Robert F Williams

Negroes with Guns: Robert F. Williams and the Freedom Struggle

Negroes With Guns by Robert F Williams is really something — as if the name of it didn’t give that away. After Philando Castile, after the shootings that keep happening and happening with impunity this felt so good to read. We watched Fred Williamson stand up to white violence in the N**ger Charlie trio of films over the past few weekends too — such brilliant Westerns in their Blaxploitation way, I can’t believe they’re not available in better quality film. Even if us white folks can never ask for them by name. All of it has been cathartic in the face of despair, though much of that despair grows out of police impunity, and this is probably not the right strategy to end that. I wish I knew what was.

Negroes With Guns sounds badass, and it is, but not in that way that men get when they try and out-badass each other without actually managing true badassness. These are wise and well-considered, well-defended, and well-grounded words from a man who puts most of those others to shame. No wonder it inspired the Black Panthers so much (and I imagine Blaxploitation films just like the one above), if only they’d stuck to a committed revolutionary ethos just a little more…

The book was written in Cuba, which welcomed so many Black exiles of the revolution, and opens:

Why do I speak to you from exile?

Because a Negro community in the South took up guns in self-defense against racist violence-and used them. (3)

I quote his summation of his philosophy at length:

Because there has been much distortion of my position, I wish to make it clear that I do not advocate violence for its own sake or for the sake of reprisals against whites. Nor am I against the passive resistance advocated by the Reverend Martin Luther King and others. My only difference with Dr. King is that I believe in flexibility in the freedom struggle. This means that I believe in non-violent tactics where feasible; the mere fact that I have a Sit-In case pending before the U.S. Supreme Court bears this out. Massive civil disobedience is a powerful weapon under civilized conditions where the law safeguards the citizens’ right of peaceful demonstrations. In civilized society the law serves as a deterrent against lawless forces that would destroy the democratic process. But where there is a breakdown of the law, the individual citizen has a right to protect his person, his family, his home and his property. To me this is so simple and proper that it is self-evident.

When an oppressed people show a willingness to defend themselves, the enemy, who is a moral weakling and coward, is more willing to grant concessions and work for a respectable compromise. Psychologically, moreover, racists consider themselves superior beings and are not willing to exchange their superior lives for our inferior ones. They are most vicious and violent when they can practice violence with impunity. This we have shown in Monroe. Moreover, when because of our self-defense there is a danger that the blood of whites may be spilled, the local authorities in the South suddenly enforce law and order when previously they had been complacent toward lawless, racist violence. This too we have proven in Monroe. It is remarkable how easily and quickly state and local police control and disperse law-less mobs when the Negro is ready to defend himself with arms. (4-5)

Nothing could be more clear than that, nor, I think, much more reasonable. Especially after hearing his story. He was a WWII veteran and served in the Marines where he was trained to fight, trained to respect himself — Monroe, North Carolina demanded he do neither. He joined the NAACP on his return there at a time when it was under fierce attack from white supremacists (as all NAACP chapters were after Brown v Board). He writes:

When I joined the local chapter of the NAACP it was going down in membership, and when it was down to six, the leadership proposed dissolving it. When I objected, I was elected president and they withdrew, except for Dr. Albert E. Perry. … I tried to get former members back without success and finally I realized that I would have to work without the social leaders of the community.

So he drew on previous life experience — and that was of northern unions, even though he had not joined he had learned. A lesson in that I think, both in what the union missed, but also in the ripples it set in motion…

At this time I was inexperienced. Before going into the
Marines I had left Monroe for a time and worked in an aircraft
factory in New Jersey and an auto factory in Detroit. Without knowing it, I had picked up some ideas of organizing from the activities around me … So one day I walked into a Negro poolroom in our town, interrupted a game by putting NAACP literature on the table and made a pitch. I recruited half of those present…. 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 (14)

Williams continues:

In the summer of 1957 they made one big attempt to stop us. An armed motorcade attacked Dr. Perry’s house, which is situated on the outskirts of the colored community. We shot it out with the Klan and repelled their attack and the Klan didn’t have any more stomach for this type of fight. They stopped raiding our community. After this clash the same city officials who said the Klan had a constitutional right to organize met in an emergency session and passed a city ordinance banning the Klan from Monroe without a special permit from the police chief. (19)

Some pictures.

Self defense worked. To the extent that armed raids of the KKK wouldn’t be happening any more, which was no small thing. It didn’t do anything to integrate the community, make individuals going about their daily business much safer, or improve conditions, but it made a space possible for work to happen to try and do all of these.

I love that Robert Williams wanted to do all of it. Everything.

I was more convinced than ever that one of our greatest and most immediate needs was better communication within the race. The real Afro-American struggle was merely a disjointed network of pockets of resistance and the shameful thing about it was that Negroes were relying upon the white man’s inaccurate reports as their sources of information about these isolated struggles. I went home and concentrated all of my efforts into developing a newsletter … (29)

Robert Williams thought big, his branch of the NAACP would become so inspirational in the way it tried to moved beyond racial integration to the deeper causes:

In our branch of the NAACP there was a general feeling that we were in a deep and bitter struggle against racists and that we needed to involve as many Negroes as possible and to make the struggle as meaningful as possible. … what we needed was a broad program with special attention to jobs, welfare, and other economic needs.

