The black tradition of gun ownership is as long as our nation’s history. But Blacks’ rights to carry guns have been challenged at every turn. What’s that history? And how did it inform attitudes among Civil Rights leaders and beyond?
Note: This season of American Diagnosis was originally published under the title In Sickness & In Health.
Nicholas Johnson: Blacks were using guns… to fight off slave catchers.
Lisa Lindquist-Dorr: They believed that African-Americans could not handle independence, or civilization, or the rights of citizenship. That they could not control themselves.
Caroline Light: Ida B. Wells called out…t the “tired old lie” that black men raped white women.
Celine Gounder: Welcome back to In Sickness and in Health, a podcast about health and social justice. I’m Dr. Celine Gounder. This season we’re looking at gun violence in America. The 13th, 14th, and 15 Amendments. The abolition of slavery. Equal protection before the law. And the right to vote. These amendments to the Constitution made big promises to black Americans after the Civil War. Yet, despite having gained these rights under the law… black Americans were plagued by white supremacist terrorism in the decades after the Civil War. Lynching was the most notorious mob violence waged against African Americans. Today, we’re going to look at the stories white supremacists told to justify lynchings… and how this history of domestic terrorism shaped the way early black civil rights leaders viewed guns. We’re going to start our episode in Abraham Lincoln’s hometown. Springfield, Illinois.
Celine Gounder: It’s August, 1908. A white railroad engineer has been killed. The alleged killer, a black man, is in jail awaiting trial. It’s a hot, sticky late summer’s day in central Illinois. People are on edge in the heat. Then something sets the city off. A white woman says she’s been raped. She blames a black man. Quickly, a lynch mob forms. The sheriff sees there’s going to be trouble. So he secrets the two black inmates in his jail away out of town. The mob is furious at having been out-foxed. They turn their fury on the black neighborhoods in Springfield.
Celine Gounder: An oral historian named the Rev. N. L. McPherson recorded several interviews with African Americans who lived through that riot.
N. L. McPherson: This is an interview with Mrs. Mattie Hale in her home on April 30, 1974. The interviewer is Rev. N. L. McPherson.
Celine Gounder: Mattie Hale was a little girl living outside Springfield that summer.
N. L. McPherson: the riot then, you said, was in 1908. Now could you tell me something about it?
Mattie Hale: Yes. It started on Friday evening about 6:30 PM. … The riot was serious for three days.
Celine Gounder: The white mob rampaged through the black neighborhoods in Springfield. The National Guard was mobilized, but the riot raged on. Homes were burned. Businesses, smashed.
Mattie Hale: During the night two Negro men were murdered. Namely Mr. William K. Donnegan was hung to a tree. Mr Burton, not known, his given name, was shot to death. … Those two men were married to white women.
Celine Gounder: It was no coincidence that someone like William Donnegan—a black man with white wife— was attacked. Or that the original target of the lynch mob was a black man accused of raping a white woman. Allegations of black men raping white women were often cited in lynchings.
Celine Gounder: Lisa Lindquist-Dorr is a dean and professor at the University of Alabama. She studies one of the most common justifications for lynching in our nation’s history.
Lisa Lindquist-Dorr: The rape myth itself is this idea that Black men had a propensity and a desire to rape White women.
Celine Gounder: White supremacists argued that without the institution of slavery to QUOTE “civilize” black men they would violently attack and rape white women. Lisa adds that Reconstruction-era Americans saw rape differently than we do today.
Lisa Lindquist-Dorr: They saw it as something that was a fate worse than death. But they also saw it as an attempt for Black men to access power that they could not have otherwise. That this was perhaps the most brutal raw way to attack White supremacy and the power that Whites held over African-Americans.
Celine Gounder: Lisa’s research showed that there was a gender hierarchy, as well as a racial one, driving the rape myth.
Lisa Lindquist-Dorr: I think that White Southerners would define the appropriate social order as one in which White men are at the top. They care for and support White women as wives, and mothers, and daughters. … They embodied the benefits of the civilization of White supremacy. They were beautiful, they were benevolent, they were pure, and they held themselves above the baser, coarser human instincts. In some ways, they were a repository of Whiteness. … So, the racial hierarchy and the gender hierarchy. They’re embedded.
