One of the earliest scenes of the Autobiography of Malcolm X takes us to the Lansing, Mich., of 1929. Malcolm’s father, Earl Little, a Baptist minister derided as “uppity” for aspiring to own a store and live outside the city’s traditional black neighborhoods, shot a pistol one night at a pair of white men who’d apparently set the family’s home ablaze. In the following weeks, the police regularly searched the new Little residence, “looking for a gun.” The pistol, which officials refused to issue the minister a permit to legally carry, was eventually sewn into a pillow.
The scene is a powerful reminder of why for much of American history, it was necessary for blacks to fight for the right to bear arms, often to protect our very existence.
The tricky relationship between blacks and guns is on the brain in part because of the response to the tragic case of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed 17-year-old high school junior fatally shot in late February by George Zimmerman, a volunteer neighborhood-watch patrolman who legally carried a weapon.
A little more than a week ago I suggested that the Martin case should open a meaningful debate about the future of gun policy. The most striking responses to that column boiled down to this: History binds blacks to the gun-rights movement. “Remember your history,” one reader wrote me. So I started reading the history.
It’s easy to forget that the 17th-century French slave code, Le Code Noir, explicitly prohibited colonial slaves from bearing weapons — except with their master’s permission to hunt on plantation grounds. Later, in 1776, the Founding Fathers clearly did not view blacks as citizens to be given the Constitution’s Second Amendment rights.
[Soldier image via Liljenquist Collection/Library of Congress]