Guns Have Been the Most Dramatic Weapon Used Against African-Americans, but Not the Most Effective

Khaled Abdullah/Reuters

This past Thursday, as the nation mourned the horrific, racially motivated mass shooting that killed nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, Hillary Clinton spoke of the urgent need for honesty. "We have to face hard truths about race, violence, guns and divisions," she said during a speech in Las Vegas. Historically, these truths go back at least 150 years, right after the end of slavery and the Civil War.

2015 marks the 150th anniversary of the end of slavery and the beginning of Reconstruction, a period of enormous potential and ambition for reimagining American citizenship. Watershed racial progress via the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution, which ended slavery and established black citizenship and black male voting rights, was challenged by racial terror. Organized white supremacists, most notably the Ku Klux Klan, attacked churches, burned down homes and turned religious symbols into icons of terror, such as burning crosses.

African-Americans responded to the onslaught of racial terror by building parallel institutions, moving to Midwestern states such as Oklahoma and Kansas, and arming themselves, where and when guns were available, for self-protection. Black veterans of the Civil War and future conflicts kept guns in their homes as a defense against organized white violence. The aftermath of Reconstruction inspired the period of Redemption (1877-96), which saw the creation of Jim Crow, the Klan and other racial terror groups, and a proliferation of lynching that took almost 4,000 lives by the early 1930s.

African-American veterans returned from World War I with a renewed militancy that helped ignite a New Negro Movement that promoted black political self-determination. New Negroes flocked to Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association, creating businesses, publishing newspapers and preaching a gospel of racial unity whose cultural arm would flower in the Harlem Renaissance.

But whites' anti-black violence, often backed by guns, was never far away.

Racial segregation in public accommodations and the disenfranchisement of black voters was backed by both public policy and popular consensus. Just as guns, many of them—including those wielded by black soldiers—helped to end slavery and win the Civil War, it would take thousands of guns—this time wielded by white supremacists—to enable white Southerners to win the peace.

The modern civil rights era unfolded against this backdrop, where whites used guns and threats of violent reprisals to ensure a brutally unjust racial order. The movement's nonviolent face, personified by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream of a "beloved community," hid a long history of armed self-determination within the black community.

Malcolm X's scathing broadsides against white violence included open advocacy for armed self-defense so that blacks could achieve liberation "by any means necessary," as he often said in speeches during the early 1960s. While most African-Americans avoided taking up arms, some did, including Robert F. Williams, a North Carolina NAACP activist and author of Negroes With Guns (1962); the Deacons for Defense and Justice; and the Black Panthers.

Both Williams and the Deacons offered armed protection against racist terror for nonviolent civil rights activists in the South. Members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (or SNCC, pronounced "snick) encountered an older generation of Southern blacks who never left their rural homes without carrying a pistol or shotgun for protection.

The Black Panthers for a time went further, shifting from a self-defensive posture into an open advocacy of "revolutionary violence" before being pummeled into submission by the FBI and local authorities through state-sanctioned violence. Yet the symbolism of black men and women confronting police brutality and racial violence armed with guns and law books resonates today.

Post-civil-rights America has seen an explosion of guns and gun violence that has disproportionately hurt the African-American community. The flood of guns in racially segregated and impoverished black neighborhoods has produced catastrophic trauma in inner cities. Black homicide rates dwarf their white counterparts, with most victims killed by African-Americans, the pro-gun control Violence Policy Center reports.

Yet too often the easy access to guns, coupled with the racial segregation, high unemployment, failing schools and mass incarceration that leads to such carnage, is ignored by politicians in favor of a facile condemnation of "black-on-black crime" (in contrast to white-on-white crime, which is rarely spoken of) and the decline of the black family.

The black community's relationship with guns remains fraught and ambivalent, with one-third of African-Americans owning guns, compared with just over half of whites. Blacks favor stricter gun control laws, perhaps due to a deeper understanding that "stand your ground" laws have, as in the George Zimmerman case, made it more likely for white-on-black homicides to be considered justified.

The brutal deaths in Charleston are part of long history of American violence against black communities. Guns have been the most dramatic weapon used against blacks but perhaps not the most effective. The deeper violence has been in the generational neglect, demonization and stigma that American society has attached to blackness nationally. One hundred and fifty years after Juneteenth delivered the good news of freedom to blacks on the outskirts of Texas, too many African-Americans reside in another country: a world marked by poverty, racial segregation, poor schools and easy access to guns.

The racial impact of America's gun culture affects the black community on multiple levels, often unforgivingly. State-sanctioned violence, as practiced by law enforcement, targets blacks with a vengeance for crimes both real and imagined, as we have witnessed in meticulous detail since Ferguson. Armed vigilantes have also played a role, from the racial terror of the Klan to the shooting in Charleston. Perhaps most depressing is the black gun violence by young people who have been abandoned by mainstream society to join gangs, engage in turf wars and debase themselves through acts of killing that further dehumanize their very existence.

The hard truth about race, gun violence and divisions in America is that the very acts of racial violence being decried in Charleston are connected to a long and continuous history of racial and economic oppression. It's one rooted in an intimate relationship—between racial slavery and capitalism, Jim Crow and the criminal justice system, and racial terror and white power—that has always been backed by guns.

Peniel E. Joseph is a professor of history and founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at Tufts University. He can be followed on Twitter, @PenielJoseph.