Martin Luther King, Civil Rights, and Guns
By Damon W. Root
Most people think King would be the last person to own a gun. Yet in the mid-1950s, as the civil rights movement heated up, King kept firearms for self-protection. In fact, he even applied for a permit to carry a concealed weapon.
A recipient of constant death threats, King had armed supporters take turns guarding his home and family. He had good reason to fear that the Klan in Alabama was targeting him for assassination.
William Worthy, a journalist who covered the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, reported that once, during a visit to King's parsonage, he went to sit down on an armchair in the living room and, to his surprise, almost sat on a loaded gun. Glenn Smiley, an adviser to King, described King's home as "an arsenal."
There’s nothing unusual about this. Many civil rights activists—including those who publicly engaged in non-violent forms of resistance—kept guns for self-defense. T.R.M. Howard, the Mississippi doctor and mutual aid leader who founded the pioneering Regional Council of Negro Leadership, slept with a Thompson submachine gun at the foot of his bed. During the murder trial that followed the horrific lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till, Howard escorted Till’s grieving mother and various others to and from the courthouse in a heavily-armed caravan.
Similarly, John R. Salter, one of the organizers of the famous 1963 sit-ins against segregated lunch counters in Jackson, Mississippi, said he always “traveled armed” while working as a civil rights organizer in the South. “I'm alive today because of the Second Amendment and the natural right to keep and bear arms,” Salter said.