In this Robert F Williams series, we present the second part in the form of Timothy B Tyson’s introduction to the 2002 edition of Robert F Williams’ Negroes with Guns which was first published in 1962.
Tyson has written the excellent and only biography of Williams in Radio Free Dixie: Robert F Williams & The Roots of Black Power. Through this book Tyson shows how much of a seismic impact Williams leadership, politics, strategies and tactics, and the experience of his struggle in his
It was through struggles such as Williams, Malcolm X / Malik El-Hajj Shabazz, Student Non-Violent Co-ordination Committee (SNCC) and others that contributed to the birth of the emerging mass militant phase of the struggle, in which the Black Panther Party formed in 1966, was the most powerful result. The
Negroes with Guns continues to be a seminal text for all those communities who struggle against racist and neo-colonialist oppression. Hopefully this Sons of Malcolm series will contribute in a small way to popularising Williams’ legacy.
Sons of Malcolm
26 June 2007
Robert F Williams, Black Power and the Roots of the African American Freedom Struggle
Timothy B. Tyson
Timothy B. Tyson is an assistant professor of Afro-American studies at the
Negroes with Guns is one of the most telling and important documents of the African American freedom struggle. Hammered together by exile Robert F. Williams and editor Marc Schlieffer in
African Americans, however, were not waiting on the federal government to rescue them. “Armed self-defense is a fact of life in black communities-north and south,” one
Robert Williams was born in 1925 to Emma C. and John L. Williams. His father was a railroad boiler washer in Monroe, North Carolina, a town of six thousand in the North Carolina piedmont .(8) Women born in slavery still tended vegetable gardens along the street where young “Rob” Williams grew up. His grandfather, Sikes Williams, born a slave in Union County, had attended Biddle Institute in nearby Charlotte after Emancipation and became one of Union County’s first black schoolteachers.(9) He enlisted as a Republican activist during the late 1800s and “traveled all over the county and the State making speeches and soliciting support for the Party.”(10) Sikes Williams also published a small newspaper called “The People’s Voice.” (11) The interracial “fusion” coalition of Republicans and Populists which he had labored to build won every statewide office in 1896. “THE CHAINS OF SERVITUDE ARE BROKEN,” Williams and his interracial allies proclaimed to their black constituents that year. “NOW NEVER LICK THE HAND THAT LASHED YOU.’(12) Two years later, however, white conservatives overthrew the democratic process. In a campaign of fraud and violence all across the state in 1898, the party of white supremacy seized what Democratic editor Josephus Daniels celebrated as “permanent good government by the party of the white man.”(13)
Robert’s grandmother, Ellen Isabel Williams, lived through all of these struggles and was “my greatest friend,” he wrote later.(14) “She read everything,” he recalled, and “specialized in history.” Ellen Williams would point to the iron printing press rusting in the shed and tell the young boy stories of Sikes Williams and the crusading editor’s political exploits. She reminded her grandson that she had been conceived in the union of her mother with their master, Daniel Tomblin. Before she died, Ellen Williams handed young Robert a gift that symbolized much that slavery and the struggle for liberty had taught her: she gave him the ancient rifle that his grandfather had wielded against white terrorists at the turn of the century.(15)
In 1946, 2 I-year-old Robert Williams stepped down from a segregated Greyhound in the uniform of his country. Military training had given black veterans “some feeling of security and self-assurance,” he recalled. “But most of all they taught us to use arms.”(16) Like thousands of other black veterans, Robert Williams did not come home to pick cotton.(17)
Another returning black veteran, a friend of Williams’s named Bennie Montgomery, did come home to raise cotton on the farm that his father operated as a sharecropper for W. W. Mangum, a large-scale white landowner near
State authorities shipped the sharecropper’s remains back to
Williams was in the Marine Corps in 1954 when he heard that the United States Supreme Court had struck down school segregation. “At last I felt that I was a part of
Under the leadership of Williams and Perry, the Monroe NAACP soon launched a campaign in 1957 to desegregate the local tax-supported Monroe Country Club, where white children enjoyed free swimming lessons while black children swam in farm ponds and drainage ditches. Harry Golden, a prominent Jewish liberal from nearby
An even more vivid local drama dragged
After the kissing incident, Sissy Sutton’s mother reported that she “would have killed
