Americans are reeling following the mass shootings last weekend in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, with many people questioning if any public space can be safe from gun violence.
Seeing #ItsGettingTooHardTo trending on Twitter as Americans spoke about how they no longer feel safe in almost any public space—schools, churches, grocery stores, shopping centers—I kept thinking about a story my uncle told me about growing up in the Jim Crow South.
During his freshman year at Tuskegee University in Alabama his class took a field trip, and the bus had to stop for gas. My uncle and his classmates disembarked and went to use the restroom, but the gas station did not have a “colored” restroom. In other parts of the South this meant that the women had no alternative but to wait, but the men could use the facilities around back. One of his classmates went around back, and never returned. A white man shot him in the head for urinating outside. He then yelled something close to “n---ers need to learn some manners” (my uncle could not remember the exact phrase). My uncle and his terrified classmates quickly got back on the bus, and left. Everyone knew that the man would not be arrested, and that the threat of terror would not be abated. Instead all they could do was learn to not urinate outside.
I keep on thinking about this story as gun violence in public spaces and bigoted rhetoric continue to grow because for most of my culture’s existence in America, the terrorizing of public space has been an ever-present tool for sustaining racial division and white dominance. The constant threat of white terror governed society, and lethal force always remained an option.
Even as America has made great strides over the last six decades, our national debate over the Second Amendment still derives from arguments from the 1960s and earlier. And we have never developed a national consensus for the truly equitable sharing of public space regardless of race.
From the beginning of our nation, the Southern slaveholding states enacted “Slave Codes” that barred slaves from owning guns. After the Civil War and during Reconstruction, these same states enacted “Black Codes” to return newly-freed blacks to a life akin to slavery. Preventing African Americans from owning guns was a focus of these laws. Additionally, former Confederates formed the Ku Klux Klan, the Knights of the White Camelia, the Red Shirts, and other militias with the explicit purpose of terrorizing blacks and confiscating their weapons. A key driving force for the creation of the Fourteenth Amendment was to ensure African Americans could exercise their Second Amendment rights and defend themselves against these white terrorists.
The collapse of Reconstruction further entrenched the normalization of black disarmament and legitimized the KKK and white vigilante terror as a means to sustain white dominance throughout the South. By the turn of the century and beginning of Jim Crow, the KKK had become a powerful political influencer. Blacks in the South were lynched and terrorized for any perceived slight against white domination. Additionally, many Southern states implemented financial requirements to own a gun, which de facto prevented most blacks from purchasing a weapon.
To escape the terror, 6 million African Americans left the South during the Great Migration yet white terror greeted them in their new northern and western homes.
Last month marked the 100-year anniversary of the 1919 Chicago race riots that consumed the city for three days, killing 38 people and injuring 537, as white Chicagoans attacked black residents and burned down their homes and neighborhoods, leaving thousands homeless. The impetus for this conflagration was the stoning and murder of a black youth for swimming in a “whites only” section at the beach.
The civil rights movement of the 1960s also resulted in blacks buying guns to protect themselves. Amidst growing racial tensions following the death of Malcolm X in February of 1965 and Los Angeles’ Watts riots that August, members of the Black Panther Party in California, led by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, began to openly carry guns. They trained African Americans how to shoot guns, worked to protect the black community, and in 1967 they protested on the steps of the California statehouse brandishing their weapons. All of this was perfectly legal and no guns were fired.
In response, then-California Governor Ronald Reagan—who four years later would be recorded in a conversation with President Richard Nixon calling African people “monkeys”—teamed up with the National Rifle Association to pass the Mulford Act that banned the open-carry of loaded firearms in the state.
Throughout the 1960s, the NRA—yes, that NRA—pushed for stricter gun laws. As African Americans began arming themselves in response to domestic white terrorism, white Americans worked to take their guns away. The concern was not about whether guns are safe, but about how white Americans felt unsafe when black people have guns.
Throughout most of American history, our white-dominated society has concluded that it is not safe for black people to have guns but that it is safe—and even patriotic—for white people to have guns.
As many Americans wrestle with new fears as the safety of public spaces gets destroyed following every mass shooting, they are facing hard facts that sadly are nothing new for African Americans.
The difference between today and the past is that America’s normalization of violence is terrorizing all Americans, and not just communities of color.