Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm Melissa Harris-Perry in for Tanzina Vega and this is The Takeaway. Now take a listen to this moment from our national history.
Robert Williams: Well, I advocated violence; self-defense because I don't think you can really have a defense against violent racist and against terrorists unless you're prepared to meet violence with violence.
Melissa: That was Robert Williams, speaking in a clip from an award-winning documentary titled Negroes with Guns. Although he's rarely taught in the civil rights curriculum of public schools, Williams is a bit of a legend here in North Carolina. Williams was living in Monroe, North Carolina in the 1950s after returning home from fighting in World War II. The KKK was engaged in relentless campaigns of violence and intimidation against Black neighborhoods in Monroe.
In response, Williams organized a local chapter of the NAACP, and he sought to receive a charter from the NRA, thus founding the Black Armed Guard. Williams and the Black Armed Guard successfully defended their community against terror. They protected civil rights workers and they produced public information through Radio Free Dixie. All our activities, presumably protected by the US constitution, but William soon found himself labeled an enemy of the state by the federal government, and why?
Professor Carol Anderson: That's what I went looking after and what I saw, what I found was that the depth of anti-blackness in this nation. The description of Black people as dangerous, as a threat, they're to overtake overturn and demolish whites in this society, has led to the rise of the second amendment, led to the rise of the militia and has consistently sought to undermine African-Americans access to guns because Black is the threat. Blacks with guns becomes the exponential threat.
What we see is that, yes, there is this long tradition of gun ownership in for Blacks in the south for hunting and for defense. What we see historically is that that so-called right to self-defense does not include Black people. When Black people have tried to defend themselves, generally, they have been met with disproportionate state power, or disproportionate mob power backed by the state. Sanctioned by the state-approved and okayed by the state that has led to no accountability for the slaughter of Black people who are trying to defend themselves.
Melissa: Indeed not only that the state is doing this, but that the state itself is created based on this. That you walk us back to the founding and really change our understanding, I think, of what the entire bill of rights is, but particularly, the second amendment. Tell me, why is the second, as you write, so inherently and structurally flawed? Based on Black exclusion and debasement that, unlike the other amendments, it can never be a pathway to civil and human rights. Why is the second so much more flawed than say, I don't know, the fifth, which also nobody was thinking about us when they wrote?
Professor Anderson: It's because the point of the second, the baseline reason for the second was the control of Black people, the subjugation of Black people to take away Black people's rights. Let me walk us through that history. We had the constitutional convention where you had the south playing some serious hardball with the Northern delegates about this founding document, this constitution of the United States. That's just how we got the three-fifths clause. This is how we got the 20-year extension on the Atlantic slave trade, and how we got the fugitive slave clause.
When it came downtime for ratification, Virginia was playing just real serious hardball, Virginia, a massive slave state. Patrick Henry was worried eight ways to Sunday that James Madison, also a Virginia and a slave owner, had put control of the militia under the federal government in the constitution. Patrick Henry and George Mason were arguing strenuously that you could not trust the federal government to protect slave owners against the slave revolt.
You could not trust those folks from Pennsylvania and from Massachusetts to call in the militia when the slaves would revolt. "We will be left defenseless," is what Mason said. They began playing serious hardball with Madison saying that they would basically scuttle the constitution that they would push for a new constitutional convention unless they got that protection.
That protection was the bill of rights, and that protection, when you think about it, you get freedom of the press, freedom of speech, the right not to be illegally searched and seized, the right to not have to incriminate yourself, the right to a speedy and fair trial, the right to not to have cruel and unusual punishment. You get this; the rights of a well-regulated militia shall not be for the security of the state. Wow. That thing is an outlier and it reads like an outlier because it is the bribe paid to the south to secure the United States of America. In the bill of rights, we have a right to clamp down on the rights of Black people. That was the role of the militia.
Melissa: Now walk forward for me to a more contemporary moment, because also in this text, you tie together mass incarceration, disenfranchisement of those who have served time for a felony, and this second amendment for which you've just given us this colonial history. Tell us how these three things, the second mass incarceration and felon disenfranchisement are connected?
