Anyone who has ever seen a film or documentary depicting the violent atrocities that routinely occurred during the Civil Rights movement in America knows the scene well: a young black boy looks at a white woman in a way that makes her uncomfortable. A black woman walks home alone past a group of white boys. A civil rights leader angers the wrong group of businessmen in town, and violence erupts in the form of lynchings, rapes, burning crosses, murder …
Inspired by Gandhi’s success with non-violence and passive resistance in India’s struggles, we know that Martin Luther King Jr. became the leader of the Civil Rights Movement by encouraging passive resistance. But these were violent times, the type of violence that is hard to imagine in 2014. Perhaps the closest we can come to understanding it is to imagine a different Oscar Grant being killed by police every night, or a new George Zimmerman being acquitted after murdering an innocent boy every week. People in the South, especially, were violence-weary, constantly on guard. Something had to be done.
I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama… I remember my father having to have guns at his disposal at all times, because of the fact that, at any moment, we might expect to be attacked. The man who was, at that time, in complete control of the city government, his name was Bull Connor, would often get on the radio and make statements like, “niggers have moved into a white neighborhood. We better expect some bloodshed tonight.” And sure enough, there would be bloodshed… in my neighborhood, all the men organized themselves into an armed patrol. They had to take their guns and patrol our community every night. – Angela Davis, Black Power Mixtape
Robert F. Williams was a civil rights leader and author of whom you have probably heard very little if anything. Before the days of “by any means necessary”, Williams taught black Americans self-defense and how to fight back against those that would attack them. He started as the President of a local NAACP chapter in Monroe, North Carolina. Monroe was a hotbed of activity during the Civil Rights Movement because it was deeply segregated. Through Williams’ leadership, the local NAACP chapter managed to grow from six members to more than 200. Yet with a population of 12,000, Monroe, NC boasted at least 7,500 Ku Klux Klan supporters.
After their rallies they would drive through our community in motorcades and they would honk their horns and fire pistols from the car windows. On one occasion, they caught a colored woman on an isolated street corner and they made her dance at pistol point. – The Swimming Pool Showdown
The Monroe chapter had the reputation of being the most militant NAACP chapter, and for good reason. They started a campaign of self-defense when they began arming themselves to combat against the onslaught of violence. Williams wrote the National Rifle Association and asked for a charter, which he received. Within a year they had 60 members. Eventually the violence came to a head and a shoot out ensued. The Klan lost. Roberts’ self-defense campaign successfully pushed them out of the county. It was 1957. Williams was eventually suspended from his role in the NAACP for promoting violence, which was directly at odds with the mainstream Civil Rights Movement. He also found himself at odds with Martin Luther King Jr. when King declined to join the Freedom Rides, an important campaign in the fight to desegregate the south.
No sincere leader asks his followers to make sacrifices that he himself will not endure. You are a phony.… If you lack the courage, remove yourself from the vanguard.… Now is the time for true leaders to take to the field of battle. - Robert F. Williams via telegram to Martin Luther King Jr.
During the first Freedom Summer, as the violence from the Klan increased against the Freedom Riders, Williams and his wife came to the rescue of two of the activists. They were later framed for the kidnapping of the activists. As a result, he and his wife fled to Cuba where they remained for several years in exile.
From Cuba, Williams sent a weekly newspaper, The Crusader, back to the States. The Crusader denounced capitalism, imperialism, racism and eventually Vietnam. It was also during this time that Williams penned the book that would become an enormous influence on Huey P. Newton, founder of the Black Panther Party: Negroes With Guns. Negroes With Guns tells the story of Williams’ struggle in Monroe to his exile in Cuba. It teaches about fighting back against an oppressor and encourages Black Power.
There is a sad irony in what became of Williams legacy. He is either forgotten because we choose not to remember militancy — we are taught that turning the other cheek is the only way to change things — or his legacy has been twisted and bastardized to suit a different agenda. While researching for this piece, I saw gun enthusiasts quoting his book and spouting off about their 2nd amendment rights. I wondered if these are the same type of people that support ridiculous laws such as Florida, Texas and Indiana’s Stand Your Ground laws. The type of laws that allow you to shoot first if you feel threatened and ask questions later. I wonder if the same people that point to Williams and say, “See, here’s a black guy that said guns are ok!” are the same type of people that thought shooting Renisha McBride in the head was justified when she knocked on a door in a predominately white neighborhood to ask for help.
You may ask, isn’t violence violence? Whether in self-defense or not? My response?
When someone asks me about violence, I just find it incredible, because what it means is that the person who’s asking that question has absolutely no idea what black people have gone through, what black people have experienced in this country, since the time the first black person was kidnapped from the shores of Africa. – Angela Davis, Black Power Mixtape
You can buy a copy of Negroes With Guns at Amazon.com. You can buy the documentary about Robert F. Williams’ life at California Newsreel. You can stream Black Power Mixtape at Netflix. Happy Black History Month!