RW #882, November 17, 1996
"Social change in something as fundamental as racist oppression involves violence. You cannot have progress here without violence and upheaval, because it's struggle for survival for one and struggle for liberation for the other. Always the powers in command are ruthless and unmerciful in defending their position and their privileges. This is not an abstract rule to be meditated upon by Americans. This is a truth that was revealed at the birth of America, and has continued to be revealed many times in our history."
Robert F. Williams in Negroes With Guns, published in 1962
Robert F. Williams died on October 15, 1996 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is best known for his militant leadership of the Civil Rights Movement in the South--where he organized Black people to take up armed self-defense against the Ku Klux Klan. Refusing to be bound by the doctrine of "non-violence," Williams forged a militant path in the struggle to end Jim Crow segregation--which would resonate in the Black liberation movement of the 1960s.
Born in Monroe, North Carolina, in 1925, Robert Williams grew up hearing stories of his grandparents, who were born into slavery. During World War 2, he was a machinist and led a strike of workers when he was 16 years old. He moved to Michigan where he became an autoworker and fought in the Detroit riot of 1943, when white mobs stormed through the streets and killed dozens of Black people. In 1947, Williams married Mabel Ola Robinson, who shared his commitment to social justice and African-American liberation, and they built a partnership of love and respect that lasted the rest of Robert's life.
Robert Williams made his mark on history after he returned to Monroe in 1955, after being discharged from the Marines. He became the president of the Union County branch of the NAACP and went out to recruit members among laborers, farmers, domestic workers, and the unemployed. In his book, Negroes With Guns, Williams recalls, "We ended up with a chapter that was unique in the whole NAACP because of working class composition and a leadership that was not middle class. Most important, we had a strong representation of returned veterans who were very militant and didn't scare easy. We started a struggle in Monroe and Union County to integrate public facilities and we had the support of a Unitarian group of white people." Monroe was the southeastern regional headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan. But this didn't stop Williams from organizing struggle against segregation.
Black children in Monroe were not allowed in the public swimming pool reserved for whites, and several Black children had drowned in unsupervised swimming holes. So in 1957, Williams asked the city to open the pool to Black children one day a week. City officials answered that this would be "too expensive" because "they would have to drain and refill the pool each time" after Black children swam in it. Williams then took a group of Black youth to the pool to try to get in and after this he started getting death threats. Robert Williams came up with a pathbreaking response that would send shockwaves through the South: he started organizing armed squads of Black people for self-defense.
The KKK held meetings attended by thousands and would then get in their cars and drive through the Black community in their white robes and hoods. They would honk their horns, shoot off guns, and threaten people. Williams decided it was necessary to arm the people: "We bought some guns in stores and later a church in the North raised money and got us better rifles. The Klan discovered we were arming and guarding our community." Later, Williams would travel to New York, to speak at Malcolm X's Mosque No. 7, to raise money for arms. And this approach of armed self-defense proved effective. The night of October 5, 1957, the Klan came rampaging into Newton, a Black section of Monroe, and were met by scores of armed Black men. The kluckers panicked and fled in every direction, and this was the last time they rampaged through Newton like this.
In 1958, Robert Williams led the struggle to free two young Black children who had been jailed for kissing a nine-year-old white girl. On October 28, two Black children, seven-year-old James Hanover Thompson, and nine-year-old David "Fuzzy" Simpson, were playing with some white boys and girls. Later, when one of the girls told her mother that a Black boy had kissed her, all hell broke loose in Monroe. The girl's father and neighbors armed themselves with shotguns and went looking for the boys and their parents. That evening, James Hanover and Fuzzy were arrested on the charge of rape and a few days later a juvenile court judge found them guilty and sentenced them to indefinite terms in reform school. The boys, who were denied legal counsel, were told they might get out when they were 21 years old.
Robert Williams called well-known Black civil rights lawyer Conrad Lynn, who came down from New York to take the case. The mothers of the two boys were not allowed to see their children for weeks. Then Joyce Egginton, a journalist from England, got permission to visit the boys and took the two mothers along. Egginton smuggled a camera in and took a picture of the mothers hugging their children. After Egginton's story of the case and photo were printed throughout Europe and Asia, an international committee was formed in Europe to defend James Hanover and Fuzzy. There were huge demonstrations in Paris, Rome and Vienna and in Rotterdam, the U.S. Embassy was stoned. This was an international embarrassment for the U.S. government. In February, officials asked the boys' mothers to sign a waiver--an admission of guilt--with the assurance that their children would be released. The mothers refused to sign. And then, two days later, James Hanover and Fuzzy were released without conditions or explanation.
