In the days after white supremacist Dylann Roof killed nine black congregants during a Bible study at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina, Americans of various racial and socioeconomic backgrounds across the country have joined together in remembering the group now known as the Charleston Nine. At the gatherings, onlookers sing hymns and light candles as speakers call for prayer and forgiveness of aggressors.
As noble as that philosophy might be, an often ignored but growing number of African Americans aren’t buying into it — perhaps out of a frustration with the litany of state-sanctioned violence against black men and women for whom the courts have held none responsible. Some black people have instead adopted the ideology of militant self-defense, arguing that they have no choice but to take up arms against those who threaten their livelihood and that of their family.
Last week, many people of color took to social media to voice this position as part of the #WeWillShootBack online movement, sparked by Taurean “Sankofa” Brown, a community activist and blogger who hails from Kinston, North Carolina. Brown, a self-described revolutionary and proponent of militant self-defense, told ThinkProgress that dissenters who have called for peace often forget that black people have always had to take arms up against those who used violence to intimidate them and limit their progress in the United States.
“There’s a campaign to pacify black people,” Brown, 28, said. “The point of this movement is to educate and let black people know that we too have the right to protect our families and communities by any means necessary.”
That opportunity may be around the corner. Black people across the country will learn about gun laws in their state and attend community trainings where instructors will show them how to use and clean their weapons as part of National Gun Registry Day, tentatively scheduled for early August. In preparation for the daylong event, Brown said he reached out to Akinyele Omowale Umoja, chair of American-American Studies at Georgia State University and author of “We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement.”
“There will be black trained firearms instructors who are able to give our people that education. This message resonates with black youth who have seen that reformism does nothing and generally other black people — especially older black people who remember the violence before, during, and after the Civil Rights movement,” brown said. “That mindset hasn’t died, but folks have tried to erase it from history.”
The growing sentiment around armed self-defense may be unable to be ignored. A survey by the Pew Research Center earlier this year showed that 54 percent of black people view gun ownership positively, describing it as a means of protection — an increase of 29 percentage points from just two years prior. While African Americans living in rural regions may feel neutral about gun ownership, some of their counterparts in urban centers with strict gun laws have found a change of heart in recent years, initially out of fear for their lives in high-crime neighborhoods.
Particularly after the Charleston massacre and other acts of violence against black people, the focus among some African American clergy and civil rights officials has shifted. Numerous threats prompted members of a Minnesota church to tote registered pistols and sit throughout the chapel in preparation for a probable attack. In April, the head of the Georgia chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference gave a similar call a week after police officers killed a mentally ill black man, telling protestors at a rally in Atlanta that “we’re going to have to do something in our community to let the rest of America know that we’re not going to be victimized.”
Many black people, perhaps frustrated by the media’s lukewarm treatment of Roof, couldn’t stomach any talk that didn’t involve punitive recourse for last week’s massacre. Not long after family members of the Charleston Nine said they forgave Roof, Stacey Patton of the Chronicle for Higher Education wrote in a Washington Post opinion piece that black people shouldn’t have to be kind in moments of absolute tragedy in order to have their humanity recognized.
Such action and commentary, however, hasn’t come without backlash — with some critics calling to mind the civil rights movements of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, both stalwarts of nonviolent resistance who said “an eye for an eye makes the entire world go blind.”
However, some religious leaders, like Kadir Muhammad, head of the Nation of Islam (NOI)’s Mid-Atlantic region and Mosque No. 4, located in Washington, D.C., lampoon such arguments. Muhammad counted among more than 500 people who filed into Metropolitan A.M.E. Church in the District to hear the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan, leader of the NOI, officially announce the observance of the Million Man March’s 20th anniversary to be held on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in October during an event aptly themed, “Justice or Else.”
Days earlier at a candlelight vigil, Muhammad told onlookers that too much has happened to young African American men and women in recent years for black people to appeal to the whims of the majority power structure and the white people who benefit from systemic inequality, regardless of whether they want to be allies.