Professor Anderson: They all deal with issues of citizenship. They all deal with the ways that the state has been deployed in an anti-Blackness frame to dissipate, to clamp down on to subjugate Black political power, Black voices, Black humanity. This assault or the criminalization of Blackness that has led to mass incarceration has in there; we've got legislation that says that felons cannot own weapons. When you have a skewed criminal justice system that criminalizes Blackness, and we know that we had statutes that were only applied against Black people.
We've had disparate sentencing, disparate policing, the hyper policing in the Black community that generates this false narrative of inherent Black criminality. When you have statutes that say, if you have a felony conviction, you cannot own a weapon, that is creating a disproportionate burden on the Black community. We also have felon disfranchisement where those who have a felony conviction cannot vote. We have some states like Florida, for instance, that had permanent felony disfranchisement. This is a way of silencing Black people, a way of debasing and devaluing Black humanity, Black people's rights.
Melissa: I want to get a little intersectional for a moment because there's one way of thinking about and imagining. I think about the fact that the shotgun on the back of my office door was given to me by my father who typically does think in terms of fairly traditional man shall protect home against invading white folks. That's definitely how my dad sees the world having grown up in The Jim Crow South. He comes by that honestly. It's also true that I simply do know the data that say that as a woman, living in a home with a firearm, I am substantially more likely to be shot and killed by my domestic partner, by my husband, by a man who's in my household than I am to use that weapon to protect myself from someone outside the household. Is there a way that Black women and Black men have maybe needed to think about both being armed and about self-defense in ways that are distinct?
Professor Anderson: One of the things that I really stress in this book is that this isn't a pro-gun or an anti-gun book. This is about Black people's rights. Part of that is the way that we begin to reconceive, re-conceptualize what safety and security really looks like. What we know-- I tell the story, for instance, of Marissa Alexander in this book who was a Black woman who was a victim of domestic violence, and her then-husband was attacking her once again.
She runs, she gets her gun. She shoots a bullet in the air as a warning shot to get him to back off as he says so I wouldn't put my hands on her again, no more. This was in a stand-your-ground state and she was convicted and sentenced to 20 years.
Melissa: By the same prosecutor, not just in a stand-your-ground state, but literally, in the same county where George Zimmerman had gotten off for killing a teenager who was unarmed, she shoots a ceiling tile and gets more time?
Professor Anderson: Yes. To me, the issue is the precarity of Black life, that what we have here with anti-Blackness, is the devaluation of Black humanity and seeing what that means where Marissa Alexander cannot defend herself from a man who has put her in the hospital before. Her baby was only nine days old at the time that this happened, that you get her being prosecuted and imprisoned and George Zimmerman walking for shooting an unarmed teenager after he had stocked this child with a loaded weapon in a community. This is the precarity of Black life that really I want coming through in this book.
Melissa: When I think about what it means that the state took Marissa Alexander from her still nursing brand, new infant, baby the sadness and I know Marissa just enough. I've talked to her just enough times, just the brutality, the cruelty of it. We're in a public moment when we're being told that we can't know stories like this because it will separate us from the love of America. That if we know this, if we know this history about the establishment of the second amendment, if we understand this story about the state of Florida versus Zimmerman versus Marissa Alexander, we will cease to be Patriots.
Professor Anderson: One, there's this massive push back that we're having now in these state legislatures, that call identifying and teaching the ways that race and racism works in the United States as divisive, but they're not calling white supremacy divisive, they're calling the bringing out of these stories, of the role of slavery, of the role of Jim Crow, of the role of these massacres, like Tulsa, like Colfax, Louisiana in 1873, like Wilmington, North Carolina in 1898.
That if we don't know this history, then somehow we'll be Patriots is not to understand that we had, who came through Jim Crow. We had grandfathers who came through slavery and our great grandfathers, and they were Patriots. They were willing to put their lives on the line for this nation, knowing what it is, if your patriotism is dependent upon whitewashing American history, you are not a Patriot.
Melissa: With that, Carol Anderson is author of The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America. She's also Charles Howard Candler professor of African-American studies at Emory University. Thank you for joining me, professor Anderson.
Professor Anderson: Thank you so much for having me. Thank you.
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