Authorities held the two boys for six days without permitting them to see parents, friends, or attorneys. Passing gunmen fired dozens of shots into the Thompson home. Klan terrorists torched crosses on the lawn.,”(36) For many white citizens, the case seemed to confirm the sexual fears that accompanied their vision of where school desegregation would lead. “If [black children] get into our rural schools and ride the buses with our white children,” one local woman wrote, “the
Robert Williams saw in the ‘Kissing Case” not only the irritational sexual lynch-pin of white supremacy but a unique political opportunity. The Monroe NAACP set in motion what Time magazine called “a rolling snowball” of worldwide publiCity.(40) In front of audiences across the country, Williams told stories of the two incarcerated boys and the freedom struggle in the South. Soon the ‘Kissing Case” emblazoned front pages around the globe, forcing Governor Hodges to hire a team of professors from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to translate the tens of thousands of letters that poured into his office.(41) John Shure, head of the United States Information Agency at the Hague, reported that he himself had received over 12,000 letters “even though the response does not appear to have been organized.” (42) While the White House and the State Department expressed alarm at the damage to
Governor Hodges soon launched a public relations campaign of his own to, as an aide urged the governor, “give the NAACP a taste of its own medicine ... [and] place the whole Confederacy in your debt.” The aide suggested to the governor that “by hitting directly at the communist connection, we might be able to convince people of the insincerity of these protests.” (44) The Federal Bureau of Investigation wrote to Governor Hodges that “Robert Williams has been under investigation for a considerable period of time” and that “you would have access to this information if you desire.” (45) The governor’s office then announced that the entire affair had been “a Communist-directed front,” that the families of both boys were “shiftless and irresponsible,” and that Hanover Thompson’s mother had “a reputation for using her daughters in prostitution.’ (46) The USIA and the U.S. State Department broadcast these charges around the world, apparently without convincing anyone. Three and a half months after Hanover and Sissy had kissed each other, Governor Hodges announced under enormous political pressure that “the home conditions have improved to the extent that the boys can be given conditional release.” (47)
The dynamics of racial conflict in
In the late spring of 1959, two news stories from other parts of the South gripped black
Right on the heels of the Parker lynching and the terrors in
The proceedings against the two white men compelled Williams to reconsider. The judge dropped the charges against Shaw in spite of the fact that he failed even to appear for court.(61) During the brief trial of Medlin, his attorney argued that he had been “drunk and having a little fun” at the time of the assault. Further, Medlin was married, his lawyer told the jury, “to a lovely white woman ... the pure flower of life ... do you think he would have left this pure flower for that?” He gestured toward Mary Ruth Reid, who began to cry uncontrollably.(62) Lewis Medlin was acquitted in minutes. Robert Williams recalled that “the [black] women in the courtroom made such an outcry, the judge had to send Medlin out the rear door.” The women then turned on Williams and bitterly shamed him for failing to see to their protection. (63)
At this burning moment of anger and humiliation, Robert Williams turned to wire service reporters and declared that it was time to “meet violence with violence.” Black citizens unable to enlist legal support must defend themselves. “Since the federal government will not stop lynching, and since the so-called courts lynch our people legally,” Williams declared, “if it’s necessary to stop lynching with lynching, then we must resort to that method.” (64) The next day Williams revised his remarks and specifically disavowed the reference to lynching. “I do not mean that Negroes should go out and attempt to get revenge for mistreatments or injustice,” he added, “but it is clear that there is no ... court protection of Negroes’ rights here, and Negroes have to defend themselves on the spot when they are attacked by whites.” (65)
Banner headlines flagged these words as symbols of “a new militancy among young Negroes of the South.”(66) Enemies of the NAACP blamed this “bloodthirsty remark squarely on the national office. “Hatred is the stock in trade of the NAACP,” Thomas Waring of the Charleston News and Courier charged. “High officials of the organization may speak in cultivated accents and dress like Wall Street lawyers, but they are engaged in a revolutionary enterprise.” (67) That very morning, when he read the words “meet violence with violence” on the UPI wire, Roy Wilkins telephoned Robert Williarns to inform him that he had been removed from his post as president of the Monroe NAACP. (68)
The 50th anniversary convention of the NAACP that summer of 1959 became a highly public show trial whose central issue was whether or not Robert Williarns would remain suspended. The national office printed up a pamphlet, “The Single Issue In The Robert Williams Case,” and distributed it to all delegates.(69) “The national office not only controlled the platform,” Louis Lomax wrote, but “they subjected the Williams forces to a heavy bombardment from the NAACPs big guns.” Thurgood Marshall visited the
