Huey Newton of the Black Panthers at a Revolutionary People’s Party Convention in 1970 (David Fenton/Archive Photos/Getty)
From The Root:
It may seem hard to believe, but the modern-day gun-rights debate was born from the civil rights era and inspired by the Black Panthers. Equally surprising is that the National Rifle Association — now an aggressive lobbying arm for gun manufacturers — actually once supported, and helped write, federal gun-control laws.
In light of the Newtown, Conn., school massacre that claimed the lives of 20 children as well as escalating violence in cities like Chicago, which saw 500 homicides in 2012 alone, President Barack Obama recently unveiled his plan for stricter gun control. The proposal calls for a universal background check and a ban on assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines, along with 23 executive orders. But these efforts — no matter how reasonable — are not without their critics.
It is ironic that the modern-day argument for citizens to arm themselves against unwarranted government oppression — dominated, as it is, by angry white men — has its roots in the foundation of the 1960s Black Panther movement. Huey Newton and Bobby Seale became inspired by Malcolm X’s admonishment that because government was “either unable or unwilling to protect the lives and property” of African Americans, they ought to defend themselves “by any means necessary.”
UCLA law professor Adam Winkler explores this history in his 2011 book, Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America. “Like many young African Americans, Newton and Seale were frustrated with the failed promise of the civil-rights movement,” Winkler writes. In their opinion, “the only tangible outcome of the civil-rights movement had been more violence and oppression, much of it committed by the very entity meant to protect the public: the police.” Winkler goes on to say, “Malcolm X and the Panthers described their right to use guns in self-defense in constitutional terms.” Guns became central to the Panthers’ identity, as they taught their early recruits that “the gun is the only thing that will free us — gain us our liberation.”
The Panthers responded to racial violence by patrolling black neighborhoods brandishing guns — in an effort to police the police. The fear of black people with firearms sent shockwaves across white communities, and conservative lawmakers immediately responded with gun-control legislation.