Memphis Blues and the Gun Lobby Insurrectionist Argument

memphis riotUnfortunately for the national discussion on gun violence and firearm safety, the Republican/NRA response has ranged from tepid (maybe we ought to think about doing something) to insurrectionist (We gotta’ keep our guns to restrain the out-a-control federal guv’ermint!).  When pressed for an example of any time in our nation’s history when “citizens” thought it necessary to attack the government there is some faltering– no one wants to bring up the American Civil War.   Call it what we will — Civil War, War Between the States, War of Northern Aggression — the era is freighted with the slavery issue.  And, dance about the issue as the unreconstructed might the cause of that war was the institution of slavery.   State’s rights? Yes, the “right of a state” to defend the Peculiar Institution.  Without referencing THE prime American example of Insurrectionism what’s a right wing gun fanatic to do?

Listen carefully when some gun lobbyist or advocate mentions the city of Memphis.

There was an “armed insurrection” against the federal government in Memphis, Tennessee,  in late April and early May of 1866.   Should gun advocates, who’ve just about dropped all pretense of defending hunting and shooting sports in favor of the Justified Insurrection argument, cite Memphis be aware this wasn’t an instance of average citizens rising up against a corrupt government — it was a racist attack on African Americans and the federal troops who were in Tennessee to defend them.

“On the evening of the 30th April 1866 several policemen (4) came down Causey Street, and meeting a number of Negroes forced them off the sidewalk. In doing so a Negro fell and a policeman stumbled over him. The police then drew their revolvers and attacked the Negroes, beating them with their pistols. Both parties then separated, deferring the settlement by mutual consent to some future time (see affidavit marked “A”). On the following day, May 1st, during the afternoon, between the hours of 3 and 5, a crowd of colored men, principally discharged soldiers, many of whom were more or less intoxicated, were assembled on South Street in South Memphis.” [Freedman’s Bureau]

There’s a recipe for trouble — white officers attack African Americans, African American veterans filled with a bit of liquid courage gather, and trouble ensues.  It didn’t take long to get ugly:

“About this time the police fired upon unoffending Negroes remote from the riotous quarter. Colored soldiers with whom the police first had trouble had returned in the meantime to Fort Pickering. The police was soon reinforced and commenced firing on the colored people, men, women and children, in that locality, killing and wounding several.”

“Shortly after, the City Recorder (John C. Creighton) arrived upon the ground (corner of Causey and Vance Streets) and in a speech which received three hearty cheers from the crowd there assembled, councilled and urged the whites to arm and kill every Negro and drive the last one from the city. Then during this night the Negroes were hunted down by police, firemen and other white citizens, shot, assaulted, robbed, and in many instances their houses searched under the pretense of hunting for concealed arms, plundered, and then set on fire, during which no resistance so far as we can learn was offered by the Negroes.” [Freedman’s Bureau]

And, then it got uglier:

“During the morning of the 2nd inst. (Wednesday) everything was perfectly quiet in the district of the disturbances of the previous day. A very few Negroes were in the streets, and none of them appeared with arms, or in any way excited except through fear. About 11 o’clock A. M. a posse of police and citizens again appeared in South Memphis and commenced an indiscriminate attack upon the Negroes, they were shot down without mercy, women suffered alike with the men, and in several instances little children were killed by these miscreants. During this day and night, with various intervals of quiet, the nuisance continued.” [Freedman’s Bureau]

If gun/insurrectionist advocates want to cite the Memphis action as “justified by the intrusion of a corrupt government,” then they need to explain that the government in question was the civil government of the city of Memphis, a formerly Confederate city the control of which was still under the jurisdiction of federal forces during Reconstruction.   And, what of the civil authorities?

The Inspector General’s report concluded:

“The Hon. John Park, Mayor of Memphis, seemed to have lost entire control of his subordinates and either through lack of inclination and sympathy with the mob, or on utter want of capacity, completely failed to suppress the riot and preserve the peace of the city. His friends offer in extenuation of his conduct, that he was in a state of intoxication during a part or most of the time and was therefore unable to perform the high and responsible functions of his office. Since the riot no official notice has been taken of the occurrence either by the Mayor or the Board of Aldermen, neither have the City Courts taken cognizance of the numerous crimes committed.” [Freedman’s Bureau]

In the end, the report totes up the costs:

“Three Negro churches were burned, also eight (8) school houses, five (5) of which belonged to the United States Government, and about fifty (50) private dwellings, owned, occupied or inhabited by freedmen as homes, and in which they had all their personal property, scanty though it be, yet valuable to them and in many instances containing the hard earnings of months of labor.

Large sums of money were taken by police and others, the amounts varying five (5) to five hundred (500) dollars, the latter being quite frequent owing to the fact that many of the colored men had just been paid off and discharged from the Army.

No dwellings occupied by white men exclusively were destroyed and we have no evidence of any white men having been robbed.” [Freedman’s Bureau]

Citing Memphis in 1866 as an example of insurrection by citizens to “rectify” injustices is to assert that a White on Black riot is a sterling example of civic action by the oppressed against an intrusive and corrupt government.  This doesn’t quite work, unless one assumes that the wanton slaying of African Americans is justified if whites think a government is oppressing them in the interest of protecting Black citizens.

Hearing someone provide Memphis as an example of armed insurrection in defense of “liberty” should cause any listener with even a mite of historical knowledge to immediately translate the reference into “The South Will Rise Again.”

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