The Case for Black American Self-Defense
Pacifist injunctions obliterate the history of, and need for, armed protection.
In the United States, Martin Luther King Jr. reigns over the collective imagination, a prince of peace immortalizing nonviolent resistance as the only effective means to effect political change. Black Americans, in particular, are chastised if they stray from this nostalgic reinvention of King, the nationally admired so-called good protester who rejected all forms of political violence and succeeded in ending racism by the power of Christian faith and love alone.
But it is also true that the Sons of Liberty in Revolutionary Boston are revered for fomenting armed revolt. It is conveniently forgotten that President James Madison advocated for a free militia to stand up to state tyranny. Crispus Attucks, a Black man, was the first to die in a rock-throwing mob facing down British soldiers. Calls for Black violent resistance grow from an intrinsically American brand of patriotic insurrection that needs to be recognized for its moral and political validity.
I am not advocating in support of the riots that often accompany social unrest, though King would and did disagree with those who use his example as a nightstick against any radical action for social justice. But the Black tradition of organized, armed self-defense should be regarded as one of the many tools in the repertoire of modern protest movements.
African American communities have always been well aware of the cost and tactical range of violence in the name of liberty, and yet they never stopped resisting by any means necessary. Slaves certainly did run away from their captors, and freed African Americans engaged in nonviolent moral suasion for years. Still, the image of the meek slave waiting to be freed by the grace of the state is a sanitized oversimplification that begins in public school curriculums and is rarely corrected.
But prior to the Civil War, there were numerous attempted slave revolts—large, small, and rumored. The threat of slave insurrection increased after the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804, when self-liberated slaves won their independence from France and sent shockwaves through the Americas. At least two uprisings—Denmark Vesey’s near-miss in Charleston, South Carolina, and John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry—had ties with post-revolutionary Haiti. Vesey had lived for a time in Haiti and had reportedly promised his followers that official support from the Haitian government was imminent. Not only had Brown’s co-conspirator Francis Jackson Meriam just returned from Haiti before joining the mission, but Brown’s entire perspective on the feasibility of slave insurrection was guided by Haiti’s example.
These violent uprisings were regularly used by legislators and abolitionists as a rationale to pass state laws that curtailed or outright banned the slave trade. But though they were partially successful, the backlash to these attempted revolts escalated into increasingly brutal and public retaliation. The revolt in Haiti created absolute panic in the American South. There, states expanded insular legislation and created a regional police state to quarantine against insurrectionist ideology. After the 1811 revolt in what is now Louisiana, the heads of slaves were staked along the road for all to see. At the same time, Southern states successfully expanded slavery westward into new territories.
With no emancipatory legislation forthcoming, many African Americans saw Southern entrenchment and expansion as an existential threat that could not be decisively dealt with by decades more of nonviolent moral suasion. By the 1850s, even the prominent abolitionist and journalist William Lloyd Garrison, who earlier had admonished fellow members of his movement who endorsed violence, had come to the conclusion it was time for slaves to take their freedom by force.
War, the purest form of political violence, had been a great liberator. Tens of thousands had won their freedom by enlisting during the American Revolution and, later, the War of 1812. Haiti and political inaction innervated this hope once again.
David Walker, a prominent Black abolitionist, published his popular “Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World” in 1829, an incendiary defense of slave revolts as a last resort against oppression. In 1847, the Troy National Convention of Colored People and their Friends called for a resolution for “instructing their sons in the art of war.” In 1848, the Ohio convention ordered the printing and redistribution of Walker’s “Appeal.” It was during this period, a decade before the Civil war, that Black militias began forming in the North, ready to take up arms. And it was during the war that President Abraham Lincoln finally came to see the advantage of emancipating slaves to save the Union.
The price Black Americans paid for successfully toppling the Antebellum economic and social order was nearly as great as the cost of failure. They were pushed out of the arenas of promised legislative power and devastated by a murderous tidal wave of white terrorism that lasted for generations and enshrined a new anti-Black hierarchy: Jim Crow.
There was one exception to this pattern of African American violent resistance followed by overwhelming white retaliation. At least a thousand slaves escaped the South every year. After the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, those former slaves and their allies formed vigilance committees to protect themselves from slave hunters and law enforcement, and to exact retribution upon enablers of kidnapping. This form of resistance did not result in passage of new, federal anti-slavery legislation. But it effectively protected escaping slaves without triggering anywhere near the same level of backlash and brutal retaliation. Public opinion—at least those parts of it that were persuadable—found the Black case for self-defense through protective violence convincing. It galvanized other groups, both Black and white, to defy the law, sometimes through violence of their own. Federal and state government-sanctioned slave hunters were often forced to work in secret in the North as a result.
