Given that today is Martin Luther King day, I thought it would be a great day to feature one of the speakers at the NRA CRDF seminar I attended recently. Professor Nick Johnson‘s presentation of a draft paper (not yet released, but should be public soon) is titled “Firearms and the Black Community: An Assessment of the Modern Orthodoxy.” I thought his presentation was one of the more interesting ones, because I expect his paper to stir up quite a lot of debate. Let me quote you one excerpt from the introduction:
Moreover, in terms of practice and policy, armed self-defense has been an essential private resource for Blacks.Â NotÂ only have many in the leadership owned, carried and used firearms for self-defense, as a matter of policy, Blacks from the leadership to the grassroots have supported armed self-defense by maintaining a crucial distinction between political violence (which was condemned as counterproductive to group advancement) and self-defense against imminent threats (for which there was no substitute).
This article elaborates these critiques of the modern orthodoxy. Part I shows that trusting the state for personal security is incompatible with the Black experience. Â Part II shows that the modern orthodoxy is incompatible with traditional practice and policy.Â Section A of Part II illustrates the tradition of firearms ownership and armed self-defense in the Black community.Â Section B shows how, traditionally, Blacks in the leadership and at the grassroots sustained and supported armed self-defense as a matter of policy by insisting upon a fundamental distinction between private self-defense against imminent threats and collective political violence that was considered damaging to group goals.Â Section B contends that this traditional support for armed self-defense was fundamentally a response to state failure and impotence which continues to this day.Â This continuing state failure and impotence pose a fundamental challenge to the modern orthodoxy.
I’ll direct everyone to the full paper when it comes out, which you should take time to read, because it’s excellent. Take this particular quote from Dr. King:
Violence exercised merely in self-defense, all societies, from the most primitive to the most cultured and civilized, accept as moral and legal.Â The principle of self-defense, even involving weapons and bloodshed, has never been condemned, even by Gandhi … . When the Negro uses force in self-defense, he does not forfeit support;Â he may even win it, by the courage and self-respect it reflects.
This is from a series of essays between Martin Luther King and Robert F. Williams. Williams was an advocate for political violence, which King rejected. In this series of letters, King draws a clear distinction between political violence, which King rejected, and protective self-defense, which he did not reject. The NAACP eventually fired Williams for his inflammatory statements, but it made a statement along with his dismissal:
We do not deny but reaffirm that the right of an individual and collective self-defense against unlawful assaults […] by defending those who have exercised the right of self-defense, particularly in the Arkansas Riot Case, The Sweet case in Detroit, the Columbia, Tenn., Riot cases and the Ingram case in Georgia.
So it’s pretty clear even the NAACP endorsed armed self-defense at one point in its existence. Professor Johnson gets into how attitudes towards guns and self-defense changed, much of it more recently than one might imagine. He details how much of the changing attitudes of black leaders towards armed self-defense occurred largely to maintain alliances with progressive whites:
But for the growing Black membership of CORE, the practical necessity of armed self-defense in the field was obvious. Â “As early as 1965 … delegates openly contested the … commitment to pacifism … during CORE’s annual convention.”Â By 1966, Floyd McKissick had succeeded James Farmer as National Director of CORE.Â Though McKissick maintained a commitment to tactical nonviolence,Â his ascension marked a dramatic shift of policy and his rhetoric was moreÂ aggressive.Â He insisted for example that, “The right of self-defense is a constitutional right and you can’t expect Black people to surrender this right while whites maintain it.”Â For CORE’s pacifist, white members, this broke the bargain.Â By the end of 1966, CORE had lost most of its white support and transformed into an almost entirely Black organization.
I have just offered a few choice excerpts. The actual paper is considerably more detailed, and goes into greater detail how, what Professor Johnson calls “The Modern Orthodoxy,” emerged. The modern orthodoxy is what the gun control groups now cling to as gospel, that the Civil Rights movement rejected all violence, and endorsed gun control. While I don’t want to share the draft paper, I will share with you Professor Johnson’s talk, which goes into more detail.