Before Ferguson: America’s disturbing legacy of white supremacy and guns

Mike Brown's death forces us to confront the dehumanization of black bodies -- and white America's history of guns

Topics: Ferguson, White Supremacy, Racism, darren wilson, Mike Brown, Renisha McBride, eric garner, anti-black racism, civil rights era, reconstruction, American History, emmett till,

Before Ferguson: America's disturbing legacy of white supremacy and gunsJohn W. Milam and Roy Bryant, who were charged with the murder of 14-year-old African American Emmett L.Till, and acquitted by an all-white jury. (Credit: AP)

Continued anger over the death of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, has people questioning why an unarmed 18-year-old would be gunned down in the street. While Brown’s death has caused some Americans to begin to confront the dehumanization of black bodies and militarization of local police, the legacy of white supremacy and guns in this country remains tragically unappreciated. The United States has more guns and gun deaths than any other developed country. A recent study from the Pew Research Center indicates that there is one gun for every man, woman and child in the United States. The data also reveals that most of these gun owners are white men.

At the National Rifle Association convention this April, a strong message of fear was peddled to its mostly white male members. NRA executive vice president and CEO Wayne LaPierre welcomed guests to what he called “the biggest celebration of our American values” before accusing the media of attacking the Second Amendment. He then shared a message of the righteousness of gun ownership to defend against a scary world of “terrorists and home invaders and drug cartels, car-jackers and knock-out gamers and rapers, haters, campus killers, airport killers, shopping-mall killers.” LaPierre argued that the world is going to pot and “the surest way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

Following that playbook, Ferguson police illustrated their support of officer Darren Wilson when they withheld his identity and launched a smear campaign against Brown by releasing a puzzling video from a convenience store that had nothing to do with Wilson’s stop of the teenager. They were, by all appearances, trying to build a case that Wilson was the “good guy with a gun” of LaPierre’s hero fantasies.



But the horrific shooting of Brown was part of a long national history of racist violence, following such disasters as George Zimmerman’s killing of unarmed teen Trayvon Martin and the abduction and the decades-old murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till. In all three cases, white men exacting authority killed young black men or boys who they believed defied them. Remarking on these patterns, Ladd Everitt, director of communications at the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, tells Salon that the modern NRA and the gun rights movement stands for “the restoration or maintenance of [white male] privilege in society and the gun [as] the guarantor of their power in society.”

Other unarmed victims of police violence like Jonathan Ferrell and Oscar Grant, to name a couple, reflect how little we consider this kind of violence as part of the epidemic of gun violence. This erasure also reinforces the message that black people can be killed by public and private citizens with little to no consequence in the criminal justice system — especially without civil unrest.

Throughout American history guns have been instrumental in maintaining white supremacy. The Southern Poverty Law Center notes growing diversity — America will be mostly non-white by 2043 — as a factor in the increase of white supremacist groups. In fact, past moments of cultural change have yielded violent opposition by white citizens.

Until the end of the Civil War and the passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments in 1868 and 1870, respectively, African-Americans were not protected by the Constitution or the Bill of Rights. Indeed, the Dred Scott decision of 1857 stated African-Americans, whether free or enslaved, were not considered citizens as “beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race.” Ironically Dred Scott, the slave who sued for his freedom in St. Louis, is buried just miles from Ferguson in Calvary Cemetery on West Florissant Avenue.

After Dred Scott, it was only the 14th and 15th Amendments affirming black citizenship and the right to vote that would reclaim African-Americans’ humanity under the law.  But black citizenship remained limited and contested under enduring white supremacy. Many anti-government white citizens, particularly in the South with its black majority, but elsewhere too, did not want black people to have guns, a right afforded to them under the Second Amendment.

Law professor Nicholas Johnson discusses some of this history in his book “Negroes and the Gun,” in which he chronicles an often bloody history of African-Americans striving for armed self-defense in post-Civil War America. Today, as in the past, racist state agents and/or paramilitary groups were often a source of violence in the black community. Meaning, when whiteness seemed to be threatened, white supremacists would use gun violence to “restore order.”

In a strange way, Johnson’s book is a palatable repackaging of Robert F. Williams’ classic text “Negroes With Guns.” Williams is often remembered as the inspiration behind the Black Panther tenet of armed self-defense, a position linked to this history of racist violence. Though armed self-defense was a deeply resonant position in the past, today 68 percent of African-Americans support stricter gun laws.

According to lawyer, legal scholar and former chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Mary Frances Berry, “I don’t think that the people who enacted the Second Amendment were thinking about black people … many things in the Constitution aren’t about black people at all because black people weren’t even considered to be people.”

To best understand the phenomenon of gun violence during demographic shifts where white supremacy is threatened, we can look to the Colfax Massacre. In April of 1873 in Colfax, Louisiana, a mostly black state militia protecting a local courthouse after elections was massacred by members of the White League, one of numerous white supremacist groups bent on halting Reconstruction. The assault resulted in the murder of 100-plus militiamen and only three whites. Up until this point, the federal government legally protected the right to self-defense and gun ownership for blacks, but the racist backlash to emancipation was perceived as too great for the fragile nation.

The incident led to an infamous Supreme Court decision with United States v. Cruikshank, which annulled charges of murder against a handful of white plaintiffs from Colfax and concluded that the federal government had no oversight in assuring the security of former slaves.

By failing to reinforce the rights of blacks in the aftermath of the Colfax Massacre, the federal government set precedent for further denial of African-American rights until the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Act of the 1960s. Berry affirms, “By and large the white reactionaries using violence, killing people, harming them and driving them away from work, took over. Yes, it was legal for everybody to have weapons [but] any black person who had a weapon was suspect” — and subject to any form of intimidation.

What Berry helps us understand is that when the “other” is perceived as displacing white male supremacy that person can be eliminated with the pull of trigger.

The moment we are in is not unlike the fear-mongering times of Reconstruction or the countercultural shifts of the civil rights era. America is in a pivotal place of transition from predominantly white to increasingly black, brown and mixed race.  From a nation of men controlling power to one with more women claiming a seat at the table. From a nation of heteronormativity to that of multi-ethnic, gay and blended families.

For the NRA, officer Darren Wilson, George Zimmerman and others like them, the gun is what Berry calls “a symbol of their ability to correct people and perpetuate their idea of what America means, which does not include black people.” However, equal protection under the law is the first step to dismantling our addiction to guns and unnecessary violence. It’s not just about lone gunmen or the emotionally disturbed or rogue cops; it’s about a legacy of white supremacy and guns.

Agunda Okeyo is a writer, filmmaker and activist born in Nairobi; raised between New York City and the Kenyan capital. In 2014, she plans to publish her first book on the nature of systemic inequality in the United States, primarily critical of formal education. www.agundaokeyo.com. Follow @AgundaOkeyo. 

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

Loading Comments...