America lost a civil rights icon and a true free thinker with the death of Roy Innis on Jan. 8.
For the NRA, his departure was personal. Mr. Innis served on the NRA’s Board of Directors for nearly 25 years and was a friend to many within the organization. For the nation at large, he was a champion of freedom who exemplified the courage of a man who follows his own convictions.
Born June 6, 1934 in Saint Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, Roy Emile Alfredo Innis moved with his mother to New York City in 1947 (his father, a police officer, died when Roy was 6 years old). From ages 16 to 18, he served in the U.S. Army and was honorably discharged. He went on to study chemistry at the City College of New York.
Innis became active in the civil rights struggle during the tumultuous 1960s. Although he claimed he initially joined the Harlem Chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to spend more time with his girlfriend, he distinguished himself as a member and became the organization’s national director in 1968. He would continue to lead CORE until his death.
Roy Innis’s views on the best path to equality and achievement for African Americans often diverged from other civil rights figures of his day. After two of his sons were murdered with firearms in New York City – Roy Jr., 13, in 1968, and Alexander, 26, in 1982 – he became an advocate for self-defense and an opponent of gun control. “Roy's passing leaves a huge void for the NRA and his many good friends among the NRA family,” NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre said in tribute. “Rest in peace, my friend.”
By disarming law abiding citizens the government aids and abets crime, he explained to the New York Times. He counseled other African Americans that gun control “was not meant to protect your safety; it was meant to deprive you of your freedom.”
These views led him to become a life member of the National Rifle Association, and he was eventually elected to its board of directors.
Innis was a talented amateur boxer and never one to shy away from any sort of confrontation. He famously manhandled a member of a white supremacist group who insulted him with a racial epithet on the Geraldo Show in 1988 and scuffled with Al Sharpton during another television appearance that same year. Innis would later insist that he and Sharpton were friends both before and after the incident.
But it was his tendency to embrace conservative and libertarian principles and his support for constitutional originalism that most distinguished his later activism from that of other civil rights figures of the 1960s.
About this, Mr. Innis was unapologetic. “My brand of conservatism is the traditional, most decent and rational expression of the American personality,” he told the New York Times in 1996. ''I believe that the success of America has been the application of pragmatism in society, and that view is particularly unfashionable in the civil rights movement.''
In this regard, he followed a similar path to Charlton Heston, who marched in support of civil rights with Martin Luther King, Jr. in Washington, D.C. in 1963 and later became an iconic NRA president.
During a roundtable about the march, Heston stated:
Two years ago, I picketed some restaurants in Oklahoma, but with that one exception -- up until very recently -- like most Americans I expressed my support of civil rights largely by talking about it at cocktail parties, I’m afraid. But again like many Americans this summer, I could no longer pay only lip service to a cause that was so urgently right, and in a time that is so urgently now.
Like Heston, Innis championed controversial causes at times and in ways in which doing so was not comfortable or easy and at the risk of serious personal consequences. Wherever elite or fashionable opinion might have been at any given moment, both were fiercely committed to their own conscience and sense of right and wrong.
That made both a natural fit with the National Rifle Association of America. And that means the loss of Roy Innis will be felt that much more keenly by NRA members and all who appreciate rugged individualism and a constant striving toward a better America for all.
“Roy's passing leaves a huge void for the NRA and his many good friends among the NRA family,” NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre said in tribute. “Rest in peace, my friend.”