- Negroes With Guns: Rob Williams and the Roots of Black Power
In Negroes With Guns: Rob Williams and the Roots of Black Power, directors Sandra Dickson and Churchill Roberts have created an exciting introductory portrait of one of the most significant, but largely forgotten, early advocates of armed self-defense and what would later be termed “Black Power.” In the process, they also provide viewers with a useful entry-point for a more complicated understanding of the competing tactics, techniques, and leadership styles of the early Civil Rights era. The story of Robert Williams is a powerful tonic for those who believe non-violent direct action was the only game in town.
Robert Williams was born in 1925 in Monroe, North Carolina, a small town in the heart of Ku Klux Klan country. In 1943, he moved to Detroit, Michigan, where he worked in the auto industry and fought in the largest race riot of the WWII era. After serving in a Jim Crow Army unit for eighteen months from 1944 to 1945, Williams returned to Monroe and married Mabel Robinson. During the late-1950s, he organized one of the few working-class NAACP chapters in the country and led local people in several campaigns against segregated public facilities. He also put together a successful international media campaign to free two young African-American boys who had been condemned to the reformatory indefinitely after exchanging an innocent kiss with a white girl during a children’s game. [End Page 76]
Frustrated by entrenched white supremacy, pervasive segregation, relentless Klan violence, and persistent inaction by local law enforcement officials and judges, Williams advocated “armed self-reliance,” a stance that put him at the center of a national debate over strategy within the civil-rights movement. Referring to the dire circumstances in Monroe, Williams explained, “To us, there was no Constitution, no such thing as moral persuasion—the only thing left for us was the bullet.” It was not that Williams opposed nonviolent direct action. In fact, he used it throughout his career as a civil-rights leader. Rather, Williams believed that different situations demanded different tactics. So, while Williams petitioned, negotiated, marched, picketed, and sat-in, he also always carried a pistol and organized the Black Guard, a self-defense force that shot it out with the Klan on more than one occasion. According to Yusef Crowder, a member of the guard, “We were never looking for trouble. As long as you’re peaceful, we’re peaceful, but if you become violent, we have to become violent. We weren’t attacking anybody or fighting against anybody, just protecting ourselves.” Williams often argued that in places like Monroe it was the possibility of armed retaliation by African Americans that, paradoxically, ensured non-violence from hostile white supremacists. Knowing that they, too, might face injury or death, whites thought twice before attacking black residents and civil-rights activists.
Williams’s public advocacy of armed self-defense created a firestorm within the movement that culminated in 1959 at the NAACP’s 50th-anniversary convention. One after another, forty speakers rose to denounce Williams in what might best be described as a show-trial (for whites as well as blacks). In the end, the group voted to suspend the fiery leader, even though the organization had, in fact, consistently endorsed self-defense throughout its history.
In 1961, as the furor over armed self-defense continued, a group of Freedom Riders came to Monroe to prove the effectiveness of non-violence on Williams’s home turf. When whites attacked the demonstrators and the FBI trumped up kidnapping charges against Williams, he and his family fled to Cuba. There Williams wrote an influential autobiography, broadcast an incendiary radio program into the American South, and continued to publish a newspaper on racial justice. During the mid-Sixties, Williams and his family moved to revolutionary China before returning to the United States in 1969. By this time, Robert Williams had become an important influence on...