African Americans and Armed Resistance

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African Americans have deployed many strategies in their quest for full equality in United States history including: protests, boycotts, hunger-strikes, rebellion, legal gradualism, and armed-resistance. These approaches have all been a part of what Charles Payne has termed the “the organizing tradition.” There were a series of slave revolts or planned insurrections including Gabriel’s Conspiracy (1800) that involved dozens of enslaved blacks, who made weapons in an attempt to overthrow slavery in Virginia, the German Coast Uprising (1811) involving an estimated 200 or more enslaved men who marched to the German Coast, in what is present day Louisiana, destroying plantations along the way, and Nat Turner’s Rebellion (1831) in nineteenth century North America that led black abolitionists such as Henry Highland Garnet to call for a national slave rebellion. Historically, armed resistance has consistently been a part of the struggle for black equality. This practice has been juxtaposed with strategies such as legal gradualism and non-violent direct action.

Racialized lynching in the late nineteenth century prompted black leaders such as Ida B. Wells to wage a national campaign to support anti-lynching legislation and combat inequality through civil rights associations by the turn of the century. Wells traveled with a pistol under her petticoats. Groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) created in 1909 (Wells is a co-founder of the NAACP) and the National Urban League organized in 1911were formed in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) was formed in c. 1916.

“Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” campaigns that began in 1929 and continued through the Depression Era involved economic boycotts and picketing. During the World War II Era, African Americans organized the March on Washington Movement (MOWM) led by A. Philip Randolph to demand jobs in the defense industry while some African American war veterans began to more vociferously call for armed-resistance.

African Americans continued to develop a complex set of allegiances to multiple agencies simultaneously as well as advancing various strategies/ideologies into the mid-twentieth century. National platforms for the NAACP and National Urban League publicly ascribed to a philosophy of integration as the solution to racial discrimination; while Garvey’s UNIA called for migration back to Africa. NAACP activists embraced a strategy of legal gradualism to fight segregation in the courts while the National Urban League focused on the economic and social well-being of blacks by conducting mass scale social science surveys and seeking financial support for social programs from both public and private entities. Garvey’s UNIA, the largest and most successful global black civil rights association in history, had more than 500 chapters in the U.S. alone with more than 1 million members worldwide along with an international newspaper called Negro World and several business ventures centered in New York City. UNIA leaders advocated black economic and political self-reliance. In the 1930s, the Nation of Islam (NOI), organized by a former UNIA follower, became the leading organization advancing the idea of black separatism by mid-decade.

In the 1940s, members of a black gun club located in Asbury Park, New Jersey, who were known to take up arms in defense of black civil rights, were also leading figures in the local chapter of the NAACP. Although the national office of the NAACP embraced the philosophy of integration through the strategy of legal gradualism, local leaders often deployed a strategy of armed self-defense as has already been illustrated by many historians.

Historians such as Timothy Tyson and Lance Hill have demonstrated the role of armed-resistance in the black experience. Tyson’s Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams & the Roots of Black Power on the gun-toting leader of the Monroe, County, North Carolina NAACP Robert F. Williams traces the history of black armed resistance in the South. Martin Luther King, Jr. kept a loaded gun in his home during the Montgomery Bus Boycott to protect his family. Malcom X as a member of the NOI became the most popular advocate of black armed self-defense in the 1960s but the long-standing history of black armed resistance in both the North and the South is well-documented. Hill’s book The Deacons for Defense and Justice: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement is about black Korean War veterans who organized a gun club to protect black civil rights activists during the 1960s several years before the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was established in 1966. Charles E. Cobb in This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed contends that armed resistance and civil disobedience were complementary practices. African American gun clubs continue to proliferate today such as with the Huey P. Newton Gun Club in Dallas, Texas. Separatism and integration as coupled with calls for armed self-defense developed from a history of brutal racial oppression.

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