I think this was an important step forward. The struggles of the Freedom Riders and the Sit-In Movements have concentrated on a single goal: the right to eat at a lunch counter, the right to sit anywhere on a bus. These are important rights because their denial is a direct personal assault on a Negro’s dignity. … By debasing and demoralizing the black man in small personal matters, the system eats away the sense of dignity and pride which are necessary to challenge a racist system. But the fundamental core of racism is more than atmosphere-it can be measured in dollars and cents… (38)

They had their own 10-point platform — I think I knew that Huey Newton and Bobby Seale had read this and done their own ten point platform accordingly, but I’m not sure I did. Such a platform is such a good way to inspire people to join in struggle and to know in broad terms what it is you struggle for:

On Aug. 15, 196 1 , on behalf of our Chapter I presented to the Monroe Board of Aldermen a ten point program that read as follows:
PETITION
We, the undersigned citizens of Monroe, petition the City
Board of Aldermen to use its influence to endeavor to:

  1. Induce factories in this county to hire without discrimination.
  2. Induce the local employment agency to grant non-whites the same privileges given to whites.
  3. Instruct the Welfare Agency that non-whites are entitled to the same privileges, courtesies and consideration given to whites.
  4. Construct a swimming pool in the Winchester Avenue area of Monroe.
  5. Remove all signs in the city of Monroe designating one area for colored and another for whites.
  6. Instruct the Superintendent of Schools that he must prepare to desegregate the city school no later than 1962.
  7. Provide adequate trasportation for all school children.
  8. Formally request the State Medical Board to permit Dr. Albert E. Perry, Jr., to practice medicine in Monroe and Union County.
  9. Employ Negroes in skilled or supervisory capacities in the City Government.
  10. ACT IMMEDIATELY on all of these proposals and inform the committee and the public of your actions.

(signed)
Robert F. Williams
Albert E. Perry, Jr. , M.D.
John W. McDow (39)

They emphasise always the economic dimensions of oppression as they connect to racial ones:

we believe that the basic ill is an economic ill, our being denied the right to have a decent standard of living. (40)

Such a difference from the national NAACP office is clearly due both to the character of Williams, Perry and McDow, but also the melting away of the professionals from the Monroe branch of the NAACP under threat of violence, and the recruitment of a working class base. This positionality gave a very different understanding of goals and strategy than those embraced by much of the Civil Rights Movement. Williams writes:

On these peripheral matters, leaders of the Sit-In Movements can meet with city and state officials and win concessions. I believe this is an important part of the overall Negro struggle. But when these concessions are used for propaganda by Negro “leaders” as examples of the marvelous progress the Afro-American is supposedly making, thereby shifting attention from the basic evils, such victories cease to be even peripheral and become self-defeating. When we tackle basic evils, however, the racists won’t give an inch.

He continues — this is not just ideological but practical:

This, I think, is why the Freedom Riders who came to Monroe met with such naked violence and brutality. That and the pledge of non-violence. (41)

He writes quite compellingly about white racism, that will be blog number two on this book. I’ll just end with a little more on how Williams saw Black struggle. First, the chapter title that gives a truth that has bedeviled every movement in the US for the past hundred years:

“Every Freedom Movement in the U.S.A. Is Labeled ‘Communist’ ” (79)

And his final words on self-defense — they echoed something Ella Baker said actually, and made me laugh.

We know that the average Afro-American is not a pacifist. He is not a pacifist and he has never been a pacifist and he is not made of the type of material that would make a good pacifist. Those who doubt that the great majority of Negroes are not pacifists, just let them slap one. Pick any Negro on any street corner in the U.S.A. and they will find out how much he believes in turning the other cheek. All those who dare to attack are going to learn the hard way that the Afro-American is not a pacifist, that he cannot forever be counted on not to defend himself. Those who attack him brutally and ruthlessly can no longer expect to attack him with impunity.

The Afro-American cannot forget that his enslavement in this country did not pass because of pacifist moral force or noble appeals to the Christian conscience of the slaveholders. (83)

Williams quotes Thoreau writing in praise of John Brown, and the need for violence at that point in time — almost makes me want to go read Thoreau again.

And finally, on global solidarity. I love how he broadens out of the civil rights movement, it feels so rare until you get to SNCC, and the drive of the youth to connect to anti-Colonial struggle. His travels meant Williams could flee to Cuba when he realised the nature of the trumped up charges against him from that fateful night (a full account is found in the book,I won’t repeat it here), and the threat his life was under. I am still so furious that he should have had to spend his days in exile though I know charges were later dropped…

In discussion of the global struggle in his newsletter, he writes:

It was clear from the first days that Afro-Cubans were part of the Cuban revolution on a basis of complete equality and my trips confirmed this fact. A Negro, for example, was head of the Cuban armed forces and no one could hide that fact from us here in America. To me this revolution was a real thing, not one of those phony South American palace revolutions. There was a real drive to bring social justice to all the Cubans, including the black ones. (31-32)

And later:

My cause is the same as the Asians against the imperialist. It is the same as the African against the white savage. It is the same as Cuba against the white supremacist imperialist. When I become a part of the mainstream of American life, based on universal justice, then and then only can I see a possible mutual cause for unity against outside interference.” (35)

To end…Robert Williams in Cuba:

And I can’t resist a last look at The Legend of N**ger Charlie. Blaxploitation film isn’t my area of expertise at all nor do I enjoy many of them, but these Westerns were fantastic, sexy, fierce. They embodied much of what Robert Williams wrote. A pride in self against a world of disrespect and violence, and  recognition of the need to fight which was so taken for granted in those times when it seemed perhaps everything might change. Over and over again that fight ends in tragedy, but Charlie keeps fighting. As did Williams, as  must we. If only we could all be that damn fine while doing it.

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