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A Civil Rights Reading List

A Civil Rights Reading List

Photo credit: Stephen F. Somerstein/Getty Images

Today we celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And as we do so, we’d like to reflect on how his work for racial equality in America had so much to do with the right to bear arms. Do you know the story of how crucial armed self-defense was to the modern civil rights movement? Do you understand how gun control in America is rooted in a racist scheme for disarming African-Americans? 

If you have the good fortune of not working today, you have a bit of extra time to read. Either way, we hope you’ll enjoy this short suggested reading list (with one video!) for exploring the connection between gun rights and race-based civil rights. If you enjoy the online articles, consider ordering one of the books or looking for it at your local public library. 

Gun Control 

Jim Crow and the Racist Roots of Gun Control,” Dave Kopel

The Racist Roots of Gun Control,” Clayton Cramer 

Both of these articles provide good overviews of how gun control in America is rooted in the fear that oppressed African-Americans would be able to enjoy the same Second Amendment rights as white citizens. The Kopel feature is easier to digest, while the Cramer article comes from a law review and is somewhat longer and more technical.

Securing Civil Rights: Freedmen, the Fourteenth Amendment, and the Right to Bear Arms, Stephen P. Halbrook 

If you weren’t daunted by the Cramer article, give this excellent work of legal history a try. An expert on gun rights in history, Halbrook has also authored fascinating case studies of Swiss armed neutrality and gun control in Nazi Germany. Here he examines how racial factors affected gun control in the aftermath of the Civil War.

The Civil Rights Movement 

Defending Rosa Parks,” NRA staff
Deacons for Defense and Justice,” Dave Kopel
Martin Luther King Jr.,” Colion Noir 

These two articles and one video (by NRA Commentator Colion Noir) together provide a good summary of how armed self-defense was a critical part of the struggle for equality by African-Americans in this period. 

Negroes With Guns, Robert F. Williams

This 1962 classic details the rise of an armed self-defense movement founded by Robert F. Williams in Monroe, N.C. The edition featured here also includes two essays by Martin Luther King Jr. 

Negroes and the Gun: The Black Tradition of Arms, Nicholas Johnson 

With a title intended to evoke the book by Williams, this study by law professor Nicholas Johnson looks at historical gun ownership in black communities under segregation. It also carries this story into the present, examining the diversity of opinions on guns among African-Americans today. 

This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible, Charles E. Cobb Jr.

Civil rights scholar Charles E. Cobb Jr. draws on both historical research and personal experience in exploring why the movement for racial equality could not have survived without the ability for members to defend themselves with firearms. 

The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement, Lance Hill 

For a more in-depth story of the Deacons, who formed armed chapters throughout the segregated South to counter Klan intimidation campaigns, this book is a must-read.  


Enjoy this reading material, and remember that the NRA is the nation’s oldest civil-rights organization. Without the right to armed self-defense, real freedom is only a dream.

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