“There is no Fourteenth Amendment in this social jungle called
Two weeks after the 1959 NAACP convention, FBI agents reported to J. Edgar Hoover that Williams “had recently begun selling a newsletter known as The Crusader on the streets of
These developments reflected the fact that, as Anne Braden of the Southern Conference Educational Fund wrote in late 1959, “the great debate in the integration movement in recent months has been the question of violence vs. nonviolence as instruments of change.” (78). In a series of public debates, Williams faced King, A. J. Muste, Bayard Rustin, David Dellinger, and others. He “drew a large audience to his debate with the pacifists,” George Weissman of the Socialist Workers Party wrote to Carl Braden in Loulsville, “and handled himself quite well.” (79) Among white Southerners, Williams argued, “there is open defiance to law and order throughout the South today.” Where law and order have broken down, he said, only self-defense can prevent murder by armed zealots who ‘ either believe they are killing for God or have abandoned conscience altogether. Always careful to endorse the methods espoused by King, Williams made the case for flexibility: “nonviolence is a very potent weapon when the opponent is civilized, but nonviolence is no repellent for a sadist.” Furthermore, he pointed out, “nowhere in the annals of history does the record show a people delivered from bondage by patience alone.” (80)
In a response to Williams published in Liberation and widely reprinted, Martin Luther King, Jr. conceded that white violence had brought the movement to “a stage of profound crisis.” The Supreme Court’s 1954 mandate and even the triumph at
The third and most unacceptable position, King argued, was “the advocacy of violence as a tool of advancement, organized as in warfare, deliberately and consciously.” Here, then, was the pale beyond which King sought to cast his adversary. “Mr. Robert Williams would have us believe that there is no collective or practical alternative,” King insisted. “He argues that we must be cringing and submissive or take up arms.” Essentially, Dr. King had invented his own Williams, a kind of black Geronimo plotting military strikes against the white man, and then responded to that Robert Williarns instead of the calm but defiant man who had spoken. Lacking theological training and combative in his manner, Williams was vulnerable to this caricature. But the philosophical position from which King centered his own argument-preferring nonviolence, but endorsing “the principle of self-defense, even involving weapons and bloodshed” - was ‘precisely the position that Williams had taken. (81)
In 1961, Reverend Paul Brooks, employed by King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and James Forman, soon to become president of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, came to
Williams had a similar understanding of the stakes. I saw it first as a challenge,” he recalled, “but I also saw it as an opportunity to show that what King and them were preaching was bullshit.” (83) Two weeks of picketing at the Union County Courthouse grew progressively more perilous for the Freedom Riders. Crowds of hostile white onlookers grew larger and larger. Finally, on Sunday afternoon, August 28, a mob of more than 5,000 furious white people attacked the 30 demonstrators, badly injuring many. The nonviolent crusade swiftly deteriorated into mob gun battles. After a long night of terror, Williams and his family fled first to
The FBI dragnet never snared Williams, but it did not take
Though he became friends with Che Guevara and Castro himself, Williams yearned to return home and resisted the pressure to make his own politics conform to the Soviet line. Williams persuaded Castro to let him travel to
1. In late September of 1966, Hugh Pearson reports, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale sat in the library of the
2. August Meier and Elliott Rudwick, CORE. A Study in the Civil Rights Movement, 1942-1968 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1975), 202-4.
3. Danny Lyons, Memories of the Civil Rights Movement (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992), 147.
4. Anne Leslie, “Exciting in Form, Ugly in Content,” (
5. Anne Braden, Southern Patriot 21, no. 2 (February 1963): 2.
6. Clyde Appleton to Robert F. Williams, September 20, 1965,
7. Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Social Organization of Nonviolence,” in A Testament of Hope: The Essentials Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. James M. Washington (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1991), 31.
8. Marcellus Barksdale, “Robert F. Williams and the Indigenous Civil Rights Movement in
9. S. E. Williams, “Application Blank No. 15,” John Herman Williams Collection. I am grateful to Mr. Williams for sharing this and other family documents.
