A few months into Ronald Reagan's first term as governor of California, 24 members of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense marched into the state Capitol in Sacramento brandishing .357 Magnums, .45-caliber pistols and 12-gauge shotguns.
They were an orderly militia of black people, both men and women, demanding recognition of their Second Amendment rights. They wanted to protect themselves against what they called a racist white establishment and police state.
The group's leader, a fiery young man named Bobby Seale who would never be mistaken for a Martin Luther King groupie, read from a statement that sent a chill down many a conservative Republican's back in 1967:
"The American people in general and black people in particular must take careful note of the racist California legislature aimed at keeping the black people disarmed and powerless. Black people have begged, prayed, petitioned, demonstrated and everything else to get the racist power structure of America to right the wrongs which have historically been perpetuated against black people. The time has come for black people to arm themselves against this terror before it is too late."
The Panthers had a long list of grievances that Gov. Reagan didn't feel particularly obliged to respect in the 1960s. It didn't take long for the Gipper to become a believer in the kind of selective gun control that would keep guns in those pre-semi-automatic days out of the hands of black folks already partial to leather jackets and black shades.
For their part, the Panthers had been inspired by "Negroes with Guns," a 1962 book by Robert Franklin Williams that chronicled a black community's struggle to arm itself against Klan terror in Monroe, N.C. There was nothing in the Panthers' interpretation of the Second Amendment that wouldn't sound familiar to a National Rifle Association member stocking up on high-powered weapons because he fears the coming occupation of the American heartland by the forces of the United Nations.
But at the time, the NRA saw the wisdom of keeping its head down and allowing gun control to go forward that limited the Panthers' ability to arm party members. Within a decade, the group would be politically and materially decimated, the movement stalled and most of its leaders dead or in jail. A fear of armed black men rising up against the system overwhelmed the NRA's fidelity to the Second Amendment. The association got out of the way as a wave of gun control legislation took root, especially after the assassinations of King and Robert Kennedy in 1968.
Today, if Seale, Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver wanted to march fully armed through the halls of the California Capitol or even the halls of the U.S. Congress, they would have the NRA's full and unequivocal support. Perhaps chastened by its selective support of gun laws that disproportionately kept guns out of black hands half a century ago, the NRA has come around to embracing the cause of unrestricted gun ownership as a civil rights issue.
Recently, former NRA president Marion Hammer put flesh on the association's outrageous talking point by equating California Sen. Dianne Feinstein's proposed ban on assault weapons and large clips and magazines with racial discrimination.
"Well, you know," Ms. Hammer told talk show host Ginny Simone last week, "banning people and things because of the way they look went out a long time ago. But here they are again. The color of a gun. The way it looks. It's just bad politics."
Where former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney lost no time in reminding us that "corporations are people, too," Ms. Hammer sees an intolerable burden in being a "black" weapon of mass destruction. This opens up a truly novel vista in the never-ending battle for civil rights.
Following Ms. Hammer's logic, one imagines semi-automatics attempting to peacefully integrate public lunch counters only to be spat upon by anti-gun zealots. In Ms. Hammer's world, Bushmasters are denied entrance to schools by principals who arrogantly declare their fiefdoms "gun-free zones" while blocking the entrances as brazenly as Alabama Gov. George Wallace once did.
The NRA may have blown an opportunity to help the Panthers in their constitutional time of need, but it has no intention of repeating that mistake. Every citizen -- no matter how criminal-minded, mentally ill, racist or temperamentally unfit -- has a right to own and brandish an assault weapon if he chooses. This is a country where the content of one's character isn't half as important as the strength of one's trigger finger.