Guns, Race and That Flag – They’ve Always Been Bound Together in America

The spate of recent shootings has made clear the connection of guns and race in America. Statistics of inner-city gun violence show the connection pretty much every day.

In this context, the National Rifle Association actually believes in gun control. “Nothing,” says the NRA, should infringe on the right of “law-abiding citizens to bear arms.” So, everybody not “law abiding” gets controlled.

But does “not law abiding” mean black people? History says yes.

In the late 1960s, the Black Panthers creed was “the gun is the only thing that will free us.” In 1967, they invaded the California Assembly with guns in hand to protest the Mulford Act, which made it illegal to carry loaded firearms in public.

The NRA came to support the Mulford Act, and that icon of American conservatism, Gov. Ronald Reagan, signed the law, stating, “I see no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons;” the Mulford Act “would work no hardship on the honest citizen.” The national Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 and the Gun Control Act of 1968 followed, which the NRA did not oppose. The “not-law-abiding” blacks got controlled.

But the history goes back further. We think of the American South as the most anti-gun-control part of the nation — in reality it was always the most gun controlled. From before the American Revolution until well after the Civil War, slaves couldn’t touch a gun without the master’s permission. Laws prohibited even free blacks from having a gun, a situation that persisted throughout the Jim Crow South well into the 20th century. This was strict gun control.

A gun-toting slave with no rights under the law by definition cannot be “law abiding.”

D.W. Griffith’s racist silent film of 1915, “The Birth of a Nation” (a.k.a. “The Clansman”), was the first movie blockbuster and ends with the disenfranchisement and disarming of blacks. “The Birth of a Nation” remains a Ku Klux Klan favorite and a recruiting tool.

So, guns and race have been connected throughout American history. They were connected again at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. Dylann Roof chose his venue and victims with purpose. And, as if the connection of guns and race was not clear enough, Mr. Roof murdered under the banner of the so-called Confederate flag.

The “Confederate flag” was actually not the flag of the Confederacy but of the Army of Northern Virginia. It’s graphically appealing. We grew up with TV’s “Dukes of Hazzard” and the General Lee racer draped in the Confederate flag invoking good-natured mischief and independence. But this obscured history.

Assertions of southern “heritage” and “pride” and “states’ rights” cannot change the Confederate battle flag as an icon of the fight to maintain slavery and insurrection. Dylann Roof made the point as he waved it while burning the American flag.

Claims of “heritage” cannot look only to some putative ancestor who may have fought bravely for the Confederacy. That heritage is itself hateful. As Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens stated in 1861, the Confederacy “corrected” Thomas Jefferson’s statement that “all men are created equal”:

“Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”

Claim Southern heritage and pride, but if you wave the “Confederate flag,” it comes with the violent racist cornerstone that was the Confederacy. As much as the KKK hood, the Confederate flag remains the enduring symbol of white supremacy. This is why, when Dylann Roof walked into a Bible meeting with a gun, it was about race, gun control and a flag.


The real question is why we would need yet another reminder that race is still an issue, that guns need regulation and that the Confederate symbol of racism needs to vanish from American life.