Robert Williams, as an ex-Marine recently discharged from duty, returned to his hometown of Monroe North Carolina at just about the same time as the historic Supreme Court desegregation decision. When he tried to join the local NAACP chapter, he found that it was shrinking rapidly, like many others, because of intimidation from racists enraged by the Supreme Court’s decision. The remaining chapter members elected Williams president and then quit. Within a couple of years of this terrible start, Williams’s chapter had successfully gained the integration of the public library with a hardy fight; other successes were to follow. Instead of relying on the Black middle-class, the traditional members of the NAACP, Williams had recruited heavily the Black poor and working classes. Their chapter quickly gained a reputation of strength and of not relying on standard middle class methods.
Guns have always been common in the South, both Blacks and whites frequently had them and used them. However, organized groups engaging in armed self defense of the Black community were generally rare since Reconstruction. Yet organized armed self defense was one of the main strategies that the Monroe chapter developed in its work. The first major test of this strategy was in the summer of 1957 when a Klu Klux Klan caravan attempted to attack a chapter member’s home. The chapter was prepared and armed, and after a gun battle with no casualties, the Klan fled.
Williams is careful to point out that the Monroe chapter had reputedly requested that the authorities from city to federal level stop the Klan’s intimidation, of course no one acted and the federal government didn’t even respond. He also points out that after the gunfight, the city government moved rapidly to ban any Klan demonstration without a special permit. Williams goes on to say that two weeks later the same Klan group attempted to attack the nearby Lumbee Native American community where they were chased off again by gunfire. This second incident received national attention while the confrontation in Monroe was mostly ignored.
Relations between the Monroe chapter and the middle-class dominated national headquarters of the NAACP had always been tense since Williams joined and this conflict came to a head in 1959. A white man was put on trial for the vicious rape of a Black woman. A white woman testified on the Black woman’s behalf and the Monroe chapter secured a lawyer from New York to help. It was to no avail. A conviction was impossible in the extreme racist atmosphere. Williams relates that many of the Black women demanded to know what the Black community should do now. Before the trial Williams had encouraged the community to use the legal system, but to respond to this pressure and to make sure racists knew it wasn’t going to be open season on Blacks, he released a statement that, among other things, declared “…the Negro in the South can not expect justice in the courts. He must convict his attackers on the spot, he must meet violence with violence…” The statement received national attention and criticism. Roy Wilkins, the head of the NAACP, acted immediately and suspended Williams.
In spite of controversy, the Monroe chapter continued to have success. They participated in the wave of sit-ins across the South in 1960 to desegregate public facilities. While severe violence occurred in other areas, nothing of the kind occurred in Monroe, which Williams puts to their record of successful self defense. During the campaign to desegregate the Monroe swimming pool, however, racist whites “went wild.” Three different attempts on Williams’s life were made. During one especially harrowing incident a mob formed around Williams’s car after it had just been rammed by a racist’s car. Williams and other NAACP members in the car stood off the mob using guns (several racists also had guns) and even prevented themselves from being disarmed by the local police. The state police finally cleared the mob to prevent a blood bath.
Up to this point in the story, Williams has carefully explained how the intelligent use of self defense has not only saved the lives of many Blacks, but actually prevented much violence from occurring in the first place. In an isolated town where blacks were only a quarter of the population they had matched all the major achievements of the mainstream civil rights movement. Now in 1961, the strategies of the middle-class dominated national movement would be contrasted with that of the Monroe’s local movement in Monroe itself. By this time the Monroe chapter had come up with a series of demands including heavy emphasis on economic demands, which was years ahead of most other groups. The chapter was prepared for long-term struggle but still welcomed help in whatever way it came. Help did come from the “Freedom Ride” campaign. Unfortunately this nationally coordinated campaign did not respect the tactics that the local community had developed. The Freedom Riders, which included many whites, immediately made a public pledge of nonviolence upon arrival. Williams describes how he believes this, and the riders’ passive behavior, was responsible for a dramatic rise in racist attacks including many on the Riders themselves. The descriptions of paternalism from some of the white Freedom Riders are laughable but the descriptions of violence are not. In response to a protest at the courthouse, thousands of racists came from miles around, many of them encouraged to come by local police. This mob was the culmination of a week of threats and beatings. Some of the Freedom Riders were rescued by armed Blacks in cars, others were beaten and arrested. The mob proceeded to attack any Blacks they could find and when night came, racists began attacking the Black section of town. Again, armed Blacks held off white attacks. Williams, however, received phoned death threats from the police chief and decided to leave town to get help. Shortly afterwards, he learned of his indictment on trumped up charges and fled to Canada and then Cuba.
Cuba gave Williams a base from which to publish his newsletter, “The Crusader,” and organized world-wide support for other Blacks framed up on racist charges in Monroe and elsewhere. He also pushed for the building of links between Blacks in the U.S., and people of color throughout the world. This anti-imperialist position was, like many of Williams’s other positions, ahead of its time. Several years later, Williams returned to the U.S. and helped to found the Republic of New Afrika, which incorporated his self defense theories from the start.
The accepted version, even among many radicals, of the history of the Black liberation movement of the sixties is that non-violence worked against blatantly racist Jim Crow laws in the South, but were inadequate to deal with the deeper, more subtle economic inequalities in the North, where frustrated Blacks turned to organizers like the Black Panthers. The truth which “Negroes with Guns” help shows is that non-violence, by itself, wasn’t even adequate against Jim Crow.
Other histories of the civil rights struggle support this alternative view. In “Struggle” by Clayborn Carson, an acclaimed history of SNCC (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee), Carson states, “the relative paucity of violence in some communities was attributed by SNCC workers not to the Federal presence, but to the willingness of Black to arm themselves.” In 1965, on the civil rights march through Mississippi, armed guard was provided by the Deacons For Defense, a Black self defense group. Even Martin Luther King, a participant, consented to this when it was clear that self defense was what marchers wanted. Possibly the best example was the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, in Alabama. Their militant armed stance and symbol – the black panther – served as direct inspiration for California’s Black Panther Party for Self Defense.
Neither Robert Williams nor the organizations listed above confused legal armed self defense with armed insurrection or guerrilla struggle. All supported mass organizing of all kinds, including non-violent civil disobedience. However they believed they could not trust authorities and recognized that the discipline and pride that came from effective self defense was essential in all levels of struggle. It is possible though, that many of these activists believed that offensive armed action would be needed someday and they would be better prepared than most. Williams in particular, who traveled to Cuba as early as 1960, was probably weighing these possibilities.
Increasingly, many today feel the same way. Once again, grotesque racist murders by police and racists are in the news along with Black organizations proclaiming their right to armed self defense. Sadly, the response by liberals is often the same as it was in 1960, declaring self defense to be “proactive” and “divisive”. these are easy statements to make from a position of privilege, but the facts show, that right wing violence is rising across the board. Anti-abortion violence, homophobic violence and violence against immigrants is chronic and the state, as it always will, fails to provide adequate protection. When this is the situation, armed self defense must be at least part of the discussion of how to respond. For this reason, “Negroes with Guns” is required reading for all progressive and revolutionary activists.