"The Afro-American militant is a `militant' because he defends himself, his family, his home, and his dignity. He does not introduce violence into a racist social system--the violence is already there, and has always been there. It is precisely this unchallenged violence that allows a racist social system to perpetrate itself. When people say that they are opposed to Negroes `resorting to violence' what they really mean is that they are opposed to Negroes defending themselves and challenging the exclusive monopoly of violence practiced by white racists."
Robert F. Williams in Negroes With Guns
Other struggles in Monroe further convinced Williams that Black people could not get justice under the present system. In one case, a white man named Louis Medlin assaulted and attempted to rape Mary Ruth Reed, a young Black woman who was eight months pregnant. When a jury acquitted Medlin, Williams said he felt guilty because he had persuaded people not to take revenge--saying the matter would be handled legally. Williams said: "The courtroom was full of colored women and when this man was acquitted they turned to me and they said, `Now what are you going to do? You have opened the floodgates on us. Now these people know that they can do anything that they want to us and there is no prospect of punishment under law and it means that we have been exposed to these people and you're responsible for it. Now what are you going to say?'I told them that in a civilized society the law is a deterrent against the strong who would take advantage of the weak, but the South is not a civilized society...I said that in the future we would defend our women and children, our homes and ourselves with our arms. That we would meet violence with violence."
The next day, NAACP head Roy Wilkins called Williams and asked him if he had made such a statement. Williams said, "Yes, and I intend to repeat it over several radio and television programs in the next few days." A few hours later, Williams made a scheduled press appearance and repeated his statement. The next day, Wilkins suspended Williams from the NAACP for six months.
Concerned about the Black youth growing up in racist Amerikkka, Williams said: "Our children who are growing up without shoes are also growing up with a sense of direction they cannot obtain in the Jim Crow schools. There once was a threat, in Monroe, of Negro teen-age gang war. It abated as the teenagers resolved their difficulties by coming to understand the problem. It is only natural to expect the Black youth to be infected with a desire to do something. Frustrated by less active adults, this desire may be projected in the wrong direction. The vigor of the youth can be channeled into constructive militant actions. It is simply a matter of common sense to have these young Negroes constructively fight racial injustice rather than fight among themselves. Danger is not a respecter of color lines; it is better to bleed for a just cause than to bleed just for the thrill of the sight of blood. Rebellion ferments in modern youth. It is better that it expend itself against its true enemies than against teenage schoolmates who can't even explain the reasons for their dangerous skirmishes."
In 1961, Williams organized youth in Monroe to struggle to integrate the swimming pool. They set up a picketline which forced the pool to close. There were a number of attempts on Robert's life and one day as Williams was driving to the pool, a car rammed into him and forced him into a ditch. Williams describes what happened next:
"The crowd started screaming. They said that a n*gger had hit a white man. They were referring to me. They were screaming, `Kill the n*ggers! Kill the n*ggers! Pour gasoline on the n*ggers! Burn the n*ggers! We were sitting in the car. The man got out of the car with a baseball bat and started walking toward us and he was saying, `N*gger, what did you hit me for?' I didn't say anything to him. We just sat there looking at him. He came up close to our car, within arm's length with the baseball bat, but I still hadn't said anything and we didn't move in the car. What they didn't know was that we were armed....I had two pistols and a rifle in the car. When this fellow started to draw back his baseball bat, I put an Army .45 up in the window of the car and pointed it right into his face and I didn't say a word. He looked at the pistol and he didn't say anything. He started backing away from the car...The mob started to throw stones on top of my car. So I opened the door of the car and I put one foot on the ground and stood up in the door holding an Italian carbine."
When a cop grabbed Williams and ordered him to surrender his weapon: "I struck him in the face and knocked him back away from the car and put my carbine in his face and I told him we were not going to surrender to a mob. I told him that we didn't intend to be lynched. The other policeman who had run around the side of the car started to draw his revolver out of the holster. He was hoping to shoot me in the back. They didn't know that we had more than one gun. One of the students (who was 17 years old) put a .45 in the policeman's face and told him that if he pulled out his pistol he would kill him. The policeman started putting his gun back into the holster and backing away from the car, and he fell into the ditch."
