTOR: All right. You want to bring your hand like this.


MERAJI: And she thought it made sense to have done that at least once if she was going to be reporting on guns.




CHAVIS: (Laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED GUN INSTRUCTOR: It ain't that bad. It ain't that bad.

DEMBY: I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji. And this is CODE SWITCH...

DEMBY: ...From NPR. And on this episode, we're talking about gun ownership, specifically Black gun ownership in the U.S., like, now in the present and also in the past with help from some reporters at The Trace. And we're probably going to make some else squirm...


DEMBY: ...So let's just get right into it.

MERAJI: Let's do it.


MERAJI: Lakeidra...

CHAVIS: (Laughter).

MERAJI: ...You shot a gun for the very first time in a town outside of Chicago, Ill., a town called Crete. Tell us what brought you to a gun range in Crete.

CHAVIS: I had heard about this gun club organization called the National African American Gun Association, or NAAGA. And they have chapters all over the country. And the goal of NAAGA is really to promote firearm training and the legacy of Black gun ownership. And back in May, after the death of George Floyd, I had heard that NAAGA was seeing a huge uptick in membership, so I contacted the local chapter here in Chicago. And they invited me to one of their chapter meetings at a gun range the day after Juneteenth. And I went there, you know, excited to meet people. And I just wanted to figure out, you know, why people were joining this gun club and, you know, what it meant to them to be a Black gun owner in America.

MERAJI: Before we get into that, what was it like? I've never been to an outdoor gun range. What does it look like?

CHAVIS: I don't even know how to describe it. One, it's easy to miss 'cause it's sort of tucked into the woods. And all you see before you actually recognize that it's a gun range is just, like, all of this open land and then cows everywhere. So - but once you actually get into the range, which is called The Compound, you know, you drive through, and there are all of these hills of rocks. And then in between them, there are sort of, like, makeshift targets set up. So the NAAGA chapter was there that day. And then there was a group just further ahead that looked, I think, you know, more like what people generally consider gun owners. You know, it was a group of mostly white men. And of course, NAAGA is very different in a lot of ways.

MERAJI: So all of these African American gun owners who are at this gun range with you, what did they tell you about why they were there and why they wanted to own guns?

CHAVIS: So, you know, most of the people there - it was mostly men, although NAAGA's membership overall is actually women. And it was a range of ages - so people in their 30s, 40s and, you know, people up in their 60s and 70s. And their reason for wanting to own a gun is for the reason that most people on guns, you know, in the country right now, which is for self-protection.

One of the things that surprised me talking to everyone was just how rooted in trauma their reasons were, whether that was, you know, first-hand experienced or even secondary. So that's one thing that just really stood out to me.

MERAJI: Say more about that. What do you mean rooted in trauma? What kind of trauma?

CHAVIS: Yeah. So one of the people that I spoke to is this guy named Jon McDonald, and he has been a member of NAAGA for quite a while. And he's also a long-term gun owner as well. And he was debating on whether or not he should get his concealed carry license. And then, you know, he turned on the news one night in the summer of 2015, and the news was the Dylann Roof massacre in Charleston, S.C.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Reports of gunfire at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church at 9:05 Wednesday night brought police racing to what turned out to be a grisly scene.

JON MCDONALD: I grew up in the church, and that was the one safe area. When I grew up on the far South Side of Chicago, even the gang members didn't bother the church area. They just walked around it. You were completely safe. And that someone would walk into a church and kill a bunch of people, I thought, OK, if I'm not safe there, then I can't guarantee my safety anywhere, so let's just carry it and get as much training as possible.

CHAVIS: There are other experiences. For instance, another guy named Dickson Amoah, who goes by Q, he actually started the gun club. And one of the things that he told me that really stuck out is that, you know, for him, he said he did 10 deployments - military deployments, and he served his country. And then to get back, transition out of the military, and realized that despite everything that he's done for his country, just because he's a Black man and has a gun, the perception of him was entirely different.

DICKSON AMOAH: Me, as a Black man, should be able - who fought for this country, should be able to carry a firearm without worrying about what society thought of him. So that was the idea of the gun club. Our mission statement is to change the perception of Black gun ownership within the Black community.

CHAVIS: Why is it so important to change the image from within the Black community?

AMOAH: I think that we needed to change the perception within the Black community because I think a lot of us in the Black community feels that anybody who owns a firearm was a bad person.