10. Crusader 1, no. 4 (July 18, 1959): 2; “The History of Our Family
11. Robert F. Williams interview transcript, Robert C. Cohen Papers, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, hereafter cited as Cohen Papers, 53; Monroe Enquirer-Journal, “Monroe Historical Edition,” September 1974, 4-13,
12. “To the Colored Voters of Union County,” campaign flyer from Black History file, The Heritage Room, Union County Courthouse,
13. See J. Morgan Kousser, The Shaping of Southern Politics: Suffrage Restriction and the Establishment of the One-Party South (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974), 76.
14. Robert Williams, “Someday I’m Going Back South,” Daily Worker,
15. Crusader 1, no. 4 (July 18, 1959): 2; “The History Of Our Family Reunion,” Robert and Mabel Williams Family Collection; Tyson interview with Robert F. Williams, September 2, 1996.
16. Transcript of the Robert F. Williams interview with James Mosby, 18, Ralph Bunche Oral History Collection,
17. John Dittmer, Local People.. The Struggle For Civil Rights In
19. J. W. McDow interview with Timothy B. Tyson, September 17,1993, hereafter cited as MeDow interview.
20. McDow interview; Woodrow Wilson interview with Marcellus Chandler Barksdale, Duke Oral History Collection, hereafter cited as Wilson interview with Barksdale; B. J. Winfield interview with Marcellus Chandler Barksdale, Duke Oral History Collection, hereafter cited as Winfield interview with Barksdale.
21. Williams interview with Mosby.
22. Southern Patriot 18, no. 11 (January 1960): 3.
23. Clayborne Carson et al., eds., The Eyes on the Prize Reader (New York: Penguin, 1991), 36.
25. Southern Patriot 15, no. 1 (January 1957): 1.
26. Williams interview with Mosby.
27. Williams, Negroes with Guns (New York: Marzani & Munsell, Inc., 1962), 50-51; McDow interview; Winfield interview with Barksdale; Wilson interview with Barksdale; Williams interview with the author; Williams interview with Mosby.
28. Julian Mayfield, “Challenge to Negro Leadership: The Case of Robert Williams,” Commentary, April 1961, 298.
29. Harry Golden, “
30. “Article 111 Parades, Cavalcades, and Caravans,” in Code of The City of Monroe, 473-475, North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
31. Kelly Alexander to Roy Wilkins, “A Report of Activities of the North Carolina State Conference of Branches in Reference to the Case of David Simpson and James H. Thompson of Monroe, North Carolina,” December 26, 1958, NAACP Papers.
32. See Patrick Jones, “ ‘Communist Front Shouts Kissing Case to the World: “The Committee to Combat Racial Injustice and the Politics of Race and Gender During the Cold War,” M.A. thesis,
33. George Weissman, “The Kissing Case,” Nation, January 17, 1959, 47.
34. Gloster B. Current to Roy Wilkins, December 23, 1958, NAACP Papers. See also Charlotte Observer, January 12, 1959, 2-A; Carolina Times, January 10, 1959, 1; Monroe Enquirer, November 20, 1958, 1.
35. James Hanover Thompson interview with Timothy B. Tyson, May 13, 1993, hereafter cited as Thompson interview; J. Hampton Price to Luther H. Hodges, November 26, 1958,
36. Thompson interview; Chicago Defender, January 17, 1959, 3.
37. Charlotte Observer, February 2, 1959, 2-B.
39. “Transcript of Statements Made by Attorney Conrad Lynn During Interview on the Frank Ford Show,’ Radio Station WPEN,
40. The Time story, which appeared in the international edition of the magazine, was reprinted in full in the Monroe Enquirer, February 9, 1959,1.
41. Robert E. Giles to
42. Basil L. Whitener to Luther H. Hodges, March 2, 1959, Hodges Papers.
43. Williams recounted these remarks in Crusader 4, no. 2 (August 1962): 4.
44. John Briggs to Bill Sharpe, cc to Luther H. Hodges, February 23, 1959; Bill Sharpe to Luther H. Hodges, February 12, 1959; Luther H. Hodges to Bill Sharpe, February 19, 1959, all in Hodges Papers.
45. 0. L. Richardson to Luther H. Flodges, n.d., Hodges Papers.
48. Cohen Papers, 382. Malcolm referred to Williams as “my very good friend.” See David Gallen, ed., Malcolm X as They Knew Him (New York: Carrois’ Graf, 1992), 164.
