Why African Americans Have Never Had the Right To Bear Arms

The right to bear arms is enshrined in the 2nd Amendment to the United States Constitution. It is one of the more controversial amendments, recently being used to prevent new gun restrictions being passed in response to the rampant mass shootings.

While the right to bear arms is not the only cause of these mass killings, it is part of the debate surrounding the controversy. The debate often raises the 2nd Amendment as something inviolate and permanent in the American system.

This is a misunderstanding of the nature of amendments, of course, as they can and have been altered frequently in American history. There is no reason why we cannot change an amendment to the Constitution. Sadly, however, history reveals how the law, and especially the Constitution, can be twisted to allow for perverse tyranny to extend over innocent Americans.

GUN FIGHT: The Battle Over The Right TO Bear Arms In America
Adam Winkler

This is the third installment of the BLACK CODES series from HistoryDojo. Please check out the first installment HERE. Read the second installment HERE

The history on the question of African Americans and the right to bear arms is an interesting story. To understand why it is interesting we must first establish that even now, the right to bear arms for African Americans is not the same as the right enjoyed by their white counterparts.

The Black Panthers
were once criticized
for asserting the
2nd Amendment
right to bear arms.

Indeed, while there are many guns wielded by African Americans, both legal and illegal, the assumption that African Americans do not have a legal right to posses, carry and own firearms exists in the minds of the majority of the population, even if they refuse to acknowledge it.

The blindness of white privileged on the issue of guns and African Americans allows the majority to state that no bias or discrimination exists. There is anecdotal evidence to support an argument of equality on this issue. Sadly, anecdotal evidence is not an argument, and is an example of false logic. It is like holding a snowball and claiming that therefore global warming doesn’t exist.

Sen Inhofe (R-OK) claimed that snow in DC meant Global Warming was fake.

Penal Code

The Mississippi Black Codes give us a good sense of the historical opposition to gun ownership for African Americans. The Black Codes were written after the Reconstruction Era in the American South, when laws and Amendments gave protections to African Americans for the first time in history.

The Black Codes were written as the U.S. Army was leaving the South, returning local control to the democratic majority; the white majority. Once returned to political power, the whites in the South started a campaign to “Redeem the South”, an answer to Reconstruction.

To redeem the South meant to undo all of the legal and civil rights that had been added to African Americans along with emancipation from slavery and citizenship. The Black Codes, as they became known, were circumspect in their language, but transparent in their goal. They were designed to maintain white supremacy over African Americans and return them to a position of enslaved status.

We might examine the first statute of the Mississippi Black Codes:

Section 1. Be it enacted by the legislature of the state of Mississippi, that no freedman, free Negro, or mulatto not in the military service of the United States government, and not licensed so to do by the board of police of his or her county, shall keep or carry firearms of any kind, or any ammunition, dirk, or Bowie knife; and, on conviction thereof in the county court, shall be punished by fine, not exceeding $10, and pay the costs of such proceedings, and all such arms or ammunition shall be forfeited to the informer; and it shall be the duty of every civil and military officer to arrest any freedman, free Negro, or mulatto found with any such arms or ammunition, and cause him or her to be committed for trial in default of bail.

Source: Laws of the State of Mississippi, Passed at a Regular Session of the Mississippi Legislature, held in Jackson, October, November and December, 1965, Jackson, 1866, pp. 82-93, 165-167

The power to deny the right to bear arms was invested in the local police, who often were members of the Ku Klux Klan. This power allowed for the refusal to posses arms of any kind, for any reason.

The right to bear arms, so sacred today, is here denied to freedmen. The fines would be the premise upon which a freedman might be reintroduced to slavery through conviction in a court; the imposition of the fines being too great to bear.

Section 2. Be it further enacted, that any freedman, free Negro, or mulatto committing riots, routs, affrays, trespasses, malicious mischief, cruel treatment to animals, seditious speeches, insulting gestures, language, or acts, or assaults on any person, disturbance of the peace, exercising the function of a minister of the Gospel without a license from some regularly organized church, vending spirituous or intoxicating liquors, or committing any other misdemeanor t e punishment of which is not specifically provided for by law shall, upon conviction thereof in the county court, be fined not less than $10 and not more than $100, and may be imprisoned, at the discretion of the court, not exceeding thirty days.

Source: Laws of the State of Mississippi, Passed at a Regular Session of the Mississippi Legislature, held in Jackson, October, November and December, 1965, Jackson, 1866, pp. 82-93, 165-167

If denial of the Second Amendment wasn’t bad enough, the denial of the free expression of religion is banned here. It is curious to see, and begs the question why it might be seen as important to stop freedmen from practicing religion.