There were 3,000-4,000 white people at the pool and all the city officials were there, including the Mayor of Monroe. The police ordered Williams and his followers to surrender their guns, but they refused. Mabel Williams, who was standing next to her husband in this confrontation, recalled: "I knew that we couldn't depend on the police to protect us...My feelings then were that if I must die, I'm going to take 'em with me. I heard the chief of police tell my husband, `If you shoot any of these white people, here, I'm gonna kill you.' And so I got my gun in my hand and I determined then that if he did anything to Robert, I was going to kill him..." Eventually, the police were forced to disperse the crowd of racists and escort Williams and his followers out of the area.
In 1961, "Freedom Riders" were coming from all over the country to the South to join the Civil Rights struggle. When they came to Monroe, Williams refused to take their oath of non-violence, but called on people to support them. In August, Freedom Riders started picketing the Monroe courthouse and within days, a number of them were viciously attacked and white racist mobs were mobilized to try and run the Freedom Riders out of town. According to Williams:
"At first the victims were all Freedom Riders and the local non-violent students, but soon Negroes were attacked indiscriminately as the mob fanned out all over town. They were massing for an attack against our community.... White people started driving through our community, and they were shouting and screaming and some would fire out of their cars and throw objects at people on the streets. Many of the colored people started arming, exchanging guns and borrowing ammunition and forming guards for the night to defend the community from the mob massing in town." All kinds of people started calling Williams on the phone--reporting on beatings, asking what should be done, volunteering to join in armed groups to defend the community.
At one point, when a white couple drove into this whole scene and were threatened by the crowd, Williams let them escape into his house.
That night Robert and Mabel left Monroe. After they left, Williams and one of his supporters, Mae Mallory, were indicted on charges of kidnapping the white couple who Robert had let into his house. The FBI launched a nationwide hunt for the Williamses and Mae Mallory and back in Monroe they went on a rampage: "The police used my disappearance as an excuse to raid through the rest of the community; tearing up homes, terrorizing a lot of the people who weren't even in the defense guard, grilling in all-night sessions persons known to be my associates, and confiscating the weapons they found--weapons we possessed legally."
After leaving the U.S., Robert and Mabel lived in Cuba for five years. From here, they organized "Radio Free Dixie," which reached African-Americans, advocating armed self-defense and Black liberation. Williams also continued to publish The Crusader newsletter which he had started in 1959.
Williams' stand on armed self-defense continued to have a big influence on the Black liberation struggle in the U.S. His example inspired groups in the South like the Deacons for Defense in 1965. And other groups were also influenced by Williams, like the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Black Panther Party.
Williams said: "When the racists forced me into exile they unwittingly led me onto a greater field of battle...All this time we will further identify our struggle for liberation with the struggle of our brothers in Africa, and the struggle of the oppressed of Asia and Latin America. they, in turn will further identify their struggle with ours."
In 1963, Williams asked Mao Tsetung, leader of the Chinese revolution, to speak out on the oppression of Black people in the United States. And in response, Mao issued a Declaration of support for the cause of African-American liberation. In 1966, Williams moved with his family to China and lived there during the height of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. He met with Mao and toured China, visiting communes and factories and observing the building of a genuine socialist society.
Robert Williams was not a communist, he was a militant revolutionary nationalist --and it was from this point of view that he supported struggles around the world against imperialism. As the international chairman of the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM) and elected president-in-exile of the Republic of New Africa, he traveled to countries in Africa and Asia. During the Vietnam War he traveled to North Vietnam and met with Ho Chi Minh and he broadcast anti-war propaganda to Black soldiers in South Vietnam.
In 1969, Robert Williams returned to the United States and settled with his family in Baldwin, Michigan. For the next several years, he fought extradition to North Carolina to face the kidnapping charges--which were eventually dropped in 1976.
Robert Williams never gave up on the goal of liberating Black people from imperialist oppression and until his death, he continued to be involved in local struggles against things like police brutality and discrimination in education.
After Robert Williams died, hundreds of people attended memorial programs for him in Detroit and New York. Many people who knew and fought shoulder to shoulder with Williams talked about how Robert's stand on armed self-defense had inspired and influenced them.
A statement in memory of Robert Williams issued by RCP Spokesperson Carl Dix said: "Robert F. Williams devoted his life to fighting against the oppression of Black people and for their liberation.... There is much for us to learn today by looking deeply into Williams' legacy. We can learn from his spirit of determination. we can learn from the innovative way that he organized the people to fight back against the oppressors.... Today, U.S. imperialism's exploitation and oppression of Black people, and other folk too, here and around the world is still in effect. This ain't a time to chill and see if this system will finally do right by the people. It's done enough wrong here and around the world to make clear that, by nature, it can never serve the people's interests."
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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