Now there’s a headline I never imagined writing, but journalist J. Coyden Palmer of the Chicago Crusader has an idea that gun owners everywhere should get behind: naming a school for Second Amendment activist Otis McDonald, the Chicago resident who challenged the city’s ban on handguns in court and eventually won his case when the Supreme Court ruled that the ban violated McDonald’s right to keep a gun in his home for self-defense.
As Palmer notes, the Chicago Public Schools announced last December that it was going to look into renaming schools that bear the name of slaveholders. Now, regardless of what you think of that decision, Palmer makes a great case in favor of honoring McDonald for his civil rights activism to ensure that the Second Amendment rights of residents weren’t denied to them.
You would think a man like this deserves a statue, a commemorative street sign, a school named after him, hell, just an acknowledgment by African American lawmakers in Chicago. Instead, many have no clue who he was and those that do, may not see him as a hero. But make no doubt about it, McDonald was a true American hero.
Shortly after his victory in court, I had the honor of meeting McDonald in person as he granted me an interview at his home. That one interview has spawned a relationship with his family that lasts to this day. Even as McDonald’s health began to fail him in 2014, we still kept in touch. I was the only reporter invited to speak with him on his death bed at Holy Cross Hospital. That conversation was off the record, personal and memorable. He had only days left to live and couldn’t speak much, but we were able to communicate and he was grateful, a young Black reporter was telling the important story of gun rights for Black people. I made a promise to him that I would forever cover gun rights and bring the truths about it to Black Americans. I told him how personally grateful I was that he allowed himself to be the lead plaintiff in a landmark case. I thanked him for standing up and taking on the City of Chicago, when others were afraid to. I thanked him for signing a personal copy of his book “An Act of Bravery: Otis W. McDonald and the Second Amendment.” I thanked him for inviting me into this home, family and life. I thanked him for being one of the tips on the spears that moved the Black community forward.
When McDonald passed away seven years ago, Second Amendment advocates lauded him for his courage and bravery in challenging the city’s gun ban, and even the Chicago Tribune memorialized McDonald in a surprisingly sympathetic obituary.
“His love for family drove him,” said his nephew Fred Jones. “He loved the Second Amendment but he was more concerned about protecting his family, and the Second Amendment was the avenue to help him do that.”
But he was also driven by a force much deeper. Mr. McDonald felt strongly that he had a duty to stand up for the rights that had been taken away from African-Americans during slavery. As he and his wife, Laura, sat in the Supreme Court gallery listening to oral arguments in the lawsuit, it reaffirmed what he felt was his calling.
In an interview with the Tribune after winning the suit, Mr. McDonald said the journey had been a lesson in history. He had come to understand more about his ancestors and the “slave codes” enacted in Southern states during the Civil War that prohibited slaves from owning guns. After slavery was abolished, states adopted “black codes” that kept guns out of the hands of freed blacks.
“There was a wrong done a long time ago that dates back to slavery time,” he said in the interview. “I could feel the spirit of those people running through me as I sat in the Supreme Court.”
McDonald was an amazing man and an American success story. The son of sharecroppers, McDonald left school at age 14, but ended up earning his associates degree while working at the University of Chicago as a maintenance engineer before retiring in 1996. He left behind a family who loved him dearly, friends who admired him greatly, and a Second Amendment community that was proud to call him one of their own.
J. Coyden Palmer is right. The city of Chicago should honor Otis McDonald; for his Second Amendment activism, for a life well-lived, and for the inspiration that he continues to provide gun owners and civil rights activists to this day.
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