Open carry by Black self-defense groups predates Black Panthers, NFAC

November 9, 2021
Members of the Black Panther Party argue with a California state policeman at the Capitol in Sacramento after he disarmed them on May 2, 1967.
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In the spring of 1967, twelve Black men toting loaded rifles marched into the California state Capitol to make a political statement about racism and the constitutional right of Black people to bear arms.

Six of the armed men barged into the chambers while the assembly was still in session. At the same time, California Governor Ronald Reagan was preparing to eat fried chicken with a group of eighth-graders on the capitol lawn. 

There was no violence or shootings. And the open carry of firearms on statehouse grounds was legal. But the damage was done. 

National headlines soon introduced the nation to this new organization called the Black Panther Party for Self Defense —a group of Black men and women, some wearing dark shades and Black berets, others wearing a menacing scowl, who dared to disrupt the sanctity of the state capitol and threaten democracy.  

“CAPITOL IS INVADED,” the front-page headline in the Sacramento Bee read on May 2, 1967. Reagan immediately spoke out against the group, calling their demonstration a “ridiculous way to solve problems.”

Though the Black Panther Party was not established as a militia, its members promoted Black armed self-defense because of rampant police brutality. As a political organization the Panthers established many programs to support low-income communities, but they remain largely defined by their willingness to bear arms and threaten violence to combat racism.

In 2017, a group called the Not F—— Around Coalition mobilized in Georgia in response to police killings of unarmed Black people. With its members wearing body armor and carrying assault rifles, this militia has marched in droves in rallies across the country in response to high-profile police shootings. Unlike the Black Panthers, NFAC is not a political group. But the spectacle of Black people openly carrying weapons evokes those decades-old images and fears. 

More:Black people formed one of the largest militias in the US. Now its leader is in prosecutors’ crosshairs.

Black armed self-defense groups are nothing new. Nor is the fear of them. In 1854, Frederick Douglass said that a ”good revolver and steady hand” was the best defense against slave catchers. Prohibitions against Black gun ownership surfaced in the post-Reconstruction Black Codes and was a hallmark of Jim Crow laws right into the civil rights movement. 

And while the Black Panthers symbolized urban Black armed resistance in the late 1960s and ’70s, they followed a previous Black armed self-defense force that emerged amid the Southern civil rights struggle. When the Ku Klux Klan terrorized freedom fighters in the South, the Deacons for Defense and Justice organized to fight back against racial violence. 

The Black Panther ‘invasion’

Opposition to gun control drove the Black Panthers to the California state Capitol that Tuesday afternoon in 1967. The group had been founded in Oakland in October 1966 by two college students, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. Trying to curb police brutality in Oakland, the Black Panthers established armed patrols where members drove around neighborhoods to observe arrests and traffic stops.  

“They wanted to communicate to Blacks in Oakland that somebody was looking out for them,” said Yohuru Williams, professor of history at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. “The police carried weapons, and that carried the specter of racial terror, so this was a way of evening the playing field.”

The patrols motivated Don Mulford, a Republican state lawmaker, to push for legislation prohibiting Californians from openly carrying firearms. 

Inside the Capitol that day, Seale criticized California for trying to keep Black people “disarmed and powerless” while also calling attention to the intensifying terror and repression Black people endured.

More:Black Panther Party’s legacy of Black Power endures

“Black people have begged, prayed, petitioned, demonstrated and everything else to get the racist power structure of America to right the wrongs which have historically been perpetuated against Black people,” Seale said to a group of reporters. “All of these efforts have been answered by more repression, deceit, and hypocrisy.”

Mulford’s bill passed with the support of the National Rifle Association and Reagan, who later did an about-face and campaigned for president as a staunch defender of the Second Amendment. 

Deacons for Defense and Justice

One of the nation’s most prominent Black armed self-defense groups was established for a single purpose: to protect civil rights workers. 

Organized in 1964 in Bogalusa, Louisiana, the Deacons for Defense and Justice was the “most sophisticated” example of southern Black militancy, Simon Wendt wrote in his book “The Spirit & The Shotgun.”

As the enthusiasm of an emerging freedom movement grew in Louisiana, so did the state’s Ku Klux Klan members.

“The membership of the region’s Ku Klux Klan soared, and violent harassment against African Americans ran rampant as hooded white men burned crosses throughout the state to threaten those who dared register to vote,” Wendt wrote.

Civil rights demonstrators who dared to march, protest or campaign for racial equality in the South were often met with violent opposition from white supremacists. Klansmen and law enforcement in Southern towns often aligned, leaving civil rights campaigners with no protection. 

That’s where the Deacons stepped in.

But the organization provided more than just protection from the Klan. The Deacons empowered Southern Black people to stand up for their rights.

“The Deacons inspired Black men to protect themselves, said Charles Hicks, the son of Robert Hicks, who started the Deacons of Defense branch in Bogalusa. “While they were nonviolent, the constitution still gave them the right to protect themselves.” 

The Deacons didn’t cower when white supremacists tried to intimidate them. There are several instances of the Deacons participating in shootouts with Klan members. In one incident in July 1965, one Deacon shot a white man three times as a white mob hurled bricks at a group of Black people. 

“It was no longer a situation where they could take advantage of Black people with impunity,” Henry Austin, the Deacon who shot at the white mob, said in an interview at the time.

The Deacons’ notoriety attracted the attention and investigation of the FBI. One FBI memo described the Deacons as a “gun-carrying Black vigilante group.”

“When Black folks in America pick up weapons, a different set of rules has always applied,” said Arjun Sethi, a law professor at Georgetown University Law Center, told USA Today last month. “That was the case 100 years ago; that remains the case today.”

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Life is like a running cycle right! I am a news editor at TIMES. Collecting News is my passion. Because my visitors have the right to know the truth and perfectly.

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