Guns, Politics, and American Culture - Part 1

Apsken at Apsken at
Sat Nov 20 21:15:56 MST 1999

By Ken Lawrence
    My conservative father, a veteran of World War II in the Pacific, was not
a hunter, but he owned a Colt Woodsman Match Target pistol and he taught me
to shoot. Occasional trips to a Chicago south side target range began when I
was about age 11 (the year would have been 1953), about the same time that I
signed up for weekly target rifle shooting after school, at the neighborhood
    Dad regarded his gun as a prudent measure for self defense, and his Army
marksman and expert shooting medals as proud achievements, along with his
amateur wrestling and chess tournament trophies.
    [For readers unfamiliar with guns and shooting sports: The Woodsman is a
large, heavy, long-barreled semiautomatic pistol with enormous walnut grips,
which shoots exclusively standard velocity .22-caliber long rifle ammunition.
It is not concealable, nor does it fit a holster, and it would be virtually
useless in combat even in the hands of an expert, though for certain
professional assassins it would be the weapon of choice to murder an
unsuspecting or helpless victim at close range with minimal noise and mess.]
    My father's rationalization for arming himself did not match his choice
of pistol. Furthermore, he taught his two sons to shoot it, but not his two
daughters, so this was plainly an activity, even a duty, of maleness.
Meanwhile, boys at the private school I attended carried homemade zip guns
and switchblade knives in vicarious imitation of Blackboard Jungle public
school culture as we imagined it to be.
    If those had been all of my early experiences with firearms, I'd have
left them behind along with the rest of my parents' and middle-class peers'
values when I became a socialist in my teens. However, my elder liberal and
red mentors, intellectuals and workers alike, also were shooters.
    Hunting (rabbits, squirrels, and ducks) on fall and winter weekends, and
plinking on vacation camping trips, were typical forms of recreation for most
of the men (who also had seen combat in World War II), and for some of the
women. Their guns were mostly small revolvers, .22-caliber rifles,
.30-caliber military surplus carbines (purchased from the Director of
Civilian Marksmanship for $50 each, a government-subsidized offer exclusively
to National Rifle Association members, which was the reason so many joined),
and shotguns.
    In Illinois during the 1950s, most working-class men and a lot of women,
even city dwellers, were small game hunters at least occasionally. In the
rural areas, everyone hunted. Among casual hunters, varmint hunters were
regarded as cruel fanatics who just wanted to kill something; fox hunters, as
drunkards who imbibed while their hounds bayed at whatever animals they
scented, and made plenty of noise (dogs and fox hunters both), but rarely
brought home any pelts; and deer hunters on the prairie, as demented, as
likely to shoot themselves or be shot as to bag a buck.
    My first job was in a large downtown Chicago commercial photo, photostat,
and printing minimum-wage [then $1 per hour] sweatshop, when I was 16 years
old. The workers there were a grand mixture of African American, Mexican,
Asian, and a handful of white (recovering alcoholics, people with criminal
records, and people like myself, below the legal age for operating machinery)
men and women, bossed by an exclusively white ethnic management (of Irish and
Eastern European descent) owned by a socially prominent liberal Jewish
    Each morning a bookie would make the rounds of every department,
collecting bets on the day's thoroughbred and harness races, and paying
winners of the previous day's bets. He was generous with credit (at ten
percent a week interest ["vigorish," we called it], the pawnshop rate without
the collateral), and at times many of the workers owed him a lot of money.
Favored employees could bail out by borrowing from the company, which usually
carried them permanently, but others had to scrounge after a run of losses.
The most typical source of easy cash was the sale of guns to fellow workers.
Many guns moved from one employee's locker to another, transfering owners at
frequent intervals. I bought several for friends and comrades as they became
    One could summarize the place of guns in American society during the
1950s and early 1960s as pervasive and conventional — banal. As a married
parent commuting to Gary in 1964, I sometimes took my shotgun to work during
the fall; my fellow workers and I would then go out hunting together in the
Indiana dunes on our lunch breaks and after work. Like most of my comrades
and all of my friends at work, I bought my son a single-shot .22-caliber
rifle and taught him to shoot at age eight.
    By then, a political dimension had been added to the firearms culture,
discreetly at first. When SNCC comrades went South to organize in Alabama and
Mississippi, they took their guns along. Despite the N for Nonviolent, there
were plenty of armed clashes with the Ku Klux Klan and Americans for the
Preservation of the White Race. Hartman Turnbow became a SNCC  hero (and his
legend, a song) after he routed the KKK with his blazing shotgun. When the