Celine Gounder: So mob violence hid behind a story of protecting feminine virtue.
Lisa Lindquist-Dorr: Part of White supremacy is a patriarchal control of women. …an attack on a White woman was such a blow to White supremacy that it justified the most stringent and full-throated response that would justify the tremendous violence of lynching in which there was incredible amounts of torture.
Celine Gounder: Social class was another important factor when it came to how violently a perceived attack on a white woman’s virtue would be defended.
Lisa Lindquist-DorrL Not all White women were equally “white,” as I say, and that their own behavior or the behavior of their family could make them less worthy of protection. … For those women, they could find that that protection that came with being a White woman could be ripped away from them if they didn’t behave according to those mandates. In many ways, in order to merit the protection of White men, they must behave according to certain values of morality, and chastity, and respectability.
Celine Gounder: Lisa said her research showed the courts generally upheld a woman’s version of events in these rape cases. But the severity of the punishment had a lot to do with the accuser’s social class and reputation.
Lisa Lindquist-Dorr: It was not uncommon once the jury had rendered its verdict for the legal officials involved in the case to write the governor and be very candid about how much value they placed on the woman who made the accusation. They may say that she might be “trash.” They might say that she was immoral in other ways. They might say that she did not have a good reputation for chastity. They might say that she came from a poor or disreputable family. All of those things could be used to justify essentially giving the convicted African-American man a break.
Celine Gounder: The rape myth was a tool for terrorizing black men and controlling white women. But the greatest threat of sexual violence was to black women… often at the hands of white men. And when a black woman tried to defend herself against a rapist, she could be the one who ended up in trouble. Especially if he were white. Take the case of Lena Baker.
Caroline Light: Lena Baker was an African-American mother in rural Georgia who in the 1940s was employed to help take care of a white man who was convalescing from an injury. So this was an older White man.
Celine Gounder: This is Caroline Light. She’s a lecturer at Harvard. We talked with her in a previous episode about guns and gender. Lena Baker had to endure physical and sexual abuse when she worked for the Knight family. Ernest Knight would hold her prisoner and demand sex.
Caroline Light: There are many witnesses that this happened that there had been a sexually coercive relationship between the two of them
Celine Gounder:One day, Lena fought back. In the struggle, Lena Baker shot and killed Ernest Knight with his own gun.
Caroline Light: She was actually tried in a court of law, but her trial was a farce because she certainly didn’t have the benefit of a jury of her peers.
Celine Gounder: Lena was convicted of murder and sentenced to death by an all white, all male jury. She is the only woman ever to die by the electric chair in Georgia.
Caroline Light: She was eventually, decades later, pardoned long after the fact after her life had been taken, but she’s an excellent example of how the so-called natural right to use lethal violence in self-defense has never been universally available to all people.
Celine Gounder: But the rape myth wasn’t the only thing driving violence against black men in the decades after the Civil War. Competition for jobs and business was another. During the race riot in Springfield, some black shop owners used guns to protect their homes and businesses. … Edith Carpenter was another black girl living in Springfield during the 1908 riot. Her family owned a general store in town that served black and white shoppers. She told the oral historian Rev. McPherson how her father handled those tense nights in 1908.
Edith Carpenter:My sister’s husband got a whole lot of ammunition together: guns, big long guns, and a whole lot of the bullets, and everything. And he bundled that stuff up and got it to Springfield. it was taken to my father’s store.
Celine Gounder: The audio is a little hard to understand, but Edith says her brother-in-law snuck guns and ammo into their father’s store. Edith’s dad sent her and the rest of the family out of town during the riot. Then, he took two rifles and stayed behind.
Edith Carpenter: He had a gun on each shoulder and he marched from where our store was on the 15th and Adams, to our home where we lived at 1312 East Monroe, and that was back and forth all evening.
Celine Gounder: Edith says a group of rioters started coming down the street toward their family store.
Edith Carpenter: and I’ll let you know know they came right straight down that street… But they certainly didn’t bother him and he was ready for them, I can tell you that. And he sent word: If you come here you might as well know that I’m going to take care of myself and what I own, and so they didn’t touch—didn’t come near him.
