Negroes With Guns Has A Long History
The story of Robert Williams receives far less attention than many others of the civil rights era. The Little Rock Nine, the March to Selma and the Montgomery Bus Boycott all are fixed in our memory as pivotal moments in the American struggle for civil rights. But in the midst of these other actions, beginning in the 1950s, Williams was waging a struggle that addressed all the issues that defined the others – the equal access to public services, protection against racial violence and the freedom to protest grievances.
Williams’s employed a tactic he called “armed self reliance” to explain his strategy of using guns in the protection of his family and the larger black community. His first introduction to this philosophy was learned from his grandmother, who gave Williams his grandfather’s gun that he used for protection from the Klu Klux Klan. Williams was also an army and marine veteran who, along with other Black soldiers, returned home from WW II less willing to adopt a subservient attitude to white supremacy.
After working in the Detroit auto industry, where he was exposed to union organizing and then studying psychology at historically black colleges, Williams gained some historical perspective on southern society as well as acquiring some organizing skills that would later help him as the president of the Monroe, North Carolina branch of the NAACP. Believing that the Supreme Court’s decision, Brown v Board of Education, had given him reason to believe the fortunes of Black People had finally changed Williams felt optimistic about the future. The immediate backlash from the decision cemented his attitude about the need for Black People to be willing to meet armed resistance against armed attack. The sexual assault against Mary Ruth Reid confirmed this conclusion.
Lewis Medlin, a white man, was witnessed beating and sexually assaulting Reid, who was pregnant, in front of her 5 children. At trial, Medlin’s attorney said his client was drunk and asked the jury to consider how ridiculous it would be, pointing to Medlin’s wife, for Medlin to attempt to rape Reid when he had a beautiful white wife waiting at home. The jury acquitted Medlin in minutes, to the outrage of the Black Women observing the trial from the balcony, and the judge had Medlin rushed out of court through the back door. The acquittal was a reminder that a Black Woman’s virtue was not to be respected outside of her home and it was the catalyst that cause Williams to take action.
A Challenge to Nonviolent Protest
The debate over the efficacy of nonviolent protest versus arm resistance is a familiar debate, as we commonly understand it, coming out of the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and young radicals who challenged his authority and leadership. But the idea of armed resistance has a long history going back to the early years of slave rebellions and development of the Underground Railroad. The idea that Black Men could volunteer to fight In America’s wars but not to defend the sanctity of their own homes and families was a constant point of frustration and debate.
In 1961 a group of Freedom Riders, from the Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee (SNCC) came to Monroe to prove to Williams that nonviolence was the most practical means to secure civil rights for Black Citizens. During demonstrations by SNCC volunteers the Klan, who had been active with beatings, cross burnings and firing guns into the homes of Monroe’s Black Cititzens, began driving through the black community intimidating residents. A white SNCC activist became separated from the other SNCC members and Williams tried to get the local sherrif to rescue the student before the Klan located him. The sheriff refused and told Williams that they would be coming for him instead. Conditions became so dangerous for Williams that his entire family had to escape to New York City before finding sanctuary in Cuba.
From Cuba Williams hosted “Radio Free Dixie” which could be heard all over the United States. The station program consisted of a combination of political commentary and jazz music and the station broadcast from 1961 to 1965. He also edited a newsletter “The Crusader” that reached a subscription level of 40 thousand copies and is said to have influenced the philosophical development of the Black Panther Party. Williams became increasing disenchanted with Cuba and his life in exile was beginning to take a toll on his family. In 1965 he immigrate to China during a thawing of relations with the United States. Nixon was interested in acquiring information about the communist leader Mao Zedong and Williams was able to barter his perspective about the communist state for a position at the University of Michigan, which was sponsored by the Ford Foundation. While the federal government was concerned about the potential for Williams to continue his leadership in the civil rights movement, he spent the remaining years of his life quietly in Baldwin, Michigan. He died on October 15, 1996.