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Tom Kertscher
By Tom Kertscher June 5, 2013

NRA founded to fight KKK, black leader says

On May 28, 2013, the Republican Party of Milwaukee County posted on its website a video that has been popping up elsewhere on the Internet.

The video features African-American leaders speaking out against proposals to restrict gun rights at a Feb. 22, 2013 news conference in Washington, D.C. Among them: Harry Alford, president and chief executive officer of the D.C.-based National Black Chamber of Commerce.

Alford, who spoke in Milwaukee in 2008, said at one point:

"I want to thank the Lord for our Constitution. I also want to thank the NRA for its legacy. The National Rifle Association was started, founded by religious leaders who wanted to protect freed slaves from the Ku Klux Klan."

Well known as a defender of the right to bear arms, the 5 million-member NRA does describe itself as "America's longest-standing civil rights organization."

But is that why it was founded?

Not even close.

What the NRA says

Here’s what the NRA says on its website about its founding:

Dismayed by the lack of marksmanship shown by their troops, Union veterans Col. William C. Church and Gen. George Wingate formed the National Rifle Association in 1871. The primary goal of the association would be to "promote and encourage rifle shooting on a scientific basis," according to a magazine editorial written by Church.

After being granted a charter by the State of New York on November 17, 1871, the NRA was founded. Civil War Gen. Ambrose Burnside, who was also the former governor of Rhode Island and a U.S. senator, became the fledgling NRA's first president.

An important facet of the NRA's creation was the development of a practice ground. In 1872, with financial help from New York State, a site on Long Island, the Creed Farm, was purchased for the purpose of building a rifle range. Named Creedmoor, the range opened a year later, and it was there that the first annual matches were held.

No mention of religious leaders, slaves or the KKK.

Brief histories of the NRA by The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post contain no such mentions, either. We called and emailed the NRA to inquire about Alford’s claim, but the group offered no response. (Milwaukee County Republican Party chairman David Karst told us he wasn’t sure why the party posted the video on its website.)

Alford’s evidence

Alford’s wife, National Black Chamber of Commerce executive vice president Kay DeBow Alford, provided us three articles to back her husband’s claim.

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But none of them do.

1. A January 2013 article on, which describes itself as a platform to "engage millennials in debates about real issues," notes that the NRA founders started the group because of the Union soldiers’ poor marksmanship and it calls the NRA the oldest civil rights organization in the United States.

No mention of religious leaders founding the NRA to protect freed slaves from the KKK.

2. Ann Coulter: In an April 2012 opinion column, conservative author and commentator Ann Coulter said that when civil rights leader Robert F. Williams returned home to Monroe, N.C., after serving in World War II, the Ku Klux Klan was "beating, lynching and murdering blacks at will."

In 1957, Williams got a charter from the NRA, founded the Black Armed Guard and repeatedly thwarted KKK attacks, Coulter wrote. She didn't say whether the NRA played a role in the guard's fighting the Klan.

Again, no reference to religious leaders or slaves. And the fighting against the KKK -- whether it involved the NRA or not -- would have occurred more than 85 years after the NRA’s founding.

3. Psychology professor’s article: A January 2013 article by psychology professor Warren Throckmorton of Grove City College in Grove City, Pa., not only doesn’t support Alford’s claim, it disputes it.

Throckmorton noted that the NRA’s website makes no mention of the KKK or getting guns in the hands of newly freed slaves. He said he found no evidence in the early charter of the NRA, or the biographies of the founders, either.

Other evidence

So, even tangentially, is there anything to Alford’s statement?

Two historians -- Jerald Podair of Lawrence University in Wisconsin and Kenneth Janken of the University of North Carolina -- said there is no evidence to support the statement.

But, as an aside, here’s more information on Coulter's reference to Williams, the civil rights leader, and the KKK in North Carolina. It’s from the University of Florida-produced documentary "Negroes with Guns: Rob Williams and Black Power":

In 1956, Williams took over leadership of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which was close to disbanding due to the Ku Klux Klan. Williams filed for a charter from the NRA and formed the Black Guard, an armed group committed to the protection of blacks.

It's unclear, however, whether the NRA provided any assistance, based on what Williams' widow, Mabel, said in a University of North Carolina oral history interview.

Mabel Williams said her husband altered the occupations of the members when applying for the NRA charter. "I'm sure when we joined and the years after then, had they known we were a black group, they would have revoked our charter," she said.

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Harry Alford, the head of the National Black Chamber of Commerce, said the National Rifle Association was "founded by religious leaders who wanted to protect freed slaves from the Ku Klux Klan."

We can’t say whether he was misinformed or intended to mislead. But the NRA itself says the group was formed by Union Civil War veterans to improve soldiers’ marksmanship. And we found no evidence that religious leaders founded the NRA to protect freed slaves from the KKK.

The claim is not only inaccurate but ridiculous -- Pants on Fire.

Our Sources

Republican Party of Milwaukee County, "Black conservative leaders discuss how the NRA was created to protect freed slaves" video, posted May 28, 2013

Email interview, National Black Chamber of Commerce co-founder Kay DeBow Alford, May 29, 2013, "Surprising facts about the NRA that you never hear," January 2013, "Negroes with guns," April 18, 2012, "Was the National Rifle Association started to drive out the KKK?," Jan 17, 2013

National Rifle Association, history

Wall Street Journal, "A brief history of the NRA," Dec. 2012

Washington Post, "Timeline of the NRA," Jan. 12, 2013

Interview, Lawrence University history and American studies professor Jerald Podair, May 30, 2013

Interview, Milwaukee County Republican Party chairman David Karst, May 30, 2013

Interview, University of North Carolina African, African-American and Disapora studies professor Kenneth Janken, May 30, 2013

PBS, summary of "Negroes with Guns" documentary

University of North Carolina, Mabel Williams interview in "Oral histories of the American South"

Daily Caller, "Black conservatives: Gun control has 'racist' roots," Feb. 22, 2013

C-SPAN, video of black leaders news conference on gun control (Harry Alford quote at 21:40), Feb. 22, 2013

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NRA founded to fight KKK, black leader says

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