Celine Gounder: Not everyone was as lucky as Edith’s father. Scott Burton, the man Mattie Hale said was shot at the top of the show… he was killed trying to protect his business. But Edith’s story shows how dangerous things could be for a black family… and how gun ownership could be the difference between life and death for a black person. One of the earliest public advocates of black Americans carrying guns for self-defense was the abolitionist and former slave, Frederick Douglass.
Nicholas Johnson: What Douglass was describing was this phenomenon of slave catchers coming into the North and essentially kidnapping people in Free States, indeed, in states that had their own state laws that prohibited recapture of slaves.
Celine Gounder: This is Nicholas Johnson. He’s a law professor at Fordham Law School in New York who studies black Americans’ tradition of gun ownership.
Nicholas Johnson: What Douglass was suggesting was that freed slaves, escaped slaves, free people in the north should resist to the death … the slave catchers and should fight to defend their freedom and their lives.
Celine Gounder: After the Civil War, former Confederate states passed laws limiting the rights of newly freed black people. One of the most common laws was a ban on African Americans owning guns.
Nicholas Johnson: The rationale is fairly straightforward. It’s hard to subjugate people when they can defend themselves, so the idea was that if you are going to terrorize them, you first disarm them. It gave lots of whites with the imprimatur of the law… the authority to attempt to disarm blacks.
Celine Gounder: But black Americans had a real need to defend themselves against racist terrorism being perpetrated by the likes of the Ku Klux Klan. Union generals still stationed in the south were tasked with protecting their Second Amendment rights.
Nicholas Johnson: You know, when people talk about how we’ve never really had government tyranny that justifies the need for arms, they just ignore this whole period of our history. I think this is a very, very good example in our history of tyranny… where individuals… who on a daily basis were using arms… to face down the oppression and essentially the criminal activity that was occurring under the authority of state and local governments.
Celine Gounder: The ratification of the 14th Amendment in 1868 extended equal access to gun ownership for black Americans—at least on paper. Not even a decade later… in the U.S. v. Cruikshank, the Supreme Court would limit those rights.
Celine Gounder: the Cruikshank Supreme Court decision came about as a result of, or in the aftershocks of a very violent white supremacist race riot in Louisiana. Colfax, Louisiana.
Celine Gounder: Caroline Light again.
Caroline Light: We don’t even know today how many people were killed, could have been as many as 100, could have been more, but in that moment, it was essentially the state conspiring with white supremacist organizations to violently suppress an interracial political alliance in Louisiana. The Cruikshank case was essentially where the families of those people killed were suing for responsibility for those who had instigated the attack.
Celine Gounder: Three men were indicted for crimes related to the massacre. The 1876 Supreme Court decision sided with the defendants.
Caroline Light: And, at the end of the day, in the majority decision, the Supreme Court said that “Actually, no, the Second Amendment does not guarantee an individual right to have and carry firearms.”
Celine Gounder: It also ruled that the protections of the 14th Amendment only extended to state action; not to individuals. This meant that federal laws passed after the Civil War to prosecute white supremacist terrorism were no longer constitutional. In this legal environment, African Americans had tenuous rights to guns for self-defense. They also faced local law enforcement that could be complicit in terrorist attacks against blacks. That was something Ida B. Wells discovered when she was living in Memphis. In 1892 she witnessed the lynching of three black men, including a close friend of hers, Thomas Moss.
Nicholas Johnson: It was a lynching that occurred as a consequence of blacks basically starting a business that was in competition with a white merchant who was selling in an area that was integrated. … Thomas Moss is brutally, I’m going to call it, lynched, but he was gouged and burned, and he was tortured to death..
Celine Gounder: Those lynchings in Memphis spurred Ida B. Wells to become an investigative journalist who documented lynchings across the South. But it also prompted her to buy a gun for her own protection.
Nicholas Johnson: Wells… was quite explicit about how blacks should respond to this sort of thing. … Wells said that “The Winchester rifle deserves a place of honor in every black home.” What she was talking about was essentially the assault rifle of her day just in terms of ballistics and the capability of multiple shots. The Winchester rifle that she was talking about compares favorably to modern semi-automatic firearms.
Celine Gounder: At least seven people were killed in the Springfield riot. But the man who was accused of raping the white woman—the allegation that set off the lynch mob in the first place—he was set free. His accuser admitted that she’d lied.