Deacons for Defense and Justice emerged in Bogalusa and spread quickly to
Natchez and throughout the lower Mississippi Valley, the public presence of
an armed contingent to the Southern Freedom Movement became evident to
everyone, echoing what Robert Williams had done several years earlier in
Monroe, North Carolina. Arms became a central feature of the movement
nationally with the birth and spread of the Black Panther Party and the
Republic of New Africa.
    Yes, by 1968 and 1969 there was a tendency to romanticize weapons,
particularly among white New Leftists enamored of the Little Red Book. I
recall especially, in this connection, Clark Kissinger's gun store, Harper's
Ferry Arsenal. But after the RNA's successful armed defense of its gathering
at the New Bethel church in Detroit when police attacked, and then, in August
1971, against the dawn raid by Jackson, Mississippi, police and FBI agents,
the argument was carried by the survivors. Had they not been armed, trained,
and prepared, they would have been massacred.
    I moved to Mississippi in the fall of 1971, on the staff of the Southern
Conference Educational Fund. Among my duties was to organize white
Mississippians in solidarity with the RNA eleven who, having survived and
prevailed in the FBI-police attack (in the RNA's defensive fire, a police
lieutenant had been killed while another cop and an FBI agent were wounded),
were then in jail awaiting trial, and later were convicted and imprisoned for
most of the decade. That was certainly a daunting challenge, but we
experienced gratifying success over the next few years, not the least of
which owed to respect, even awe, for the foresight and bravery of the RNA
leaders in their preparation for the inevitable attack by armed agents of the
    Meanwhile, we on the SCEF staff were also engaged in labor organizing,
which involved us in a strike of pulpwood cutters against Masonite
Corporation and the paper trusts that spread across four states in 1972 and
1973, and in a series of strikes in broiler chicken processing factories
after that. I don't think I ever met a worker in any of those situations who
wasn't armed. Woodcutters were so poor that they typically poached game for
the dinner table as they worked. Labor organizers, from the Mississippi
AFL-CIO president on down, like civil-rights leaders, regarded carrying a
firearm as a sensible precaution.
    When I moved from Illinois to Mississippi, I brought with me a
single-shot .22-caliber pistol for target practice and a 12-gauge shotgun for
hunting. Though I had not considered political implications other than their
possible use for self-defense, my guns contributed to my acceptance among
poor and working-class Southerners who had not previously encountered SNCC
organizers or other militants during the 1960s glory years.
    By 1977, the Ku Klux Klan was resurgent for the first time in a decade,
riding the crest of a violent wave that washed across Louisiana, Mississippi,
and Alabama. We quickly identified a white sheriff, deputies, police
officers, business owners, and a Jackson Daily News editor who were Klan
members and supporters, and from whom it would have been useless to seek
sympathy or protection. Movement security once again took on a military
    After a 1978 demonstration in Tupelo, Klansmen chased a carful of
demonstrators returning to their home, forced them off the road, and beat
them with tire chains. Black marchers in Northern Alabama were bloodied twice
in encounters with the Klan. In 1979, KKK members and Nazis gunned down
demonstrators in Greensboro while television cameras filmed the massacre.
    Bennie Thompson, then the mayor of Bolton, Mississippi (today a
Representative in Congress), and I received telephoned death threats on the
eve of a march against police brutality in Jackson at which we were scheduled
speakers. I taped the threat, and a reporter friend identified the voice as
that of a violent, almost psychotic Klan organizer (who later went to prison
as a participant in the KKK's abortive mercenary invasion of Dominica).
    Although I was then employed by the American Friends Service Committee, a
Quaker pacifist organization, I went out and bought a Smith and Wesson .357
magnum revolver, which I carried for the next 16 years, the rest of my time
in Mississippi. (My AFSC superiors were good sports about this. I could not
advocate violence while "wearing my AFSC hat," they said, but I wasn't
required to be a pacifist myself. Thus, for example, when I wrote articles in
left publications that were sympathetic to armed struggle, I used a different
    An important activity of the early 1980s was the struggle to free Eddie
James Carthan, Tchula's first black mayor, who had been framed up on a murder
charge. By the time we won, our organizing efforts had spread around the
world, but always they were based in rural Holmes County. Often those of us
in the leadership would work out our strategy while we hunted rabbits in the
cotton rows. As we walked along behind Eddie's beagles, community people
would join us one by one, until the fields were filled with a mostly black
army. It was easy to see what the planters feared.

(continued in Part 2)

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