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Film chronicles civil rights leader Rob Williams
The debate over nonviolence

Review by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor | February 24, 2006 | Page 13

Negroes with Guns: Rob Williams and Black Power, directed by Sandra Dickson and Churchill Roberts, 2005. Copies available at

"WE MUST be willing to kill if necessary. We cannot take these people who do us injustice to the court and it becomes necessary to punish them ourselves...we cannot rely on the law.

"We get no justice under the current system. If we feel that injustice is done, we must right then and there on the spot be prepared to inflict punishment on these people...Since the federal government will not bring a halt to lynching in the South and since the so-called courts lynch our people legally, if it's necessary to stop lynching with lynching, then we must be willing to use this method."

This wasn't a quote from Malcolm X or the Black Panther Party for Self- Defense. The statement was made by little-known Black activist Robert Williams in 1959.

He made the remarks to reporters in Monroe, N.C., after a white man was acquitted of brutalizing and attempting to rape a Black woman--an event that happened in front of several witnesses.

Williams became the symbol of Black militancy well before the late 1960s. His contributions, which have largely been ignored, are chronicled in a documentary showing on PBS stations this month called Negroes with Guns, named after Williams' 1962 book.

While the civil rights movement continues to be heralded for its nonviolence in the face of white supremacist terrorism, debates raged over the right to armed self-defense throughout the main civil rights organizations of the day.

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. argued that the strategy of nonviolence would expose the brutality of Southern racism and Jim Crow. Williams argued that Blacks had always been nonviolent, which he described as "sado-masochism," and that submission in the face of attack was humiliating and invited more attacks.

Williams came of age in the post-Second World War economic expansion and expected more than previous generations of Blacks. In 1943, at the age of 18, he moved to Detroit to live with relatives who'd migrated there to get auto industry jobs.

Here, he first came into contact with socialists and radicals--relationships he would maintain for most of his life. In the summer of that year, 5,000 white sailors formed a roving mob that went on the rampage against local Blacks. Williams was caught up in the riot as confident Blacks fought back.

After a stint in the military, Williams returned to Monroe, N.C., where he became active in the local chapter of the NAACP--recruiting Black veterans and women. His NAACP chapter organized against segregation--including a highly publicized fight to integrate a swimming pool.

Tensions came to a boil in the town in the aftermath of the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. Local white business leaders helped to re-organize a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, with rallies numbering as many as 16,000 attendees.

When the Klan organized a motorcade to come through the Black area of town, Williams' NAACP chapter armed themselves to stand up to them. After local Blacks shot at and repelled the Klan, the local city council banned the Klan from "night rides" for fear it would lead to confrontation.

Williams gained national notoriety when he helped lead a campaign that freed two young Black boys--aged 8 and 10--from reform school for the "crime" of kissing a young white girl in a game.

Williams' outspoken nature and confrontational tactics not only caused tension between he and local white authorities but with the NAACP's national office as well. When Williams made the statement that white lynchers should be met with lynching, NAACP President Roy Wilkins led a campaign to have Williams removed as local president--even though members fought to keep him.

By 1961, the polarization between the white racists in town and the Black community had reached a fever pitch. Racist white youths were enraged that Black and white Freedom Riders--anti-segregation activists from the North--had targeted their town.

In the midst of the rioting, a white couple mistakenly drove through the Black are of town and were in danger of being killed. Williams and his wife kept the couple in their house until they could guarantee them safe passage to the police.

When the couple was turned over to the authorities, the Williamses were charged with kidnapping. Convinced they'd be killed, the Williamses and their two children fled to Cuba where they were given political asylum.

Williams spent most of the civil rights movement outside in exile, where he broadcast "Radio Free Dixie" which advocated armed struggle for Blacks in the South. Eventually the Cuban government shut down the broadcast for fear that Williams' message could be taken up by Black Cubans as well.

Williams' ideas influenced the Black radicals who came after him later in the sixties--Malcolm X, the Deacons of Defense, the Black Panthers and many others. This new film's importance lies in not just exposing a new generation of fighters to the important legacy of Robert Williams but also in shedding new light on some of the important political debates of the civil rights era.

Those who want to know more about his life should read Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power.

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