FILE – In this April 3, 1968 file photo, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stands with other civil rights leaders on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., a day before he was assassinated at approximately the same place. From left are Hosea Williams, Jesse Jackson, King, and Ralph Abernathy. King is one of America’s most famous victims of gun violence. Just as guns were a complicated issue for King in his lifetime, they loom large over the 30th anniversary of the holiday honoring his birthday. (AP Photo, File)
Martin Luther King Jr. was surrounded by guns, even though he didn’t like them.
At times, armed foot soldiers protected the Baptist preacher and his family. As he led protests across the rural South, King often stood in proximity of guns — wielded by local police, state troopers or hostile people in the crowds.
On April 4, 1968, King became one of America’s most famous victims of gun violence.
Just as guns were a complicated issue for King in his lifetime, they loom large over the 30th anniversary of the holiday honoring his birthday. Urban violence, mass shootings and killings of unarmed black males by police have caused alarm, touched off protests and revived the nation’s conversation about gun control. President Barack Obama recently took executive action to tighten federal gun restrictions, invoking King as he urged citizens to press for change.
“There is nothing in the history that suggests that Martin Luther King felt that guns weren’t useful for self-defense,” said Adam Winkler, UCLA law professor and author of the book “Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America.” “Clearly, guns were used protect (King) King simply did not engage in it.
“He decided he was not going to have a gun, and he didn’t want anybody with guns around him,” Young said.
In his book, Winkler writes that after the 1956 bombing, which occurred during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, King applied for a concealed carry permit. He was denied by a county sheriff.
That incident has led some to embrace King as a supporter of the Second Amendment. In 2014, commentator Colion Noir posted a video on NRANews.com citing King’s gun permit application as proof that he was not opposed to guns.
“Dr. King was a nonviolent man, but even he understood the realities of self-defense and protecting his home and his family in the face of life-threatening violence,” said Noir.
After President John Kennedy was killed in 1963, Young recalled King telling him: “Guns are going to be the death of this country.”
“He said, Kennedy had Secret Service around him with guns and they couldn’t protect him, which says guns can’t protect you,” Young said.
According to a compilation of King’s writings and speeches by Stanford University historian Clayborne Carson, King said in November 1963 that Kennedy’s assassination could be blamed in part on Americans’ casual attitudes about gun violence.
King said: “By our readiness to allow arms to be purchased at will and fired at whim, by allowing our movie and television screens to teach our children that the hero is one who masters the art of shooting and the technique of killing, by allowing all these developments, we have created an atmosphere in which violence and hatred have become popular pastimes.”
King’s nonviolent mentality stood in stark contrast to those armed, hate-filled whites who showed up peaceful protests, and the more radical black groups that emerged later, said King biographer Taylor Branch.
“Even after black power made guns kind of popular in the radical movement, King said he would never carry a gun,” Branch said. “He rejected all forms of violence and got stronger on it as he went along.”
Cobb, however, said many of King’s followers “felt their duty was to protect the movement, grab a rifle” and drive away threats.
“They didn’t see any contradiction between saying they were part of the nonviolent movement and keeping their weapons clean and ready,” Cobb said.