The more I read about Frederick Douglass, the more I like him. His white master’s wife taught him to read. A literate slave was a danger to the institution of slavery, especially when a literate slave read the Bible and understood its message that the spirit and the body are free in Jesus Christ.
Douglass had begun to realize what his “master” understood: “There was power, indeed subversive, revolutionary power, in reading and interpreting the Bible for oneself, and that the institution of slavery, in fact, depended on controlling biblical literacy — who can read the Bible when and how.”
“I felt a delight in circumventing the tyrants, and in blessing the victims of their curses.”1 Yes, “circumventing the tyrants,” not with words alone but with the ability to defend oneself from being kidnapped, returned to slavery, or lynched:
The true remedy for the Fugitive Slave Bill is a good revolver, a steady hand, and a determination to shoot down any man attempting to kidnap.2
He also said, “A man’s rights rest in three boxes. The ballot box, the jury box, and the cartridge box.” The late Georgia Congressman Larry McDonald, who died in the shootdown of Korean Flight 007 by the former Soviet Union in 1983, added a fourth:
There are four boxes to be used in the defense of liberty: soap, ballot, jury and ammo. Please use in that order.
Here’s how the four boxes in the defense of liberty have been described:
The soap box represents exercising one’s right to freedom of speech to influence politics to defend liberty. The ballot box represents exercising one’s right to vote to elect a government which defends liberty. The jury box represents using jury nullification to refuse to convict someone being prosecuted for breaking an unjust law that decreases liberty. The cartridge box represents exercising one’s right to keep and bear arms to oppose, in armed conflict, a government that decreases liberty. The four boxes (in that order) represent increasingly forceful (and increasingly controversial) methods of political action. [Some add a fifth box: the mail box.]
Would you like to guess who said the following?
[V]iolence exercised in self-defense, which all societies, from the most primitive to the most cultured and civilized, accept as moral and legal. The principle of self-defense, even involving weapons and bloodshed, has never been condemned, even by Gandhi….
If you guessed Martin Luther King, Jr., you would be correct. The key qualifier is “self-defense.”
Then there’s this from Condoleezza Rice describing what took place during the bombings in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963:
When we got home [after the first bomb went off] Daddy didn’t say anything more about the bomb. He just went outside and sat on the porch with his gun on his lap. He sat there all night looking for white night riders.
Eventually Daddy and the men of the neighborhood formed a watch. They would take shifts at the head of the entrances to our streets. There was a formal schedule, and Daddy would move among to pray with them to keep their spirits up. Occasionally they would fire a gun into the air to scare off intruders, but they never actually shot anyone….
Because of this experience, I’m a fierce defender of the 2nd Amendment and the right to bear arms. Had my father and his neighbors registered their weapons, Bull Connor surely would have confiscated them or worse. The Constitution speaks of the right to a well-regulated militia. The inspiration for this was the Founding Fathers’ fear of the government. They insisted that citizens have the right, if necessary, to resist the authorities themselves. What better example of responsible gun ownership is there than what the men of my neighborhood did in response to the KKK and Bull Connor?3
The following is from W.E.B. Du Bois:
Today we raise the terrible weapon of Self-Defense. When the murderer comes, he shall no longer strike us in the back. When the armed lynchers gather, we too must gather armed. When the mob moves, we propose to meet it with bricks and clubs and guns.
You may not like Malcolm X, and much of what he said was off base, especially when he relied on the beliefs of the “theologic” of the Nation of Islam movement, but on the following point, he was right:
Last but not least, I must say this concerning the great controversy over rifles and shotguns. White people been buying rifles all their lives…no commotion. The only thing I’ve ever said is that in areas where the government has proven itself either unwilling or unable to defend the lives and the property of Negroes, it’s time for Negroes to defend themselves.
Article number two of the Constitutional amendments provides you and me the right to own a rifle or a shotgun. It is constitutionally legal to own a shotgun or a rifle. This doesn’t mean you’re going to get a rifle and form battalions and go out looking for white folks, although you’d be within your rights — I mean, you’d be justified; but that would be illegal, and we don’t do anything illegal. If the white man doesn’t want the black man buying rifles and shotguns, then let the government do its job.
As we know, many times the government does not do its job. Better to be armed than disarmed when it fails, or there won’t be any liberty.
- My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), 268. [↩]
- Frederick Douglass, The True Remedy for the Fugitive Slave Bill in The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, ed. Philip S. Foner, 5 vols. (New York: International Publishers,  1975), 5:326. [↩]
- Condoleezza Rice, Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family (New York: Random House, 2010), 92-93. [↩]