This article uses an untold story of African American resistance during the civil rights era to expand the discussion of disparities inherent in the application of the Second Amendment. Evaluating the history of the right to bear arms, this paper criticizes the originalist interpretation that glorifies the framer’s intent when drafting the Second Amendment thus continuing a legacy of patriotism plagued by gun proliferation and the criminalization of non-whites.
The Hammond Guards account is a starting point for reevaluating Second Amendment protections, the effect on the patriotism narrative, and how the Second Amendment protections heavily influence racial climate in America. The Hammond Guards’ story, in line with others, demonstrates how African American commitment to law and order, in pursuit of equality and justice, was and still is often overlooked or mischaracterized.
The Hammond Guards
On a warm July night in 1965, shortly after Moore v. Tangipahoa Parish School Board was filed, several hound dogs belonging to M.C. Moore lay poisoned on his property in Hammond, Louisiana. The telephone lines to the Moore home had been cut as the family slept. Without warning, the Moore home was ambushed by shotgun bullets, most of them piercing the wall against which the youngest Moore child’s headboard rested. In defense of his family and property, M.C. Moore immediately grabbed his shotgun, ran outside, and returned fire. His wife, armed with a .38 revolver, crawled from their home to the nearest neighbor, two miles away, to call for help. As Moore fired his shotgun, the assailants ceased fire and retreated.
In the case of M.C. Moore, the sworn oath of local law enforcement to protect and serve did not apply. Reportedly, the local police never responded to Mrs. Moore’s call for help. The local sheriff officials responded to the call two weeks later, but no further investigation was conducted.
Instead, help for the Moore family came from neighbors who firmly believed in the Second Amendment right to bear arms in self-defense. The morning following the attack, a group of patriots, composed of veterans, took guard to protect and defend the Moore home against further domestic terrorism. This group—the Hammond Guards—reportedly consisted of Armada Butler, Otis Jackson, Henry Reed, Lavoris Harvey, and Henry Jackson. Each man legally and visibly armed with shotguns and pistols, guarded the entire Moore property by shift for over three months. La. Const. art I § 8 (1921), superseded by La. Const. art I §11. Despite fatherhood and full-time employment, the unsung heroes defended the home until Freedom of Choice was first enforced under the Moore lawsuit.
Interpreting the right to bear arms as a right to self-defense, the Hammond Guards availed themselves of the Second Amendment to protect their community. They sacrificed their lives, jeopardized their jobs and social standing, and spent hours away from their own families to defend against terrorist acts deliberately overlooked by local law enforcement. These patriots provided Hammond’s black community with a sense of security, which empowered the community to join the fight for civil rights.
The Intersection of Race and Patriotism
The word patriotism derives from the Roman word patria, which has been defined as “the love of law and common liberty, the search for the common good, and the duty to behave justly toward one’s country.” The Foundation of Patriotism explains that, to be a patriot, a person must assess the values held dear by the United States, and not individual states. From there, the person begins “to recognize the patriotic behavior that stems from [those] values.”
For many, patriotism may be saluting the American flag or standing for the Star-Spangled Banner. Perhaps patriotism is thanking a soldier for his or her service. For others, patriotism may entail preserving states’ rights at any costs. In the case of the Hammond Guards, however, patriotism is a commitment to safeguarding a neutral constitutional right that has been marred by racist and exclusive legislation for centuries. This commitment emanated from devotion to a land cultivated by slaves and from a duty to ensure that the descendants of those slaves enjoy all liberties and rights promised by the Constitution of that land. Evaluating patriotism from this perspective allows acts in pursuit of equal protection by African Americans to be rebranded as American instead of anti-white, radical, or criminal.
“Acceptable” or Traditional American Patriotism
In recalibrating society to expand its view on patriotism, the reasons for upholding the traditional view of patriotism must be dissected. Tracing patriotism back to early America creates a path that decodes the “values” upon which traditional patriotism has been based. A prime example of this cryptic patriotism is the case of Cliven Bundy.
