"...the Winchester Rifle was a potent rhetorical tool."

Professor Nicolas Johnson continues his series of blog posts at the Volokh Conspiracy about his book, and the too-little talked about Black tradition of arms:

Twice within one month, lynch mobs formed, one in Paducah, Kentucky, another in Jacksonville, Florida. Square in their sights were hapless Negroes who were on track to the same fate as many others before them. But in both cases, the mobs were thwarted by armed Blacks, though the record demands some speculation about how many of their guns were actually Winchester rifles. Other similar episodes in Mississippi and Georgia confirmed for Ida Wells the importance of armed self-defense in an environment where the idea of relying on the state for personal security or anything else was an increasingly absurd proposition.

For Wells and for many of her contemporaries — the “New Negroes” of the late nineteenth century — the Winchester Rifle was a potent rhetorical tool. At a meeting of the Afro-American Press Association, fiery editor of the New York Age, T. Thomas Fortune, spurred by a recent spate of lynchings erupted, “We have cringed and crawled long enough. I don’t want any more ‘good niggers.’ I want ‘bad niggers.’ It’s the ‘bad nigger’ with the Winchester who can defend his home and child and wife.” W. A. Pledger of the Atlanta Age followed Fortune on the dais and affirmed the sentiments of the group that terrorists were “afraid to lynch us where they know the Black man is standing behind the door with a Winchester.”

But the Winchester was more than just a rhetorical tool of militant journalists. In Memphis, after the lynching of Ida Wells’ good friend Tom Moss, Reverend Taylor Nightingale pressed his congregation all to buy Winchesters as a practical response to the surrounding threats. And from the Black settlements of the west comes the report that “the colored men of Oklahoma Territory mean business. They have an exalted ideal of their own rights and liberties and they dare to maintain them. In nearly every cabin visited was a modern Winchester oiled and ready for use.”


Then as now targeted minorities can only survive the depredations of oppressive majorities with the credible threat of armed self-defense. It’s too bad that the only thing the general media every wants to discuss is crime-related, when the American tradition is so much richer than that, across so many segments of our storied melting pot.

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