Sometimes I hear people say that the Civil War was not really about slavery. I find that difficult to believe. Nevertheless, the fight for African-American freedom began in earnest after the Civil War ended. The U.S. Supreme Court cited firearms lawyer Stephen Halbrook in the landmark DC vs. Heller decision:
“Blacks were routinely disarmed by Southern States after the Civil War. Those who opposed these injustices frequently stated that they infringed blacks’ constitutional right to keep and bear arms. Needless to say, the claim was not that blacks were being prohibited from carrying arms in an organized state militia.”
The legislative history of the Fourteenth Amendment includes a joint Congressional Report that described how after the Civil War “in some parts of (South Carolina), armed parties… without proper authority, engaged in seizing all firearms found in the hands of the freemen. Such conduct is in clear and direct violation of their personal rights as guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States….”
After the Civil War, Northerners recognized that the Fourteenth Amendment extended the right to keep and bear arms to newly freed black citizens. Southerners also knew that Constitutional rights for blacks also meant extending gun rights and defiantly enacted laws prohibiting blacks from possessing guns.
An editorial in The Loyal Georgian (Augusta) on Feb. 3, 1866, assured blacks that all “men, without distinction of color, have the right to keep and bear arms to defend their homes, families or themselves.”
Black and white Southerners who expressed such opinions often found themselves defending their homes and families. Some black Civil War veterans were lynched for refusing to surrender service weapons to white militias that rode about enforcing laws prohibiting blacks from possessing firearms.
Martin Luther King knew that reason, not force of arms, was the only method of overcoming ignorance and hatred. But King’s strategies could only work in a nation where citizens love justice and compassion. Crusades against slavery in England and the U.S. could only be effective in nations where the people participate in representative government and are animated by mercy.
Leaders in nations like North Korea, Iran or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq have far less concern about voter sensibilities. Despots have few qualms when it comes to killing and torturing demonstrators. The men and women that followed Rev. King proved that a people’s need for dignity triumphs over intimidation and violence. Dialogue alone did not stop the violence, however. In order to advance the struggle for black equality, the federal government deployed armed troops to defend black and white citizens that stood up for justice.
Prior to the Civil War, British warships and their big guns abolished the slave trade by controlling the high seas. Even as freedom marchers risked their lives in the Deep South and Northern cities like Chicago, there were armed black men like the Deacons for the Defense that made the nightriders want to stay a little closer to home. The Founders anticipated that the Republic would face dangerous times.