by Bill Batson
Would you be surprised to know that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. applied for a concealed carry gun permit? In his fascinating essay “The Secret History of Guns,” Adam Winkler recounts that after King’s Montgomery, Alabama home was fire-bombed in 1956, he applied for a pistol license. Less shockingly, he was denied. If King had not been shot down in Memphis, Tennessee in 1968, he would surely be speaking out for gun control today. Detractors might have tried to use his Alabama gun application against him. I would have argued that this fact made him an even more reasonable advocate for sensible reform. His voice is sorely missed.
Vice President Joe Biden will use today, what would have been King’s 84th birthday, as the occasion to preview the Obama Administration’s gun reform proposals. Barack Obama’s second Presidential inauguration will take place on the National Holiday honoring King’s Birthday. What a perfect day to speak to the issue of gun violence to a nation that is still grieving from the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School at Newtown, Connecticut.
Not to give any credence to this overt attempt to inflame opinions on both sides of the gun control debate, but there was in fact a moment when King had an appreciation for guns. Glenn Smiley, a representative of the Nyack-based Fellowship of Reconciliation, an organization that supported the Montgomery Bus Boycott described the home where King lived during the passive resistance struggle as “an arsenal.” The weapons were probably owned by southern supporters of King who were raised in a culture where gun ownership was not only common, but expected.
For every day of the 381-day campaign to integrate the southern city’s public transportation system, Dr. King and his family were under a constant threat of physical violence. Apparently, in a moment of desperation, Rev. King considered obtaining a weapon to protect his wife and children, even while urging African Americans to reject violence as a means to combat unrelenting generational oppression.
When I learned this uncharacteristic detail of King’s life, I wasn’t disappointed, I was heartened. It made this historic figure easier to comprehend in human terms. This revelation also gave me a sense of what Dr. King might add to our current debate on gun control. Because of his experience in Montgomery, I think he would have staked out a position close to the one taken by New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow who wrote recently “we must be clear that we are not talking about prohibition and confiscation [of guns], but about de-escalation — in both the volume and lethal efficiency — and accountability.”
How different would our country be if the authorities in Montgomery had issued Dr. King a permit to carry a gun? Would he have been unable to fully embrace the cause of non-violence that eventually won him the Nobel Peace Prize. (An award founded by the inventor of dynamite, Alfred Nobel.)
But King chose a more enlightened path. With the success of the Montgomery bus boycott and the eventual passage of the Voting Rights Act, all accomplished non-violently, the only kind of gun that Dr. King would have wanted to own would be a replica of the iconic sculpture featured in this week’s sketch.
This bronze cast of a Colt Python .357 Magnum with a knotted barrel is called “Non-Violence” and was created by Swedish artist Carl Fredrik Reutersward. It was given to the United Nations by the government of Luxembourg in 1988. The artwork was inspired by the shooting death on December 8, 1980 of the sculptor’s friend, John Lennon.
Bill Batson is an activist, artist and writer who lives and sketches in Nyack, NY. Nyack Sketch Log: ” Dr. King Almost Owned a Gun” © 2013 Bill Batson.