“Throughout the whole country, a lot of black people are upset because we are too quick to forgive. It’s not working,” Muhammad told ThinkProgress. “We have forgiven white people for 400 some odd years and continue to get nothing but disrespect. Black folks aren’t going to keep tolerating this. Someone’s going to have to stand up and change the picture. We have to stop this. The slave master’s children always outnumber us at the rallies because they want us to forgive them. But you can’t trust them. One of them might act crazy and shoot us again.”
Those fears of white violence prompted previous black militant self-defense movements. To the chagrin of his colleagues, Robert F. Williams turned the local chapter of the Monroe, North Carolina NAACP into an armed self-defense unit, a move that placed him under federal government surveillance until he exiled to Cuba. Residents of the a Cairo, Illinois housing project also picked up their guns when police officers didn’t protect them against white people who retaliated for their boycott of stores that didn’t hire African Americans. The Deacons for Defense, an armed civil rights based in parts of the South, also took up arms to protect their communities against the Ku Klux Klan, even acting as security during the March against Fear , a demonstration in 1966 during which protestors marched from Memphis to Jackson, Mississippi.
At the height of its existence, the Black Panther Party for Self Defense had more than 40 chapters across the country, each with armed police patrol groups and community programs for children and adults. Civil rights leader Stokeley Carmichael said this tradition of Black Power spoke to the desires of people of African descent to achieve self-determination — direct involvement in their daily affairs and the recognition of their value as black people. Slain civil rights leader Malcolm X espoused similar values of self-defense years and self-determination a few years before, imploring his followers to act within the bounds of the law but “send [aggressors] to the cemetery” if they inflict violence against them.
While students of these movements see its leaders as symbols of protection and grassroots activism, history has been less kind. Unless they do their own research, today’s students will more than likely learn to see the stalwarts of armed resilience movements as violent. School curricula in the post-civil rights era has often juxtaposed them alongside their nonviolent peers, especially King — whose birthday the U.S. government recognizes as a federal holiday.
Additionally, today’s history books rarely mention events after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, in essence downplaying the suffering of black people decades after the 1960s and writing the Black Panther Party out of the prevailing narrative. In her 2010 blog post, Rhodes Scholar Caroline Mulloy reflected on how her miseducation about the Black Panther Party didn’t allow her to understand the black struggle in a deeper context.
“These programs, established by the Black Panthers, are details that were too easily skipped over by teachers who taught the master narrative version of the Civil Rights Movement,” Mulloy wrote. “Many poor African Americans were still suffering from poverty and few opportunities as a result of discrimination. The Black Panthers play a profoundly important role in improving the lives of African Americans in these poor communities as well as further pushing the issue of not just civil rights, but human rights in the United States.”
That shallow understanding about the systemic racism has allowed racial and socioeconomic disparities to persist decades later. The same holds true for the justice system, leaving some to wonder what course of legal action would proponents of armed self-defense take if they find themselves in police custody.
According to a study conducted by the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center, the odds aren’t in black people’s favor. The findings of that research show that white people living in “Stand Your Ground” states have a 354 percent greater chance of being found justified in their killings than their black counterparts. In states without “Stand Your Ground” laws, that disparity only goes down to 250 percent. Marissa Alexander, a Florida woman who fired a “warning shot during an argument with her husband, learn that reality firsthand when a judge sentenced her to 20 years in prison in 2012. Even as members of the Ku Klux Klan members threatened to use lethal force against Ferguson protestors, authorities arrested members of the New Black Panther Party and charged them with purchasing handguns and conspiring to detonate pipe bombs last November.
While Brown admits that situations like the aforementioned cannot always be avoided, he advises black people to learn the intricacies of their local gun and self-defense laws. But he said that even the command of complex legal language won’t suffice if people — particularly African Americans — fail to understand that armed resistance movements aren’t antagonistic. Rather, they’re a means of protection when the systems in place have failed to work for marginalized communities.
“’We will shoot back’ doesn’t mean initiating violence,” Brown said. “Nobody shamed cattle rancher Clive Bundy but when black people talk about using self-defense, it’s a national worry. That’s the hypocritical nature of nonviolence in this country. We’re just defending ourselves to ensure our humanity.”