Insulting gestures are punishable by up to thirty days in jail, with a fine that would have exceeded many months of income for many African Americans. The determination of a seditious speech or insulting gesture would be up to the white people of the South. Physically defending oneself would have been equated with assaulting a white person, and would have led to the same result under the law for an African American. However, any violation of decorum, any seditious speech or insult, would have invariably led to a lynching.

It is important to note that there does not yet exist today an law outlawing lynching specifically, as Congress has failed to pass one despite over forty attempts to do so in the past.

The Danger of the Gospels

Why would the spreading of the Christian Gospel teachings have been considered a violation of the Black Codes? Certainly the American South is a very religious region, whose citizens are often “churched” from a young age.

African Americans at a prayer meeting after the Civil War, 1865.

The answer lies in the revolutionary message of the Gospel teachings. The freedom from slavery and the equality of all in God’s eyes is a message in the Gospels that might inflame the passions of the freedmen to see their situation as intolerable.

The teaching of Gospel messages had incited many slave rebellions prior to the Civil War, and was one reason why it was made illegal for slaves to be taught to read and write.

Section 3. Be it further enacted, that if any white person shall sell, lend, or give to any freedman, free Negro, or mulatto any firearms, dirk, or Bowie knife, or ammunition, or any spirituous or intoxicating liquors, such person or persons so offending, upon conviction thereof in the county court of his or her county, shall be fined not exceeding $50, and may be imprisoned, at the discretion of the court, not exceeding thirty days:

Source: Laws of the State of Mississippi, Passed at a Regular Session of the Mississippi Legislature, held in Jackson, October, November and December, 1965, Jackson, 1866, pp. 82-93, 165-167

This provision allows for the penalizing of any white person who might aid the freedmen in their self defense from enslavement. It is reminiscent of the example of John Brown.

The effort to help African Americans was always a point of contention before the Civil War. After, with whites seeking to “redeem the South”, it made perfect sense to them to legally restrict anyone who might aid the freedmen.

To read more about the cause of John Brown and his importance in history, read WHY WE ARE ALL JOHN BROWN and the companion piece JOHN BROWN WANTED YOU TO KNOW ONE THING, BEFORE HE DIED

Anyone caught aiding an African American could be punished under the Black Codes, a serious infringement of the freedom of all Americans, white or Black or otherwise. The punishment would, of course be carried out by the courts, giving the veneer of respectability , while in reality undermining the legitimacy of the legal tradition in the United States.

The 13th Amendment

If an African American were to leave service to an employer, they were treated in the same manner as a runaway slave. The criminal, in this case could be returned to a condition of slavery, and it would be completely legal, even under the 13th Amendment.

Note the language of that most significant amendment:

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.


The Constitution allows for slavery to exist for those “duly convicted”. The Black Codes use this language to make slavery a punishment for crimes as minor as speech, vulgarity or even quitting a job. The violations would all be determined by the local courts, of course.

As this was a court made up of local white men, it is impossible to think that the court would ever see any reason for a freedman to leave the service of his white employer.

Section 5. Be it further enacted, that if any freedman, free Negro, or mulatto convicted of any of the misdemeanors provided against in this act shall fail-or refuse, for the space of five days after conviction, to pay the fine and costs imposed, such person shall be hired out by the sheriff or other officer, at public outcry, to any white person who will pay said fine and all costs and take such convict for the shortest time.

Source: Laws of the State of Mississippi, Passed at a Regular Session of the Mississippi Legislature, held in Jackson, October, November and December, 1965, Jackson, 1866, pp. 82-93, 165-167

And there we can see, how the possession of firearms, or the refusal to bow obediently to whites, or even to look for a better job somewhere else, were criminal acts for African Americans after the Civil War.

The Legacy of Denial

As we see more reports of whites confronting African Americans for being in places where whites feel they do not belong, we might remind ourselves of the legacy of white privilege and the Black Codes.

The United States needs to address this legacy, as its offspring still occupy the minds of many in the nation yet today. The first step toward ending this legacy of hate and bigotry is to admit that there exists a legacy of hate and bigotry.,

Until we can agree that African Americans have always been targets, even after the Civil War, then we will continue to wrestle with the effects of race and white blindness.

In closing, we might recall the sage poetry of Langston Hughes, who wrote in his poem, Harlem:

What happens to a dream deferred?

      Does it dry up
      like a raisin in the sun?
      Or fester like a sore—
      And then run?
      Does it stink like rotten meat?
      Or crust and sugar over—
      like a syrupy sweet?

      Maybe it just sags
      like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Source: Selected Poems of Langston Hughes (Random House Inc., 1990

SOURCE: http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/mississippiblackcode.html


Author: Tyler Rust