Celine Gounder: The 1908 Springfield riot prompted the creation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the NAACP. Many of the NAACP’s founders, early civil rights activists like Ida B. Wells and W. E. B. DuBois, were strong advocates for black gun ownership as a defense against racist terrorism. So armed self-defense was a major focus of the NAACP’s early work. Many of its first big legal cases were over this very issue.
Celine Gounder: There’s another story, again, of somebody defending their own home. This was Dr. Ossian Sweet. Could you share that story?
Nicholas Johnson: Yes…1948, I believe.
Celine Gounder: Ossian Sweet was a black doctor living in Detroit.
Nicholas Johnson: He decides he wants to buy a house in what is essentially a white neighborhood. He’s been living in a place called Black Bottom that was basically a black slum.
Nicholas Johnson: As Sweet attempts to move in over the course of a few days, there’re a couple of efforts to throw him out. And then eventually, there’s this essentially this huge riot outside his home. Hundreds of people are outside his home. The police are basically looking the other way. People don’t know maybe this, but the Klan was a very powerful force in Detroit at the time, and they had already thrown a couple of other people out of their homes.
Celine Gounder: Just months before, another black doctor was thrown out of his house when he tried to move in. He was called a coward for running.
Nicholas Johnson: And Ossian Sweet, when he moved in said, “I’m not going to leave.” He was afraid of being called a coward. He said, “We’re not going to run.”
Celine Gounder:Ossian’s family stays in their new home, despite the mob’s threats. Then after several nights of harassment, someone in the crowd starts to throw rocks at the house.
Nicholas Johnson: The Sweets are inside, and people dispute when the first gunshot is fired. But ultimately, a white man in the crowd ends up shot. Ends up dead.
Celine Gounder: Ossian, his brothers, and his wife go on trial for the killing. The NAACP gets involved. They hire the renowned lawyer Clarence Darrow—the same lawyer who defended John T. Scopes, the teacher in the Scopes “Monkey” Trial. And the Sweet family gets off. Twice.
Nicholas Johnson: The NAACP parade Ossian Sweet around the country as an exemplar of how blacks should respond essentially to this sort of discrimination and threat, and they raised, for the time, a huge amount of money. James Weldon Johnson, who was the Executive Director at the time, used that money as the seed for the development of the, the famous today NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
Nicholas Johnson: But the Defense Fund was funded as a consequence of black folk rallying to the aid and support of this fellow who, again, was pursuing this tradition of arms in the way that a variety of others had.
Celine Gounder: Ossian remained a public figure but he also suffered a series of personal tragedies. His wife and daughter both died. He ran unsuccessfully for political office. And then, right on the cusp of the Civil Rights Movement, Ossian Sweet shot himself.
Nicholas Johnson: It’s tragic that he killed himself. But it also raises the dichotomy that transfers into the modern era. That is the gun can be a tool of righteous self-defense. It also can be the instrument of tragedy, which is what we see in many communities today.
Celine Gounder: The decades after the Civil War were among the most deadly for blacks in our nation’s history. Whites didn’t want blacks moving into their neighborhoods… or competing with them for jobs or in business. White supremacist organizations mushroomed. Lynchings and other domestic terrorist attacks against blacks peaked. And meanwhile, the government did little to protect African Americans from this violence.
Celine Gounder: Next time, we’ll continue the story of African Americans’ relationship with guns. The Civil Rights Movement was famous for its non-violent tactics. But guns played a critical, largely unknown role in supporting leaders like Rosa Parks and even Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.
Celine Gounder: Today’s episode of “In Sickness and in Health” was produced by Zach Dyer and me. Our theme music is by Allan Vest. “Lift Every Voice and Sing” written by James Weldon Johnson and composed by J. Rosamond Johnson. It was performed by The Southern Sons. Additional music by The Blue Dot Sessions. Audio interviews with Mattie Hale and Edith Carpenter care of the oral history collection from the University of Illinois Springfield Brookens Library Archives and Special Collections.
Celine Gounder: You can learn more about this podcast and how to engage with us on social media at insicknessandinhealthpodcast.com. That’s insicknessandinhealthpodcast.com. If you like what you hear, please leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. It helps more people find out about the show!
Celine Gounder: I’m Dr. Celine Gounder. This is “In Sickness and in Health.”