If Only They Had Been Armed

By Robert Hockett

       A certain rightwing radio 'personality' with a for-some-reason perpetually wheezy, windbaggy voice and a wide following has apparently undertaken to illuminate for us the true significance of the Martin Luther King holiday as celebrated this year: It is that the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees what Americans of African descent should have regarded as one of the most important civil rights of all in the 1950s and 1960s - the right to take up arms. Had they but carried firearms, this personality excitedly suggests, 'they would [not] have needed Selma.'

       It scarcely needs pointing out that the ironies here simply abound. For one thing, of course, the very reason we celebrate Dr. King, his movement, and their legacy in the way that we do as a nation is that, like the Mahatma whose example he and his followers followed, Dr. King expressly eschewed violent means of attaining political rights-recognition. We do not, for example, celebrate the legacy of Malcom X with a national holiday - justly or otherwise - and that surely is owing to his adovacy of rights-vindication 'by any means necessary,' armed means among them. Perhaps the rightwing radio personality believes we should correct for that error now? (For the record, I think that we can learn a great deal from Malcom X and the arc of his life, what ever we think of the justice or otherwise of armed resistance to Jim Crow and cognate abominations that were abundant until only recently.)

       A second and related irony is that, as the windy rightwing radio personality surely remembers at least as well as those of us who were children or not even born at the time, there were well known armed wings of the progressive and civil rights movements back in the day of Dr. King, as well as in the years immediately following his assassination by an armed rightwing racist. The excesses of some representatives of these wings were, of course, causes celebre among those who voted-in the conservative reaction represented first by Barry Goldwater, then by Ronald Reagan in late 1960s California and Richard Nixon in the 1968 presidential election. The likes of Goldwater, Reagan, and Nixon, in other words, presented themselves as leaders of reaction against precisely the sorts of 'Second-Amendment-vindicating' action that our perpetually breathless radio personality now purports to endorse.

       Finally, a third and again related irony has to do with the aforementioned Messrs. Reagan and Nixon. A seemingly forgotten bit of the later 1960s is the degree to which serious gun control legislation actually originated in this period largely on the initiative of Republican and other conservative politicians alarmed by the rise of armed leftist groups. Nixon famously called guns 'an abomination,' and Reagan promoted gun control legislation in 1967 as Governor of California, for example, in response to armed Black Panther Party appearances at polling stations in defense of African American voting rights - this apparently in response to Republican and other rightwingers' routine harrassment of minority voters earlier in the decade. (The man who Nixon later named Justice and Reagan named Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, William Rehnquist, was of course notoriously among those accused - though, one must add, said by others to be innocent - of the latter.)

       All of these ironies, I think, can be viewed as expressions of a larger irony oft-noted in recent years in connection with the rise of rightwing whackjobbery: namely, the remarkable degree to which those who call themselve 'liberals' and 'progressives' are actually today's conservatives - at least in the Burkean sense of that word - while self-labeled 'conservatives' are among the principal sources of subversion in contemporary America. That is true, remarkably enough, even where 'arming for revolution' - once a catchphrase of the left - is concerned. Anyone who doubts this should take a gander at this recent empirical study produced by a U.S. military thinktank.

       Thank you, Dr. King - and may you forgive us.

Cross-Posted at Religious Left Law