Civil Rights and the Right to Self-Defense Go Hand-in-Hand

Few civil rights leaders confronted Jim Crow more effectively before the rise of Martin Luther King Jr. than T.R.M. Howard (1908-1976). His commanding presence and impressive achievements made him hard to ignore. A respected surgeon, Howard was one of the wealthiest African Americans in Mississippi and headed a successful mass movement for equality under the law.

From the beginning, armed self-defense was as an essential component of the struggle.

Guns were always a key feature of Howard’s life ever since his impoverished childhood in rural Kentucky. Every Sunday his mother gave him a quarter to buy four gun shells. Her instructions were to return with either two rabbits or two squirrels, or one of each, for the dinner table. But the Howard family understood that guns were not just for getting food. They would have agreed with anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells who, in the 1890s, after blacks in nearby Paducah used guns to drive off attackers, advised that “a Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give.”

In 1942, Howard became chief surgeon at the Taborian Hospital in the all-black town of Mound Bayou, Miss., which gave affordable care with no government aid. He soon founded an insurance company, a hospital, a home construction firm, and a 1,000-acre plantation where he raised cattle, quail, hunting dogs, and cotton. He also built a small zoo and a park, as well as the first swimming pool in Mississippi for blacks.

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