In 2014, 68-year-old anti-government extremist Cliven Bundy and his supporters battled against the federal government in a western-style shootout. For over 20 years, Bundy had illegally grazed cattle on federal lands without paying requisite fees, exceeding $1 million in damages. In defiance of federal court orders to round up his cattle, Bundy and his supporters availed themselves of the Second Amendment to form a militia. The shootout lasted until federal officials retreated. Despite being charged with over four federal felonies, Bundy’s case was dismissed due to prosecutorial missteps. Notably, federal prosecutors failed to convince juries, after multiple attempts, of Bundy’s “violent extremist” acts and criminal behavior. Instead, Bundy’s criminal offenses were heralded as a “victory for all Americans.”
The interpretation of Bundy’s criminal acts as patriotic and victorious bear an uncomfortable resemblance to the Ku Klux Klan’s (KKK) “embolden[ing] to lawlessness" against the United States federal government during the Reconstruction Era. The KKK was revered by southern Democrats of the nineteenth century as “a group of patriots striving to restore power to the legitimate leaders…” through armed patrols of African American communities often ending in murder and mutilation of African American men, women, and children. Like the Cliven Bundy case, the blatant criminal behavior was celebrated and seemed protected under the Second Amendment right to self-defense.
White Supremacist Ideals
The disparities prevalent in application of the Second Amendment are vetted in the United States history. The Colfax Massacre of 1873 is just one account qualifying this assertion. On April 13, 1873, over 100 white men, comprising former Confederate soldiers and Klansmen, formed an armed militia to force out newly elected African American Republicans (under the leadership of William Ward) from the Colfax Parish Courthouse in Colfax Parish, Louisiana. Fortified with cannons, shotguns, pistols, and fire, the white Democratic militia ambushed the Colfax Parish courthouse and murdered over one hundred African American men. Local newspapers blamed the “radical republicans” for the massacre and claimed the republicans “threaten[ed]…the lives of their political opponents…[shot] at others, [broke] open and gutt[ed] houses, [drove] women out…” and “desecrated graves”. The newspapers made no mention of the attacks and murders committed against the African American community prior to the Massacre.
Of the 97 aggressors hailed into federal court under the Enforcement Act of 1870, only three were convicted. The convictions were later overturned on appeal for “defects in the underlying charges…”. In 1921, memorialization of the Colfax Massacre painted the three causalities of the white militia as patriots who fell in defense of white supremacy against “carpet bag misrule.” The memorialization preserved and celebrated an account of history that permitted murder of African Americans as means to protect “legitimate law and order.”
Although patriotism implicates widely-held American values of self-defense, liberty, protection of family, and sacrifice, purported acts of patriotism flowing from these values often clash. The contradictory interpretations cause concern when one class of Americans believe it is privy to constitutional protections of these values to the exclusion of other classes. History reveals that application of the Second Amendment, in cases of self-defense, carries a racial disparity that rarely affords justice to African Americans. Perhaps the Second Amendment was never intended to extend to non-whites.
In 1789, James Madison articulated a need for amendments to the Constitution. In support of amending the Constitution, he argued that amendments would guarantee “the public” perpetual enjoyment of the liberties conferred by the Constitution. From Madison’s several recommendations, the following commentary provides his stance on the Second Amendment: “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. A well-regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the best and most natural defense of a free country.” Although Madison’s propositions seemed fair and practical for “the public,” the composition of “the public” in 1789 was vastly dissimilar to the public today. Though the public, or people, of America has changed over the centuries, the promise of perpetual enjoyment of the liberties and rights of the Constitution should remain constant.
Considering the wars (“Savage Wars”) between Native Americans and early settlers peppered throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, the Second Amendment was enunciated, in part, to legalize the armed aggression of the settlers. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment, at 36–40 (2018). In 1658, Virginia law forbade any white man to travel unless he was well armed. Such legislation went as far as mandating the possession of a functioning firearm in public places. Loans were even provided to those that could not afford firearms. Id. These laws ensured the security of white Americans, a trend that has continued well into the twenty-first century. If patriotism is an extension of early American Ideals, such as white security, it arguably glorifies the very ideals that motivated armed appropriation of Native American territory and justified the inhumane treatment of African slaves.
Fear of Vulnerability
As armed aggression was limited only to free white males, so was armed defense. The Black Codes, enacted in several states during the slavery era, forbade the possession of any weapon by a slave that could be used as a means of defense. In the face of “Savage Wars” and foreign invasions, colonist feared being outnumbered, vulnerable, and ultimately powerless. This fear formed the basis of the intent behind gun control legislation including criminal statutes prohibiting concealed weapons.
