Martin Luther King had complicated legacy on gun violence

Martin Luther King Jr. was surrounded by guns, even though he didn't like them.

At times, armed foot soldiers protected the Baptist preacher and his family.

See Full Article

As he led protests across the rural South, King often stood in proximity of guns -- wielded by local police, state troopers or hostile people in the crowds.

On April 4, 1968, the civil rights leader became one of America's most famous victims of gun violence.

Just as guns were a complicated issue for King in his lifetime, they loom large over the 30th anniversary of the holiday honouring his birthday. Urban violence, mass shootings and killings of unarmed blacks by police have caused alarm, touched off protests and revived the nation's conversation about gun control. President Barack Obama recently took executive action to tighten federal gun restrictions, invoking King as he urged citizens to press for change.

"There is nothing in the history that suggests that Martin Luther King felt that guns weren't useful for self-defence," said Adam Winkler, UCLA law professor and author of the book "Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America." "Clearly, guns were used to protect (King) ... (He) could not rely on the government."

Inside the civil rights movement, some activists saw guns as a necessary means of self-defence. As a Southerner, King understood that strong culture of gun possession, even though he came to reject it, said Charles E. Cobb, Jr., a former field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and author of the book, "This Nonviolent Stuff'll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible."

"If you went to King's house in 1955 or 1956, there were guns," Cobb said in an interview. "When they bombed his house in 1956, his first instinct was to apply for a gun permit. He moves toward nonviolence slowly. By the 1960s, he abandoned the idea of weapons for self-defence."

Some blacks, Cobb recalled, jokingly referring to their personal weapons as "nonviolent pistols."

"They would say, even as they were cleaning their rifles, how glad they were to be part of the movement," Cobb said. "They knew King wasn't going to be carrying a weapon, so people's attitude was, 'We're not going to let the white people kill him."'

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, a King aide who was at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, when King was shot and killed, said King was mindful of the role of guns.

"Dr. King's point was that the protection of one's home is self-evident, but he was quick to add that you're more likely to shoot a relative or commit suicide (with a gun)," Jackson said. "He refused to keep a gun in his house for that reason."

After his home was bombed, King got rid of his gun and eschewed weapons, said King lieutenant Andrew Young. Before joining King, Young owned a shotgun and a handgun. The movement did not condemn defensive violence, Young explained; King simply did not engage in it.

"He decided he was not going to have a gun, and he didn't want anybody with guns around him," Young said.

In his book, Winkler writes that after the 1956 bombing, which occurred during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, King applied for a concealed carry permit. He was denied by a county sheriff.

That incident has led some to embrace King as a supporter of the U.S. Constitution's Second Amendment which guarantees the right to bear arms. In 2014, commentator Colion Noir posted a video on citing King's gun permit application as proof that he was not opposed to guns. The website is run by the National Rifle Association, an influential gun rights lobbying group.

"Dr. King was a nonviolent man, but even he understood the realities of self-defence and protecting his home and his family in the face of life-threatening violence," said Noir.

After President John F. Kennedy was killed in 1963, Young recalled King telling him: "Guns are going to be the death of this country."

"He said, Kennedy had Secret Service around him with guns and they couldn't protect him, which says guns can't protect you," Young said.

According to a compilation of King's writings and speeches by Stanford University historian Clayborne Carson, King said in November 1963 that Kennedy's assassination could be blamed in part on Americans' casual attitudes about gun violence.

King said: "By our readiness to allow arms to be purchased at will and fired at whim, by allowing our movie and television screens to teach our children that the hero is one who masters the art of shooting and the technique of killing, by allowing all these developments, we have created an atmosphere in which violence and hatred have become popular pastimes."

King's nonviolent mentality stood in stark contrast to those armed, hate-filled whites who showed up at peaceful protests, and the more radical black groups that emerged later, said King biographer Taylor Branch.

"Even after black power made guns kind of popular in the radical movement, King said he would never carry a gun," Branch said. "He rejected all forms of violence and got stronger on it as he went along."

Cobb, however, said many of King's followers "felt their duty was to protect the movement, grab a rifle" and drive away threats.

"They didn't see any contradiction between saying they were part of the nonviolent movement and keeping their weapons clean and ready," Cobb said.


Latest Canada & World News

  • Academic says he's being scapegoated in Facebook data case

    World News CTV News
    LONDON -- An academic who developed an app used by Cambridge Analytica to harvest data from millions of Facebook users said Wednesday he had no idea his material would be used in Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign and that he's being scapegoated in the affair. Source
  • Aging Vancouver home listed for $6.98M

    Canada News CTV News
    Sure it’s nearly 100 years old, rundown, with fencing covered in mildew and moss. But it’s the location, location, location that could make a family home up for sale in downtown Vancouver worth its nearly $7-million price tag. Source
  • Service Canada moves away from calling Canadians Mr., Mrs., or Miss

    Canada News CBC News
    Service Canada employees who interact with the public are being asked to stay away from terms like Mr., Mrs., father and mother, and to use gender-neutral terms in their place, CBC News has learned. According to documents obtained by Radio Canada, the French-language arm of CBC, front-line staff must now "use gender-neutral language or gender-inclusive language. Source
  • Aides told Trump not to congratulate Putin on win: report

    World News CTV News
    WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Donald Trump called Russian President Vladimir Putin to congratulate him on his re-election, drawing bruising criticism from members of his own party, including a leading senator who scorned the election as a "sham. Source
  • Focus turns to missing in Bruce McArthur case

    Canada News CTV News
    TORONTO -- Judi Riley's 47-year-old brother vanished while on a trip to Toronto nearly five years ago. Her family filed a police report and repeatedly prodded authorities for updates. But there were no leads, until now. Source
  • Israel's warning to enemies confirms destruction of 2007 Syria nuclear reactor

    World News CBC News
    The Israeli military confirmed Wednesday it carried out the 2007 airstrike in Syria that destroyed what was believed to be a nuclear reactor, lifting the veil of secrecy over one of its most daring and mysterious operations in recent memory. Source
  • 'We're not over land': WestJet passengers recount emergency landing in smoke-filled cabin

    Canada News CTV News
    A WestJet flight from Vancouver to Nanaimo, B.C. was evacuated on the tarmac after smoke filled the cabin moments before landing. Flight 3161 declared an emergency as it descended towards Nanaimo Airport on Thursday afternoon. Source
  • Trump legal woes grow on separate fronts involving women accusers

    World News CBC News
    U.S. President Donald Trump faced legal challenges from women on two fronts on Tuesday as a defamation lawsuit brought by a former Apprentice TV show contestant moved forward and a former Playboy model who said she had an affair with Trump sued to undo a confidentiality agreement. Source
  • First lady vows to fight cyberbullying despite skeptics

    World News CTV News
    WASHINGTON -- Pushing back against her critics, Melania Trump said Tuesday she's committed to fighting cyberbullying despite the knocks she's gotten for taking on the issue when her husband regularly uses Twitter to berate his foes and call them names. Source
  • Dozens of Nigerian schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram are released

    World News CBC News
    Boko Haram extremists returned most of the 110 girls abducted from their Nigeria boarding school a month ago with an ominous warning, witnesses said Wednesday. The fighters rolled into Dapchi around 2 a.m. in nine vehicles and the girls were left in the centre of town. Source