MERAJI: Guns, they're is American as apple pie. They represent independence and self-reliance. The right to keep and bear arms is the Second Amendment in the U.S. Constitution, after all.


LEONARDO DICAPRIO: (As Fee "The Kid" Herod) And this - well, this is the best help a man can get, Smith & Wesson Schofield .45...

GENE HACKMAN: (As John Herod) And it's true that you gunned down four men?

LANCE HENRIKSEN: (As Ace Hanlon) Two with my left hand, two with my right hand.


DEMBY: So what happens when you're Black and you want to assert your constitutional right to bear arms? Like, where are all the videos, Shereen, of Black hunters and Black cowboys and even, you know, Black neighborhood watch captains who are trying to protect their neighborhoods?


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Police shot and killed a 23-year-old Black man they say was armed.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: An allegedly armed Black man killed after a traffic stop...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: New video shows the thugs charged in with guns drawn.


MERAJI: A growing number of Black Americans want their gun ownership to be respected and taken seriously, people like the ones Lakeidra Chavis spoke with at that gun range in Crete, Ill. They were all card-carrying members of the National African American Gun Association, NAAGA. Lakeidra also spoke to the man who started NAAGA, a man named Philip Smith.



DEMBY: ...Is it - did they mean it to rhyme with MAGA? Like, that just seems unfortunate.

MERAJI: Why can't it be nah-ga (ph)? (Laughter).

DEMBY: But that's still too adjacent to another N-word, you know what I mean? Like - anyway, sorry.

MERAJI: Good point. Anyway - that is a really good point, Gene. Thank you. Anyway, Lakeidra's back in our virtual studio to tell us more about her conversation with Philip Smith, the leader of that unfortunate-sounding acronym.

Hey, Lakeidra.

CHAVIS: Hey, Shereen. Hey, Gene.

By the way, the pronunciation of that was accidental. But Phil said he was still kind of happy it worked out.

PHILIP SMITH: My wife brought it to my attention about three, four days later, you know, when she said, you know, the the letters, you know, come out to NAAGA. And I said, OK, that's good.

DEMBY: But is it, though? Is it?

CHAVIS: So, you know, Phil started NAAGA about five years ago. He's 62 years old, and he lives in the Atlanta suburbs now. And, you know, for most of his career, he was actually an HR consultant but recently switched to working as the president of NAAGA full time.


CHAVIS: And Phil's really into guns now, but he wasn't always. And he had never shot a gun growing up, did not come from a gun family. And he wasn't really interested in guns, like, at all. So back in 2014, when some of his friends asked him to go to a gun range with them...

SMITH: I was like, nah. And I - you know, I really - never really shot, and I really don't have an interest. And they said, man, why don't you just come? You'll have a good time. So grudgingly, I went there, and I had a great time. I'll be very honest. I mean, this opened my eyes. I mean, a lot of good people there that look, you know, like normal - they didn't have horns come out their head and all that other stuff.


MERAJI: All right. So it sounds like he was coming into the whole experience with some really specific preconceived notions about what it meant to be a gun owner.

CHAVIS: Yes, he was. And he said that had a lot to do with how he was raised. He grew up in California, and he comes from that California perspective.

SMITH: Whatever that might mean to a lot of folks - and for me - California, I'm not going to say is an anti-gun state, but they surely make it difficult for you. They don't like their citizens to have guns, if you ask me. So when I moved to Atlanta in twenty - in 2002, I was dipped into a completely different culture, the Southern culture where everyone - not everyone, but a lot of folks have guns. It's just part of the the fabric of society. You know, mothers give their daughters guns as presents. Fathers pass down guns to their sons.

CHAVIS: And Phil said he's really fallen in love with that Southern culture.

SMITH: I'll be very honest about that. I like the big families that Black folks have down there. I like the big churches that Black communities have. I like the closeness. I like the fact that we promote each other. We support each other. We start businesses. I like all of that. And gun ownership is just a part of that to me.

MERAJI: He's right about California being relatively strict when it comes to gun laws. I'm from California. My home state has some of the strictest background checks and limits on who can buy and sell guns, whereas in Georgia, there are no background checks required on private gun sales. Open carry is allowed. Your gun doesn't have to be registered.

CHAVIS: Exactly. And, you know, it wasn't just California culture that made Phil so skeptical of guns as a young person. It was also his family culture more specifically. His dad grew up in the segregated South, and he was always really careful to be a rule follower, to not stick out, to not make trouble. His dad was also really influenced by Martin Luther King Jr.'s nonviolent ethos in the 1960s.

