The Gun Lobby’s Attempt To Claim The Civil Rights Movement’s Legacy

By Arturo R. García

Seemingly not content to argue against new gun safety standards on their own merits, advocates for the firearms industry have taken to likening their beliefs to both the Civil Rights Movement and Dr. Martin Luther King himself.

Those efforts have gone so far as to celebrate “Gun Appreciation Day” this past Saturday, a series of protests that coincided with various regional gun shows. (Ironically enough, five people were injured at some of those shows.) Before the event, the organizer, lobbyist Larry Ward, tried to paint himself as an ally to Dr. King:

The truth is, I think Martin Luther King would agree with me if he were alive today that if African Americans had been given the right to keep and bear arms from day one of the country’s founding, perhaps slavery might not have been a chapter in our history.

Rev. Al Sharpton struck back at Ward on his MSNBC show, PoliticsNation:

You do realize that Martin Luther King was killed by a gun and that he preached all of his life against the use of any weapons? … So you do realize that what you said was the total antithesis to Dr. King? I don’t know how much you know about Martin Luther King.

One thing Ward never mentioned is that the event listed a white nationalist group as a sponsor–before being found out.

Rush Limbaugh also took up Ward’s argument, saying on his radio show:

If a lot of African-Americans back in the ’60s had guns and the legal right to use them for self-defense, you think they would have needed Selma? I don’t know, I’m just asking. If John Lewis, who says he was beat upside the head, if John Lewis had had a gun, would he have been beat upside the head on the bridge?

Hip Hop Scholars founder and cultural commentator Dr. James Peterson took on Limbaugh’s statement:

To reduce John Lewis’ service to this country and to the civil rights movement and to the black experience and to the overall American experience to him getting beat upside the head is disgusting and offensive, okay? This is a man who served his country through civil rights and through service in the Congress. To reduce his life to that, to me, is unacceptable.

Lewis himself issued a statement explaining how Limbaugh and Ward and their supporters are missing the point, saying in part:

African Americans in the 60’s could have chosen to arm themselves, but we made a conscious decision not to. We were convinced that peace could not be achieved through violence. Violence begets violence, and we believed the only way to achieve peaceful ends was through peaceful means. We took a stand against an unjust system, and we decided to use this faith as our shield and the power of compassion as our defense.

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  • therufs

    Uh, is Limbaugh really so dumb that he doesn’t know what would have happened to a black person who pulled a gun on a white person in the 1960s?

  • golby260

    In a movement out to prove that the State and its prejudices against certain races and classes in society were unreasonable and unjust, having guns out there for the movement’s members’ “protection” would have done almost nothing except be counterproductive, especially since these people were trying to prove that they were not primitive and not unworthy of equality but were just regular people who meant no one any harm. Guns for self-defense might have done a bit of good for isolated incidents consisting of a small number of citizens in rural, obscure areas trying to beat them up, but it would’ve done fuck-all against large numbers of rioters in very public areas trying to kill them (like what happened at that Anniston, AL bus stop the Freedom Riders dealt with, when many local residents tried to burn them alive in their own bus, where the police became the good guys who saved the Riders in that one) and the racist police. Just think on that one for a second.

    Meanwhile, whatever the gun lobby and the right-wing have to say on this one is almost not worthy of a response. It’s just both extremely cynical and as if none of these people ever sat through a U.S. history class to discuss the ’50s and ’60s, or, more likely, they’re pretending to be ignorant, just to get a rise out of everyone. Just stupid on its face.

  • Stephen Ocupado CM

    Thanks smandisa85 for calling out the false dichotomy. Yes, it’s disgusting that rightwing gun advocates are trying to pretend like black folks should have been armed all along to fight racism (as if the Second Amendment weren’t written to keep slave militias in place). But it’s also disingenuous to ignore Black self-defense strategies in the 60s. I’m checking out this thing on Robert F Williams right now.

  • smandisa85

    And lets not forget that these dichotomies dont always work. Black people DID have guns in the 60s and some of us still do. Im from Louisiana, home of Bogalusa, La’s Deacons for Defense. They carried guns-lots of them-and the the non-violent protesters knew this. The Deacons greatly influenced the Panthers (which we dont hear alot about because of how strong anti-South sentiment runs, even when it means we don’t get the full breadth of black’s people history of resistance and resiliency).

    And I just want to put out there that not being non-violent does not mean that groups like the Deacons or Panthers were actually violent. Im just curious as to where in this conversation about gun control, gun violence does the role of self-defense come in or violence perpetuated by the state? And King, and others, did believe in armed guards to protect their families. I just think a better conversation results if we can move away from these dichotomies,

    And, of course, Limbaugh and Ward are complete idiots.