49. Dan T. Carter, Scottsboro: A Tragedy of the American South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969).
51. Kelly M. Alexander to Roy Wilkins, “A Report of Activities of the N.C. Conference of Branches in Reference to the Case of David Simpson and James Thompson of Monroe, N.C.,” NAACP Papers; Robert F. Williams to George Weissman, December 17, 1958, Committee to Combat Racial Injustice Papers, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, University of Wisconsin, hereafter cited as CCRI Papers.
52. Roy Wilkins to P. L. Prattis, “Personal, Not For Publication,” May 28, 1959, NAACP Papers.
53. Howard Smead, Blood Justice: The Lynching of Mack Charles Parker (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).
54. Mrs. Medgar Evers with William Peters, For Us, the Living (New York: Ace, 1970), 194.
55. Roy Wilkins, “Report of the Secretary to the Board of Directors for the Month of April 1.959,” NAACI‘ Papers. See also Washington Post, May 3, 1959, 4; (
56. Roy Wilkins to P. L. Prattis, “Personal, Not for Publication,” May 28, 1959, NAACP Papers.
57. Afro-American, May 30, 1959, 4; Roy Wilkins, Standing Fast: The Autobiography of Roy Wilkins (New York: Penguin, 1982), 265.
59. Julian Mayfield, in his unpublished autobiography, claims that “a famous black writer made touch with gangsters in
60. Williams interview with Mosby.
61. Referral From May 11 Board Meeting,” I; Southern Patriot, vol. 18, no. 11 (January 1960): 3.
62. New York Post, May 7, 1959; Monroe Enquirer, May 7, 1959, 1; see also Jones, “ ‘Communist Front Shouts Kissing Case to the World,- 127.
63. Williams interview with Mosby.
64. “Rec’d via phone from UPI-May 6, 1959,” NAACP Papers; New York Times, May 7, 1959, 22.
65. “Roy Wilkins, Executive Secretary, Complainant, against Robert F. Williams, Respondent, Brief for Respondent,” 1-2, NAACP Papers.
66. New York Times, May 7, 1959, 22; (
67. News and Courier, May 7, 1959.
68. Text of telegram from Roy Wilkins to Robert Williams, May 6, 1959, NAACP Papers.
69. “The Single Issue in the Robert Williams Case,” CCRI Papers.
70. Federal Bureau of Investigation Subject File, Thurgood Marshall, telegram from SAC,
71. Daisy Bates to Roy Wilkins, July 23, 1959, Daisy Bates Papers, State Historical Society of
72. Louis Lomax, The Negro Revolt (New York: Signet, 1962), 112-114.
75. Daisy Bates, The Long Shadow of
76. Robert Franklin Williams Federal Bureau of Investigation subject file, in possession of the author, hereafter cited as RFW/F131.
77. L. D. Reddick, The Crusader without Violence: A Biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1959).
78. Southern Patriot 18, no. 11 (January 1960): 3.
79. George Weissman to Carl Braden, October 20, 1959, Carl and Anne Braden Papers, State Historical Society of Wisconsin. See also Crusader 1, no. 14 (September 26, 1959): 6.
80. Liberation, September 1959. See also Carson et al., Eyes on the Prize Reader, 110-13.
81. Carson et al., Eyes on the Prize Reader, 110-113.
82. Crusader 3, no. 6 (August 21, 1961): 3; James Forman interview with Timothy B. Tyson, January 17, 1997.
83. Williams interview with Mosby.
85. Robert Perkins to Robert F. Williams, Robert F. Williams Papers,
86. United States Senate, Ninety-first Congress, Second Session, Part 1, Hearings Before the Subcommittee to Investigate the Administration of the Internal Security Act and Other Internal Security Laws of the Committee on the Judiciary, Testimony of Robert F. Williams, February 16, 1970, 90.
87. Danny Lyons, Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992), 147.
88. Sidney Rittenberg, “Recollections of Robert Williams,” May 4, 1997, unpublished essay in possession of the author. See also Cohen Papers, 312; “Listen, Brother,” Williams Papers.
89. Rittenberg, “Recollection of Robert Williams,” 3. See also Williams, “While God Lay Sleeping: The Autobiography of Robert F. Williams,” typescript in the possession of Timothy B. Tyson, 237-319. My thanks to Robert Williams and the Williams family for sharing this manuscript.
90. Mrs. Rosa Parks, eulogy for Robert Williams, November 22, 1996,