Robert Williams, a NAACP leader in Monroe North Carolina in the 50’s believed in — and practiced — armed resistance against the Ku Klux Klan. In 1958, he helped make the “Kissing Case”, 7 and 9 year old black boys accused of rape, an international cause. His book, Negroes With Guns, which he wrote in 1962 while on the run in Cuba, was a major influence on Huey Newton and the Black Panthers.
While in Cuba, he started a radio station, Radio Free Dixie, broadcasting to America. From 1965-69 he lived in China as a honored guest of the government, returning to the US in 1969 where he aided in opening relations between China and the US, and worked as a China scholar. He died in 1996.
The “Kissing Case”
In 1958 he played an major role in freeing two black boys, aged 7 and 9, who had been arrested for rape for kissing a 9 year old white girl. White mobs wanted to kill them and their parents. Yes, things really were that insane.
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.
Monroe, North Carolina
Williams was a counterpoint to the non-violent philosophy practiced by Martin Luther King. However he viewed it as self-defense. When the Klan is shooting at you, he said, you are justified in shooting back.
An essay by Dr. Michael S. Brown, proud NRA member, as was Williams, says:
The year was 1957. Monroe, North Carolina, was a rigidly segregated town where all levels of white society and government were dedicated to preserving the racial status quo. Blacks who dared to speak out were subject to brutal, sadistic violence.
It was common practice for convoys of Ku Klux Klan members to drive through black neighborhoods shooting in all directions. A black physician who owned a nice brick house on a main road was a frequent target of racist anger. In the summer of 1957, a Klan motorcade sent to attack the house was met by a disciplined volley of rifle fire from a group of black veterans and NRA members led by civil rights activist Robert F. Williams.
Using military-surplus rifles from behind sandbag fortifications, the small band of freedom fighters drove off the larger force of Klansmen with no casualties reported on either side.
It appears that the organized armed blacks of Monroe never shot any of their tormentors. The simple existence of guns in the hands of men who were willing to use them prevented greater violence.
From the University of Florida website about their documentary on Williams.
Robert Williams, often dubbed the “violent crusader,” intended his philosophy of armed self-defense to work in tandem with non-violent resistance.
Instead, that philosophy became the catalyst for a national showdown between two opposing philosophies of the civil rights movement.
In August 1961, Freedom Riders came to Monroe, North Carolinaâ€”Williamsâ€™ hometownâ€”to prove that passive resistance rather than armed self-defense would defeat the local Klan and improve race relations. But on August 27th all hell broke loose.
By the end of the day, Freedom Riders had been bloodied, beaten, and jailed and Rob Williams was on the run from the FBI.
Timothy B. Tyson, author of Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams & the Roots of Black Power, writes:
Williams came face-to-face with racism early on. As an 11-year-old in 1936, he saw a white policeman, Jesse Helms, Sr. beat an African-American woman to the ground. Williams watched in terror as North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms’ father hit the woman and “dragged her off to the nearby jailhouse, her dress up over her head, the same way that a cave man would club and drag his sexual prey.”
During World War II, Williams went North to find work. He fought in the Detroit Riot of 1943, when white mobs killed dozens of black citizens.
As president of the Monroe NAACP in the late 1950s, Williams watched as members of his community were denied basic rights, tormented by the KKK, and ignored in the courts. Seeing no other recourse, he began to advocate “armed self-reliance” in the face of the white terrorism. Members of his NAACP chapter protected their homes against the Klan with rifles and sandbag fortifications.
As the debate over violence and nonviolence raged in 1961, King dispatched “Freedom Riders” to organize a nonviolent campaign in Williams’ hometown. But white mobs caused the nonviolent crusade in Monroe to disintegrate into violence, and Robert and Mabel <his wife> were forced to flee to Cuba to escape the hundreds of FBI agents who combed the countryside for them.
In Cuba, Williams wrote Negroes With Guns, which was a pivotal influence on Huey P. Newton, founder of the Black Panther Party. He and Mabel aired a radio show and continued to publish their newspaper, The Crusader, for thousands of subscribers.
From Cuba, he went to China.
In 1965, Williams moved his family to the People’s Republic of China, where they lived among the upper circles of the Chinese government during the Cultural Revolution.
When President Richard Nixon’s administration launched secret contacts with China in the late 1960s, Williams bartered his knowledge of the Chinese government for safe passage home and a Ford Foundation grant to work at the Center for Chinese Studies at the University of Michigan. He played a significant role in the historic opening of diplomatic relations between the United States and China.
A mind-boggling excerpt from the biography (from a book review):
As soon as Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. heard race riots were erupting in Monroe, North Carolina, late in August 1961, his first phone call was to Robert F. Williams, the man he knew was right in the middle of it.
But when the phone rang at Williams’ house he was too busy to take the call. Standing in his front yard, peering up and down the street, he was armed with a 9-mm pistol, a light rifle, a German luger, a machine gun, and he had somewhere between 500 and 600 rounds of ammunition slung about his body. He was certainly not a poster boy for King’s non-violent SCLC, but then, he was expecting a KKK mob on his street at any hour, plus the governor’s office had just issued a warrant for his arrest. The FBI, too, were on their way. He decided it was time to leave town.
The reviewer concludes with:
To Dr. King’s criticism of his policies of self-defense, Williams replied, “Nowhere in the annals of history does the record show a people delivered from bondage by patience alone.” And within that opinion, particularly in a country that had to fight a bloody war for its own freedom, it is hard to find error.
Negroes with Guns: Rob Williams and Black Power
“Written, produced and directed by The Documentary Institute of the University of Floridaâ€™s College of Journalism and Communications.”
Negroes With Guns
First published 1962
Reprinted Wayne State University Press, 1998
Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams & the Roots of Black Power
Timothy B. Tyson
University of North Carolina Press, 2001
While God Lay Sleeping: The Autobiography of Robert F. Williams
Addendum: Robert Williams was not the only one practicing armed self-defense.
Charles Sims was founder and president of the Deacons for Defense and Justice, formed around 1964 in Jonesboro, La. The armed Black self-defense squads organized after cordons of cops escorted a Klan march through an African American neighborhood.
When the Black community forged armed self-defense squads, the racist reign of terror abated. By 1965, there were 62 chapters spread throughout the South and a chapter coalesced in Chicago.
With a self-defense squad of just 200, Sims assessed, “I could stop 2,000.”
Sims described how state troopers marched into Bogalusa in 1964, armed with guns, cattle prods and horses. Sims informed the head of the troopers that if one African American were shocked with a prod or trampled by a horse, blood would run in the streets.
The troopers pulled out of town.
I think it’s important to note that while the more pacifist leaders of the civil rights movement and the armed self-defense groups may have had differences of opinion on tactics, they were completely united on stopping the racism and discrimination, and people on all sides of this debate showed huge heroism and self-sacrifice in the struggle. In fact, after reading the accounts of what Williams and Dr. King went through in early 60’s, I am stunned at the viciousness with which they were met. Yet, they persisted, and eventually triumphed.