SMITH: You know, the peaceful protests, turn the other cheek, even though somebody's beating you down and hitting you and your family in the face and your wife and daughter and son. But you're not supposed to have enough dignity to protect yourself. See, I'm not cut from that cloth. If you hit me, I'm going to protect myself.

DEMBY: It's worth pointing out that the relationship between, like, a lot of the major figures in the civil rights movement to guns is much more complicated than that characterization. But we're going to get into that later.

MERAJI: Yes, we are, in this episode, actually.

DEMBY: But obviously, you know, Phil is not at all taken with that idea that nonviolence is the way to go, at least, you know, in the broad strokes.

CHAVIS: Definitely not. And he told me that, to him, part of recognizing Black people's humanity is really acknowledging that, you know, they have the same desires, the same rights as other people to protect themselves using guns.

SMITH: We aren't sub-citizens or discounted Americans. We are full-blooded American citizens. And to me, we're the ultimate American citizens because we were fighting for this country when we weren't even considered a human. We were slaves. We were three-fifths of a person. We still fought and died for this country. So we make no apologies to anyone. We deserve to be who we are and where we are in terms of having the right to carry firearms.

DEMBY: So what do we know about Phil's politics, you know, outside of how he feels about guns?

CHAVIS: Yeah, that's a great question. So Phil's really careful about how he talks about politics. He said NAAGA isn't a political organization. Their goal is to educate people about how to use firearms safely. And he thinks it adds to the organization's validity that, while people talk about a broad range of issues, they aren't formally getting into, you know, capital P Politics.

SMITH: Our community is constantly being traumatized. So it's not too surprising that, you know, people join because of that experience. And unfortunately, a lot of African Americans, on a daily basis, go through hell in this country. And I don't want people to underestimate that real reality just because a few of us are doing well or a few of us have been able to avoid some of the brutality that's taking place out there. A lot of our folks are going through it every day. So when our folks are going through that, and then when they see NAAGA as kind of like a beacon, a light at the at the top of the hill, they come to us to the door saying, thank God you're here.

CHAVIS: And Phil is right about that last part. A lot of people have seen NAAGA in this way. He says right now they're getting about 1,000 new members per month, and he expects that total to hit 100,000 within the next five years. Right now, it's about 41,000, and the majority of NAAGA's members are actually Black women.



DEMBY: That gender skew is really surprising. Like, that's - wow.

CHAVIS: And you know, as we heard, the people that I spoke to at that gun range who are also members of NAAGA - so many of them spoke about the trauma that led them to want to join in the first place.

MERAJI: Yeah. And I just have to jump in here because we do know that owning a gun doesn't actually protect Black people from violence. And I definitely understand the trauma that Phil's talking about. That is so real, and it's so natural to want to have a way to protect yourself and your family. But if you look at the statistics, it doesn't look like that is the way to do it.

DEMBY: Yeah, that's so real, Shereen, because - OK, so, personally, a couple years ago, someone broke into my apartment, the apartment I share with my now-wife. And my first thought was after this person sort of scrambled away was, I wish we had a gun. It was a thought that lasted half a second, but it was a very real feeling because the only option we had was the cops. And you know, like, it's the cops, right? If they would have come at all, like, how helpful could they have really been? And so one of my first instincts was to protect myself and my wife, my now-wife. And I was like, yo, like, I wish we just had some means to do that.

MERAJI: And that makes sense to me. But statistically speaking - I'm going to go back to those statistics - people who own guns are far more likely to be victims of gun violence than people who do not own guns.

DEMBY: Right, right.

MERAJI: They're more likely to accidentally hurt themselves with a gun than to protect themselves.

DEMBY: Yes, they're more likely to hurt themselves on purpose, too, right? Like, a lot of gun deaths in this country are from suicide. In 2017, more than half of the nation's suicides involved a gun, which means more than 22,000 people that year used a gun to end their lives. That is just an unfathomable amount of people.

MERAJI: And then, you know, let's put another layer on there. When it comes to state violence, I'm thinking of someone like Philando Castile, who was a registered gun owner. He followed all the rules, learned how to do things, you know, quote-unquote, "the right way." And he was still killed by a police officer who had a gun when he was actually telling the police officer, you know, that he had a registered gun in his glove compartment.

CHAVIS: Right, yeah. And all of that is true. Phil actually brought up Philando Castile when we spoke, which is why, Phil says, you know, his organization is not just focused on getting individual Black people to own guns. NAAGA is trying to build a community of Black gun owners. And for Phil, that community element is really, really crucial.