Enacting legislation to criminalize firearm possession by freedmen and slaves quelled fears of vulnerability. It eliminated threats of insurrections and maintained a power dynamic in which white Americans could thrive while slaves were severely punished for questionable offenses. For example, the General Assembly of Virginia passed “An Act for Preventing Negroes Insurrections” in 1680, which criminalized the assembling of “considerable numbers of negro slaves under pretense of feasts and burials...”. The act also criminalized carrying or arming of any slave with any “weapon of defense.” The laws were justified as a measure to protect citizens from “evil disposed men…”.
Since freedmen were not American citizens until the enactment of the Fourteenth Amendment, legislators and judges deliberately distinguished the right to bear arms as one belonging to American citizens instead of persons as laws had previously dictated.
Protection of Racist Ideals
Fear of vulnerability, white supremacist ideals, and contempt for federal intervention were explicit in most state legislation for generations. Examples include the Black Codes, Pig Laws, Jim Crow laws, and even judicial opinions. Though the discriminatory effects of these laws were often blatant, aggrieved African Americans were denied justice due their failure to prove discrimination. These failures occurred due to ever changing legal standards and biased application of inherently racist laws. Concealed weapon statutes and Stand Your Ground Laws are prime examples of deliberate methods to disarm African Americans. A 1941, Florida Supreme Court judge recorded the racist intent behind a Florida concealed weapon statute, in the judicial opinion of Watson v. Stone, 4 So. 2d 700:
I know something of the history of this legislation. [Section 7202, C.G.L.Fla.1927] was passed when there was a great influx of negro laborers in this State... The Act was passed for the purpose of disarming the negro laborers… and to give the white citizens in sparsely settled areas a better feeling of security. The statute was never intended to be applied to the white population.
Despite the unconstitutionality of the Florida statute, statutes like the one above were rarely stricken, resulting in harassment, incarceration, and abuse of African Americans believed to have broken the “law.”
With enactment of facially neutral legislation construed to undermine the constitutional right of African Americans to bear arms, the need for political understanding and involvement by African Americans became vital. Some of the most renowned political efforts by African Americans were exacted by the Black Panther Party, which heavily promoted armed self-defense.
In 1967, the Mulford Act was passed in California, to suppress the “violence prone” Black Panther Party and restore “legitimate law and order” to the streets. It reversed open carry and permitted only law enforcement to possess loaded firearms in public places. African American neighborhoods, previously guarded by armed Panthers, were once again defenseless against rampant police brutality.
In protest of the act, the Black Panthers marched on the California state capitol, legally armed with rifles and shotguns, and read aloud Number 7 from the party’s manifesto as the Mulford Act was read in the state capitol. Number 7 of the manifesto used the Second Amendment to express the need for “self-defense groups” dedicated to “defending our black community from racist police oppression and brutality.” Despite these explicit intentions, the members of the party were labeled terrorists.
The discussion of patriotism, certain historical victories, and the concept of law and order should evaluate deliberate past and present attempts to disarm African Americans. Such evaluation will foster a more accurate conclusion of how much race and perception influence the ideals of patriotism and who may truly be afforded the protections of the Second Amendment.
This reevaluation of patriotism emerges to include acts of resistance by African Americans. Often mischaracterized as criminal, defiant, and insurgent behavior by non-African Americans, unknown yet victorious accounts like the Hammond Guards continues a chain of American history that illuminates the necessity of armed self-defense by African Americans. Tracing the pattern of restricted protection under the Second Amendment through the centuries now urges examination of Stand Your Ground legislation.
The same ideals fueling the traditional view of patriotism have been documented in American legislation from the slavery era until now. Over time, numerous Americans have been conditioned to believe an African American armed in self-defense is a threat to “American ideals” or that questioning said ideals renders him unpatriotic. Such conditioning has occurred through promotion of white security, ignorance, and skewed power dynamics thinly veiled as preserving America culture, concern for the common good, and love of law and liberty. Patriotism, however, is more than blind adherence to cryptic ideals and exclusive traditions. To arm one’s self in protest of miscarried justice at the hands of the powerful and survive was and still is an act of patriotism.
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