Most know about Martin Luther King Jr. and his nonviolent civil protests. What most don’t know was that he believed in Americans’ right to bear arms, as outlined in the Second Amendment, and even once possessed “an arsenal,” posted armed guards and applied for a concealed weapons permit.
Before talking about King bearing arms, a lot of people love to throw out the disclaimer that it was before he was committed to the principle of passive resistance. Nevertheless, in the mid-1950s, King applied for a firearm permit and amassed guns and guards to protect himself and his family.
In 1955, several Montgomery churches were bombed and set ablaze. Rosa Parks was arrested for violating laws that mandated racial segregation on buses. And in neighboring Mississippi, Rev. George Lee was fatally shot after attempting to register to vote, and voting rights activist Lamar Smith was also murdered.
On Jan. 30, 1956, in retaliation for the success of the Montgomery bus boycott, Martin Luther King’s house was bombed by segregationists. King was at a meeting, but his wife and seven-week-old daughter were at home, though uninjured.
King came home to 300 angry people outside his home, many of whom were his congregants, ready to avenge him. However, King said to them, “If you have weapons, take them home; if you do not have them, please do not seek them. We cannot solve this problem through violence. We must meet violence with nonviolence. Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, [and] pray for them that despitefully use you.”
Interestingly, at the very same time, King protected his own home and family not only with guns but also with armed guards.
Dr. Adam Winkler, a professor of constitutional law at UCLA and author of “Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America,” explained, “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.”
Dr. Winkler added, “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.'”
Notice King balanced and drew a distinction between what he knew would bring success to his civil rights movement (non-violent resistance and love) and what would protect him and his home (violent resistance and guns). He was more concerned as a family man than a civil leader, and carried out the success and protection of each differently.
That is why Dr. Winkler gleaned, “One lesson the gun advocates took from the early King and his more aggressive followers: If the police can’t (or won’t) protect you, a gun may be your last line of defense.”
King did not acquire his concealed carry permit because of prejudicial reasons, but that didn’t stop him from trying and applying. While Rosa Parks was pushing the bounds of buses, King was pushing the borders of bullets by requesting state authorities grant him a firearm permit because his life was threatened daily, clearly meeting the law’s requirements.
After he was assassinated, the first major federal gun control since the 1930s, the Gun Control Act of 1968, was passed. From that point onward, progressives have used civil right sentiment as a weapon to dismantle rather than justify Americans’ Second Amendment rights.
No one really knows if King would have given up any hope of armed self-defense if he would have been able to acquire his firearm permit. Or put in another way, as Dr. Winkler concluded, “Whether a broader acceptance of the King’s later pacifism would have made us safer than choosing guns, we will never know.”
Again, people love to show how King altered some of his self-defense views later in life, but the facts are what they are. When it came to self-defense, as a man of the cloth in the 1950s, King, so to speak, held the Bible in one hand and a gun in the other.
Even Jesus, while encouraging refrain from personal retaliation, still believed in self-defense as he told his disciples: “Whoever has no sword is to sell his coat and buy one” (Luke 22:36).
So, maybe the answer isn’t “either or” but “both and,” when it comes to balancing faith and self-defense. As the Good Book prescribes: “But we prayed to our God and because of [our enemies] we set up a guard against them day and night” (Nehemiah 4:9).
It is not a coincidence that our Founders erected the First and Second Amendments in the chief positions they are: The freedom of religion and the right to bear arms, side by side, protecting each other.