SMITH: It's like one person in the neighborhood having a gun and then trying to fight a mob of racists coming through. That one gun's not going to do any good. It'll get that person killed for sure. You might get one of them, but they're going to just blow you over and kill everybody in your community. It has to be a full-court press. Everybody get trained. Everybody look out for each other. And collectively, like - and I use the analysis of your hand. You have fingers on your hand. But if you ball them up in a fist, it becomes a weapon.

CHAVIS: And when I spoke to Phil, he says, you know, when you look back in time, there are so many examples of how this has played out. Phil was a history major, so he went about learning about Black gun ownership the way he would approach a topic, you know, like he was back in college.

SMITH: Do your research. Read. Read as much as you can so you can come to a conclusion about what something is yourself. And that's what I did. I just started reading about the Buffalo Soldiers, Tuskegee Airmen, Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman, John Brown. I started reading about any and everybody that utilized firearms to either liberate themselves or fight oppression.

So that's what the research did for me. It allowed me to open my eyes and look back in history and see all the great individuals that have utilized a firearm to protect themselves, to promote our community and to protect our community, bottom line. And it's a rich and very, very beautiful history of how we have, as a people, used firearms to protect ourselves. We have not sat back and let slavery happen to us.


MERAJI: Well, like Phil, we also did our research. And we're going to get into some of that history with another reporter from The Trace. Thanks so much, Lakeidra.

CHAVIS: Thanks, y'all.

ALAIN STEPHENS: For Black people, the introduction of the firearm can mean all those same things that it does for white people. But at the very same time, it is the actual currency and technological implement used for your bondage.

DEMBY: Stay with us.


MERAJI: Shereen.

DEMBY: Gene.

MERAJI: CODE SWITCH. And we're back to talk about what guns tell us about Black people and citizenship.

STEPHENS: For African American gun owners, where on one side, you know, the firearm is seen as this tool for charting one's own course and for the God-given right of self-defense. At the very same time, it is also this lethal implement which, throughout history, has been turned against you.

MERAJI: That voice you're hearing belongs to...

STEPHENS: Alain Stephens. I'm an investigative reporter for The Trace. I cover firearms markets, mass shootings and everything gun.

MERAJI: Alain is ex-military, and he owns some guns. You heard his colleague, Lakeidra, shooting a gun for the very first time. But Alain is much more familiar with firearms in that way.

DEMBY: Right. And Alain is like, you can tell the story of how America's racial order takes shape, in part, by tracing the history of guns in the U.S. and who was allowed to own them. We're going to breeze through a couple centuries of history, y'all, so just, like, sit tight.

MERAJI: Yes. Ready for that movie montage where the history goes by really quickly?


MERAJI: Alain said in the 16th and 17th centuries, you had guns that were just really hard to operate. They took a long time to load. They weren't really effective in warm, humid places, like West Africa. The gunpowder would get wet, and the weapons would decay.

DEMBY: But as time went on, the technology around firearms got better. And these guns - these better guns - became essential to the burgeoning trade of captive Africans across the Atlantic. They made it so that European slavers needed relatively few people to subdue large numbers of Africans. And so as the slave trade starts to pick up steam, Alain says Europeans flood Africa with guns.

STEPHENS: Historians have now came back and said that if it wasn't for this deluge of weaponry, the scale of slavery that happens in the new world wouldn't have been able to support itself.

DEMBY: Guns were used by slavers and by Africans who rounded up captives for those slavers. And Alain says African labor in the Americas was becoming more valuable at the same time firearms were becoming cheaper and easier to manufacture.

STEPHENS: In 1682, you could see that the price for a slave was one to two muskets. By 1718, that number would balloon to 24 to 32 muskets. And historians have actually looked at ledgers in Africa, and what you see is a direct correlation between the increase of gunpowder imports into the African continent going along with an increase in slave exports leaving the continent.

MERAJI: So guns weren't just the weapons used to subjugate Africans. In many cases, guns were what they were actually being traded for.

STEPHENS: For many white Americans, the introduction of the firearm is this one of self-determination and independence, right? But for Black people - right? - the introduction of the firearm can mean all those same things that it does for white people, but at the very same time, it is the actual currency and technological implement used for your bondage.