Armed Black resistance did not end with the Civil War. Even into the Civil Rights era, it played a critical role. The conventional story goes something like this: Martin Luther King Jr. and fellow activists, in partnership with first John F. Kennedy’s and then Lyndon B. Johnson’s administrations, passed civil rights voting acts and desegregation legislation using passive resistance. But their inflexible philosophy of nonviolence was incompatible with the emerging leaders of the Black Power movement, many of whom were severely frustrated over concessions old guard leaders made with Democratic liberals.
After King’s assassination in 1968, the more militant and internationalist leaders took center stage and grabbed the public’s attention, giving voice to a nascent Black nationalism. This new generation of activist organizations, including the Black Panther Party and older but reinvented organizations such as the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), drew their inspiration from Malcolm X and Robert Williams, whose Radio Free Dixie broadcast from Cuba bore an uncanny resemblance to David Walker’s defense of violent remedies in the face of oppression. They made loud and public common cause with pan-African freedom fighters and invested in the guerrilla tactics of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro.
For a time, Cuba was the new Haiti. The vicious harassment and defamation of Black nationalist radicals echoed the reactionary and fearful politics of the American South. The movement fractured under anti-Black government pressure. But this telling obscures one important fact: At least for a time, those advocating violent self-defense formed a stable symbiosis with the pacifists.
Although he was not armed during his protests, King carried at least one firearm when he traveled. This was neither hypocritical nor rare. Though King disagreed on many things with Stokely Carmichael (and Williams, earlier), they came to a truce on the right to self-protection. In 1959, the NAACP passed a resolution affirming that right. Furthermore, a significant number of adamantly nonviolent protesters from CORE and SNCC who worked the South either carried guns (if they were local) or were under the protective watch of those who did.
Despite—or perhaps because of—Jim Crow and the terror that enforced it, a surprisingly integrated gun culture had bloomed across the South. The Black community rose to defend activists with lethal force if necessary. When Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie Elizabeth Till-Mobley, attended the trial of her son’s death, the Regional Council of Negro Leadership escorted her with a caravan of armed men. After John Lewis and others were beaten by police in Selma, Alabama, the Deacons for Defense and Justice, a multistate Black militia, was there for round two, as was the National Guard, called in by President Johnson. Despite fear of counterattacks, there was no repeat performance from law enforcement or white supremacists, and the protesters marched on.
Today, there is no need for another Civil War. For a host of complex reasons including the limited but still significant integration brought on by Civil Rights legislation, the browning of the country, and near-universal de jure enfranchisement, moral suasion has evolved into a more effective tool. It has always been and continues to be the preferred method of protest.
But the necessity of self-defense—and armed self-defense at that—is not a theoretical principle up for debate but the lived experience of African American communities for centuries. Today, emboldened white nationalist terrorism is on the rise with a chilling synergy between such groups and the police. The current administration has fostered an atmosphere where government overreach in the name of law and order gives cover for these groups to act.
The second march to Selma shows the way. There were strains of Northern Antebellum vigilance groups, except this time they were much better armed and highly discerning in the violence they deployed or threatened. Physical force was in sync with moral force, and always in service to it.
Protests are messy by nature. There is an alphabet soup of different organizations rallying behind Black Lives Matter, and there are real concerns that violence of any kind—often encouraged or even perpetuated by infiltrating groups or state agents—could be used to discredit the movement. A Black militia marched to the Stone Mountain Confederate Memorial in Georgia in a show of force against white supremacists. A Washington protester was killed by police after essentially admitting to shooting a white supremacist in self-defense. And yet, the backlash has been manageable.
So I am hopeful. This generation of protesters, many of whom are white, grew up with the memory of both King and Malcolm X, and they are chanting Black names: Sandra Bland. Breonna Taylor. George Floyd. Tamir Rice. Some of their parents are, too.
Malcolm X never directly engaged with Martin Luther King Jr., though not for lack for trying. In one of those attempts, Malcolm X instead met Coretta Scott King in, of all places, Selma. He told her that, “if the white people realize what the alternative is [political violence], perhaps they will be more willing to hear Dr. King.” While they never worked together in person, King and Malcolm X did in spirit. The Black liberation movements are known more for their martyrs than militias, but neither are in short supply.