DEMBY: So in the Americas, guns presented this really tricky problem for the white people who were employing all the slave labor, right? They had these weapons that allowed them to control huge populations of captive Black people who were resisting all the time. But that also meant they couldn't let those guns fall into the hands of all those captive Black people who were resisting all the time.

STEPHENS: In 1676, we have Bacon's Rebellion, which occurs in Virginia. It is an allyship between Black slaves and white indentured servants who essentially take a bunch of firearms, and they tear stuff up.

MERAJI: Quick aside - we don't talk about Bacon's Rebellion nearly enough in U.S. history, but it's hugely important because it's a key moment in the way racial hierarchy becomes codified into law in the United States. It's where the Virginia colony invents the color line.

DEMBY: Right - because after this bloody, chaotic insurrection in which enslaved Africans and white indentured servants fought together against the ruling class white planters, the elite got very scared that an armed interracial rebellion of black and white laborers might happen again.

STEPHENS: And the government's response to that a few years later is, in 1705, they roll out slave laws.

DEMBY: So while they're further restricting the already, you know, meager freedoms of Black enslaved people, they give white laborers some nominal rights, like the right to own land. And those new rights brought white laborers onto the side of white elites. And it made Black people, you know, subordinate to all of those white people, elites or laborers.

STEPHENS: Part of those slave laws is to ensure that Black people, on a racial level, regardless of if you are slave or free, are not able to get firearms.


DEMBY: 1739, fears of a rebellion from enslaved people prompted the South Carolina legislature to pass a law that required white men to carry firearms with them on Sundays, even to church, you know, lest they be subjected to a fine.

MERAJI: Owning guns was a requirement for white men - a requirement.

DEMBY: And Alain says there was a rebellion that year, the Stono Rebellion, that might have been in direct response to those new gun laws because a group of enslaved Black people in South Carolina decided to stage a revolt when they knew those armed white men would be away from the plantation and at church. And of course, that wouldn't be the last time because over and over, there were these bloody armed slave insurrections in the South for as long as slavery existed. There'd eventually be so many enslaved Black people in the U.S. that they actually dwarfed the number of white people in lots of places. And so keeping guns out of the hands of that restive Black population, that became a preoccupation of white society.

MERAJI: What I'm hearing here is, guns are being used to uphold white supremacy, but white people also saw guns as a weapon that threatened to end white supremacy.

DEMBY: Yeah, that's exactly right. I mean, in the 1860s, thousands of Black soldiers took up arms to fight for the Union and, obviously, necessarily their freedom in the Civil War. And so, you know, the existence of armed Black people commissioned by the federal government to fight against white people was an outrage to a lot of white folks - and not just Southerners. And when the war end, you have what, for many people, is the nightmare scenario - thousands and thousands of newly emancipated, armed Black people with military training, with voting rights and living all over the United States.

STEPHENS: Up until the Civil War, we're essentially talking about what amounts to essentially illegal activity, right? There are so many laws that mandate that Black people can't have firearms, that even a Black person owning a gun was a sheer act of defiance. But for Black people, the fundamental thing is, I'm free now. How can I maintain that? And it's also very different kind of thing to go to a free Black person now and tell them that they do not have the right for self-defense - right? - which is very much seen as a God-given right. It's almost one that is sandwiched and accompanied with the very notion of freedom. So here we have Black people for the very first time who are free, and they are also free to go about and acquire weaponry for the most part.

DEMBY: So in the decades after the Civil War, when Reconstruction falls apart or, I guess, you know, when it was thwarted by white people, one of the first things that white people across the country did was forcibly try to disarm Black folks. In the South, they passed new laws that banned Black people from owning guns.

MERAJI: And a lot of times white people did this outside of the law. It was the fear of Black suffrage, the fear of Black gun ownership that really fueled the rise of the KKK, which wanted to reestablish the white supremacist order that existed before the Civil War.

DEMBY: And so in the South in particular, the idea that Black people could defend themselves has been really vital in this fight for self-determination. We don't talk about this enough, but lots of Black people held onto their guns specifically because, you know, as their voting rights were stripped away and Jim Crow began to calcify, their guns were literally sometimes the only weapon they had against white domination. But over and over, we see this disarmament and harassment of Black soldiers in the wake of American wars. After World War I, when Black servicemen returned from Europe...

MERAJI: ...Where they were treated relatively better than they were in the U.S. And so they demanded better treatment back home. But as we know, the opposite happened.

DEMBY: Right. That first summer after the end of World War I was the Red Summer, when Black soldiers were singled out specifically for lynching by white people. And not coincidentally, it coincided with the resurrection of the Ku Klux Klan.

MERAJI: And after World War II, Black soldiers were treated like garbage and attacked when they returned home once again. And no matter how you feel about guns or the military, they have always been linked to this idea of full citizenship in the United States, whether you like it or not.

DEMBY: And Alain said it's one of those things that gets lost in the story of Black struggle or maybe, you know, purposely left out, because in the 20th century, there were guns all over the civil rights movement because so many of the organizers and leaders were Black Southerners who understood acutely the reality of white violence, white gun violence. Martin Luther King and the Freedom Riders, they didn't carry guns, like Philip Smith said. But they very often had bodyguards who did, or they had safe houses where people did.

STEPHENS: These guns have been somewhat erased. Right? The idea of Black armament has been pulled out. As you mentioned, they'd always secretly been there. So, you know, Medgar Evers - right? - who is a very prominent civil rights-era activist in Mississippi, carried guns with him all the time. In fact, he had firearms - he had a rifle and a pistol in his car the day that he was assassinated in front of his home. Fannie Lou Hamer, who was a civil rights activist, again in Mississippi, who had famously registered 64,000 Black people to vote - and she did this in the South, right? She did this in one of the most caustic and toxic places for Black people to even organize a political movement. And when they asked her, how did you do this, you know, she would tell everyone, you don't want to hurt anyone. You don't want to hurt white people. But when push comes to shove, she did say that part of her success was predicated on the notion that she kept a shotgun in every corner of her house.

MERAJI: And to add a little more context to what Alain was saying there, Fannie Lou Hamer was talking about keeping a shotgun to protect herself from white supremacists in that quote. It's a very famous quote. So it wasn't like she was having a shotgun in every corner as a direct part of her political organizing. She had a shotgun to protect herself from white supremacists.


MERAJI: Gene, I spoke with an organizer in the civil rights movement about all this. He worked in the South as a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s.

CHARLES E COBB JR: Charles E. Cobb Jr - I live in Jacksonville, Fla., now. I'm a native of Washington, D.C. I'm an author. The title of my last book is "This Nonviolent Stuff'll Get You Killed: How Guns Made The Civil Rights Movement Possible."

MERAJI: And in the first chapter of this book, you quote anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells. And the quote is - "A Winchester rifle should have a..."

COBB: "...Place of honor in every..." - go ahead.


MERAJI: "A Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every Black home, and it should be used for that protection for which the law refuses to give."

Mr. Cobb, why do you think the long history of armed self-defense is often ignored when we talk about Black resistance to white supremacy?

COBB: Guns and the use of guns for self-defense are perhaps, culturally speaking in this country or politically speaking in this country, the most feared aspect of Black freedom struggle. I think fear underlies the omission because guns, obviously, are highly romanticized in this country. So logically, you would think guns and freedom struggle would be prominent in discussion. So I think fear underlies a lot of that omission.

MERAJI: What do you think that the white power structure gains from omitting this particular part of the Black freedom struggle, the part about armed self-defense?

COBB: You don't have to think completely about what Black people want and what Black people are prepared to do to get what they want. I mean, part of the comfort zone, if you will, of white supremacy has to do with avoiding giving serious thought to what Black people might be prepared to do to gain freedom or, as I more often talk about, full citizenship. Don't have to think about how the system works - you omit that. Things that whites would think of as normal, like resisting slavery, were not considered normal for Black people. And you didn't have to think about it if you don't present the history, if you don't present Black people as people, in my view. It's a complicated thought. I try and get at some of that in the book.

MERAJI: Well, what I think you do really well in the book is you really put people in a place. And you describe anti-Black terrorism very plainly. And you're showing how terrifying that space is. And you yourself, as a reader, are trying to figure out, well, what would I do?

COBB: I mean, well, that's what I'm trying to do. I mean, I feel very strongly that the whole idea of Black people as people is largely downplayed in this American culture. And what I try to show in the book is that - and I'm showing it in different time periods because the book begins in colonial America and goes all the way through the late 1960s. So I'm trying to show is that confronted with terror and violence, Black people make very practical decisions about what to do. So sometimes they picked up the gun and drove the nightriders away with their rifles, and sometimes they didn't. The family I was staying with, an elderly couple, the old man had a shotgun in the corner, but when the nightriders shot up his house, he and his wife jumped into their iron bathtub. So, you know, people make practical decisions. They make, in other words, human decisions.

MERAJI: And you don't make judgments.

COBB: I'll tell you what I know, and I don't tell you how to think. I'm not in the business of doing that. I can show you what Hartman Turnbow did, or I can show you what Janie Brewer did or what Mama Dolly Raines did or what E.W. Steptoe did. These are legendary figures...

MERAJI: Oh, I want you to talk...

COBB: ...In the movement.

MERAJI: ...About E.W. Steptoe. I really do. I was just going to actually go there.

You introduce us to Eldridge Willie Steptoe in your book. And he was a farmer in southwest Mississippi, right? And he allowed SNCC activists to use the church on his farm to organize and teach workshops. And can you just tell us more about him and what - his relationship to guns, too?

COBB: Mr. Steptoe, a man - he was in his 50s, I guess, when we encounter him - one, was the leader of the NAACP and Amite County, Miss., southwest Mississippi. He had formed it in 1952. It didn't take long for the white power to realize that they had an NAACP branch there. So one night during a meeting on the church in his farm, the sheriff and a whole posse of white men stormed into the meeting and seized the membership lists of the NAACP. And as you might imagine, the membership dropped dramatically.

So what Mr. Steptoe did was he bought, personally, enough memberships to have a valid NAACP branch in Amite County, Miss. Amite County was perhaps the most Ku Klux Klan-ridden county in Mississippi. In fact, they had groups down there that thought the Ku Klux Klan was too liberal. I mean, they had the Association for the Preservation of the White Race, the Paleface Brotherhood (ph).

I mean, Mr. Steptoe was a tough guy. He was a small man. He was wiry, very independent. And he had - I remember he had a .45 in a drawer in a table in his living room. He had a couple of shotguns. He had a Winchester. He carried a derringer in his sock, and he had a couple of .38s and one German Luger pistol. And the white people knew that and left him alone.

And so - and he was one of the first of these older people in Mississippi to take us in as a young guy. I was 19 years old when I went to Mississippi. He was the - one of the first of these older people. And their attitude was, since they all saw us as Freedom Riders, didn't matter whether we'd been on a Freedom Ride or not - I hadn't - but they all saw us as nonviolent Freedom Riders. And their attitude was, you may be nonviolent, but I'm not going to let these white people kill you, Charlie.

MERAJI: You talk about African Americans fighting in various wars and how that also empowered people in various ways. And that empowerment came from learning how to use a gun. And you talk a lot about World War II.

COBB: Well, one, I think World War II changed the climate of the South. Over a million Black men fought in World War II. You have all these guys over there. And firstly, they're learning that they can shoot white people. And they're given weapons to do that. And they're trained to do that. And they're fighting Nazis. They are hearing from the federal government, which is prosecuting the war, that this is a war for freedom, a war for democracy. And lastly, they're acquiring skills that they wouldn't have acquired back home. So they're not as inclined to go back to picking cotton on the cotton plantation or picking tobacco or sugar cane.

Perhaps the most prominent of these in public history would be Medgar Evers, a World War II veteran who comes back home, becomes involved in a civil rights struggle in his home state, Mississippi - becomes the NAACP's first field secretary in Mississippi. Of course, he's assassinated in 1963. But when Medgar came back - and this is happening all over the world, by the way. I mean, the same thing is happening in Africa with respect to anticolonial struggle. In fact, when Medgar comes back home, he and his brother now are reading about the Mau Maus in Kenya revolting against British colonialism. And they began to talk to each other about maybe having a kind of Mau Mau movement in Mississippi. And when Charles...

MERAJI: And that's armed resistance.

COBB: Yeah, that - well, it was armed assassination. I mean, that whenever some white sheriff or deputy killed some Black person wrongly, they would have a group that would go out and retaliate. Now, they backed away from that idea, and I tell some of the reason for that in the book.

And it's interesting how I stumbled upon this because I was unaware of this aspect of Medgar and his brother Charles. But I was talking to Medgar's wife, Myrlie, and I wanted to know since their son was born in 1953. I said, how is it that your son has the middle name Kenyatta? - because that would be unusual for 1953, not so unusual for 1973. And she tells me this story about Medgar and Charles plotting to have some kind of Black Mau Mau unit in Mississippi. Medgar insisted that their first son, Darrell, have the middle name Kenyatta, who was thought to be the leader of the Mau Maus in Kenya. And Myrlie told me, she says, people would greet her by saying, and how's the little Mau Mau?


COBB: So - because to Black people in America who are reading about the Mau Mau in Black newspapers, these are kind of heroes or liberators in this African country ruled by white people. All of this is in the aftermath of World War II. And many of the grown adult men who took us in as young guys and young women were World War II veterans.

MERAJI: I mean, you say in your book, for men who had been shooting at Nazis or at Japanese and Italian fascists to shoot back at attacking Klansmen simply was not a very difficult choice to make, especially because, despite having fought for democracy overseas, they did not encounter much of it when they returned home.

COBB: Exactly.

MERAJI: But you also talk about how armed resistance would be fought with state resistance, white resistance that had local authorities backing it, that they were always sort of outgunned and outnumbered.

COBB: Civilian violence was what characterized most of the violence in places like Mississippi and Alabama. When I say civilian violence, I mean the Ku Klux Klan. But the state had a hand in it. For instance, you take the murders of James Chaney, Mickey Schwerner and Andy Goodman in Mississippi, CORE workers, perhaps one of the more famous killings in the summer of 1962. Those three guys were stopped by Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price, taken to jail, then released from jail in the middle of the night. And Price hands them over to the Ku Klux Klan, who then - they shoot James Chaney after they beat him, and they kill all three of them. So, you know, the state ignored it. Local authorities let them get away with it. So it's up to local people to defend themselves again, which is what they did.

MERAJI: Right. Like Ida B. Wells said...

COBB: Yes.

MERAJI: ...It should be used for that protection for which the law refuses to give.

COBB: Exactly. And a lot of people had that attitude.

MERAJI: But you never adopted that attitude. Why?

COBB: I tell people - I say, I don't like guns. And they say, well, why don't you like guns? I say, 'cause it's too easy to kill somebody with a gun. That's why I don't like it. I think the most important thing to do if you want to talk about gun control in this country is not ban the AR-15, which won't make a dent in gun violence. The most important thing to do in this country is to fight against the culture of gun violence. Everything around guns and violence has been romanticized over a 300-year period. And that's what has to be fought. So my little small step (laughter) is not to have a gun.


MERAJI: That was Charlie Cobb talking about his book, "This Nonviolent Stuff Will Get You Killed: How Guns Made The Civil Rights Movement Possible" (ph).

DEMBY: Like Charlie Cobb said, guns have occupied so much of our historical imagination they're part of the mythos of life in the United States. Another part of that mythos is that people with guns are there to help. You know, they're the good guys - the sheriffs, the military, you know, law enforcement in general. But it's also true that guns are a great fact of American death. About three-quarters of all homicides in this country are committed with guns. That's according to Pew.

MERAJI: The United States is an outlier in this way. You are far more likely to be shot to death here in the U.S. by another person than you are almost anywhere else in the world. But the threat of gun violence, it's not distributed equally.

DEMBY: For Black males under the age of 44, the leading cause of death is homicide. That's according to the Centers for Disease Control. More than half of all victims of homicide in the United States are Black men.


DEMBY: If you're as fascinated by this history as we are, check out our blog. We have some more stories about why gun owners in the U.S.

MERAJI: And stay tuned because in the new year, we've got even more on Black gun ownership in the United States. This time, we're going to be diving into some of the reasons women play such an outsized role in the movement for Black gun rights.

DEMBY: It's all really fascinating and not very intuitive.

MERAJI: It is.

DEMBY: You can follow us on Instagram and Twitter. We're @NPRCodeSwitch at places. And you can follow our friends at The Trace. They're @TeamTrace - all one word.

MERAJI: And you can sign up for The Trace's newsletter at thetrace.org/newsletters. They're going to be sending out some exclusive bonus material early next week. And Gene, wish me luck because I have a whole long list of names to read right now.


MERAJI: All right. Here we go.

This episode was produced by Alyssa Jeong Perry and me with help from Jess Kung and Maria Paz Gutierrez. It was edited by Leah Donnella, Steve Drummond and Natalie Escobar. And we collaborated with the good folks at The Trace. That's Miles Kohrman, Lakeidra Chavis, Gracie McKenzie, Agya Aning and Alain Stephens. And a shout-out to the rest of the CODE SWITCH fam - Karen Grigsby Bates, LA Johnson and Kumari Devarajan. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji. That did - I did well on that, right?

DEMBY: Good work, really good - that was, like, 40 people.

MERAJI: (Laughter).

DEMBY: And I'm Gene Demby. Be easy, y'all.

MERAJI: Peace.


Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.