“I just wasn't going to allow white men to have that much authority over me.” —Robert Williams
Taken from the title of Robert Williams's 1962 manifesto entitled Negroes with Guns, NEGROES WITH GUNS: ROB WILLIAMS AND BLACK POWER tells the wrenching story of the now-forgotten civil rights activist who dared to challenge not only the Klan-dominated establishment in his small North Carolina hometown but also the nonviolence-advocating leadership of the mainstream Civil Rights Movement. Williams, who had witnessed countless acts of brutality against his neighbors, courageously gave public expression to the private philosophy of many African Americans—that armed self-defense was both a practical matter of survival and an honorable position, particularly in the violent racist heart of the Deep South. Featuring a jazz score by Terence Blanchard (Barbershop and the films of Spike Lee), NEGROES WITH GUNS combines modern-day interviews with rare archival news footage and interviews to tell the story of Williams, the forefather of the black power movement and a fascinating, complex man who played a pivotal role in the struggle for respect, dignity and equality for all Americans. NEGROES WITH GUNS, produced by Sandra Dickson and Churchill Roberts (Freedom Never Dies: The Legacy of Harry T. Moore) will air on the Emmy Award–winning PBS series Independent Lens, hosted by Edie Falco, on Tuesday, February 7, 2006, at 10pm (check local listings), in conjunction with the celebration of Black History Month.
“I advocated violent self-defense because I don't really think you can have a defense against violent racists and against terrorists unless you are prepared to meet violence with violence, and my policy was to meet violence with violence.” —Robert Williams
Born and raised in the small, segregated North Carolina town of Monroe, Williams grew up in an African American community in which brutalization by whites was an everyday occurrence. The Klan was a powerful force in Monroe, and African Americans there, as in most of America at that time, learned to keep a low profile in the face of white power.
But not Williams. As his wife, Mabel, recalls in the film, Williams's strong grandmother taught him to stand up for himself, and it was she who gave him his first gun. Says Mabel, “That was a symbol of their family's resistance against oppression.” After graduating from high school, Williams enlisted in the Marine Corps, but was sorely disappointed when he was passed over because of his race for the training he wanted, in broadcasting. He returned to Monroe in 1956 and joined the NAACP, soon becoming president of his local chapter. With his fellow members, Williams waged a campaign to integrate the local public swimming pool.
Angered by Williams's audacity, the Klan stepped up its harassment of Monroe's black citizens. Williams decided to form the Black Guard, an armed group committed to the protection of Monroe's black community. Members were on call to keep the peace and come to aid of black citizens, whose calls to the police usually went unanswered. White men in Monroe traditionally were armed; Williams felt that the black community should take advantage of its right to be armed as well and not accept violence as inevitable. “We were never looking for trouble. As long as you peaceful, we peaceful. You become violent, we become violent. We weren't attacking anybody, just protecting ourselves.” —Richard Crowder, member of Monroe's Black Guard Having a community of armed black citizens enraged Monroe's white leadership and created a powder-keg situation on the streets of the small town. Klan activity increased, and shots were fired into black homes. Meanwhile, Williams began a public relations campaign, outlining the violent situation in Monroe in editorials that ran in newspapers all across the South. The Civil Rights Movement was gaining momentum throughout the region, and Williams became an increasingly visible figure in the movement.
Then, in 1958, Monroe was rocked by the so-called Kissing Case, an incident in which a black boy kissed a white girl during a kissing game. Two black boys—aged 8 and 10—were arrested, locked in jail and terrorized for six days, and eventually sentenced to reform school. As Williams's biographer, Tim Tyson, recounts, Williams “turned into kind of a one-man press office for the Kissing Case, and he managed to get this out to the front pages of newspapers all over the world.” Because of the bad publicity, the judge commuted the boys' sentence.
Soon after, another big case strained Monroe to the breaking point. A pregnant black woman was chased through a field by a white man intent on raping her. Some black men in the community thought the Black Guard should take up arms against the offender, but Williams insisted that they trust the law. The offender was found not guilty and released. For Williams and the majority of Monroe's black citizens, that verdict was the last straw. As Williams recalls, it was after the verdict “that I made a statement that if the law, if the United States Constitution, cannot be enforced in this social jungle called Dixie, it is time that Negroes must defend themselves, even if it is necessary to resort to violence.” Williams' angry words sent tremors of fear throughout the white community and also put off many mainstream black civil rights activists, who knew that Williams's philosophy would not play well among their liberal white supporters. The NAACP suspended him from his post, but Williams kept agitating for change, despite ever-mounting threats.
Williams chose not to align himself with the more prevalent nonviolent side of the Civil Rights Movement, headed by Dr. Martin Luther King. Williams did, however, support the intentions of the Freedom Riders, who were appearing all over the South throughout those years. In August 1961, Freedom Riders came to Monroe to assist Williams in his struggle and demonstrate that passive resistance rather than armed self-defense was the superior tactic. But on August 27, all hell broke loose. As several Monroe residents and former Freedom Riders dramatically recount in NEGROES WITH GUNS, droves of Klansmen poured into town, and by the end of the day, the Freedom Riders had been bloodied, beaten and jailed.
Williams, who had supported the newcomers by providing housing and other help, did not go downtown to join them. Instead, he stayed at home and ended up probably saving the lives of the Stegalls, a white couple who mistakenly drove into the black part of town and ran into a mob whose anger was fueled by what was happening downtown. According to Williams, he encouraged the couple to stay put for several hours, then he released them when the mob had quieted. But by the end of the day, Williams and his family were on the run from the FBI, which had charged Williams with kidnapping the Stegalls.
As we see from extensive newsreel footage of the era, Williams spent the next eight years in exile, continuing his fight against racism. He was given political asylum in Cuba, and he began his Radio Free Dixie broadcasts, a unique combination of music and fiery black power rhetoric that, among other things, urged black soldiers not to fight in Vietnam. The broadcasts were heard as far away as Los Angeles and New York City. But Williams wasn't a communist, and an ideological falling out with Castro ended the Williams family's stay in Cuba. They then went to China, where they were greeted warmly by Mao.
In 1962, Williams's Negroes with Guns was published, and it became an unofficial founding document of the black power movement. By 1969, the political landscape in the United States had changed significantly, and Williams was able to return home. The kidnapping charges against him were dropped, and the Nixon administration, intent on opening up diplomatic relations with China, enlisted Williams's advice. Many expected him to step into a leadership role in the black militant movement, but instead he became a Ford Fellow in China Studies at the University of Michigan and retired to a quiet life as a writer and community activist. He died of cancer in 1996, an old warrior but thankfully not a martyr for racial justice, which was just as he intended.
NEGROES WITH GUNS is not only an incisive look at a truly fascinating man but also a thought-provoking examination of our notions of patriotism and the acceptable limits of dissent. Williams's conviction that people have a right to defend themselves against brutality may seem like a natural and obvious response today, but as the film shows, it was a concept so radical in its time that it scared whites as well as blacks. But as the film shows, Williams prevailed. He ended up being able to live out his days peacefully fighting for his convictions instead of being killed during the dangerous days of the Civil Rights Movement. Perhaps best of all, he lived to see Monroe integrated, with black and white children swimming in the same public pool, unaware of the battle it took to make such a seemingly simple thing possible. His beliefs inspired a generation of black radicals who in turn altered American history.
The NEGROES WITH GUNS interactive companion website (www.pbs.org/independentlens/negroeswithguns) features detailed information on the film, including an interview with the filmmakers and links and resources pertaining to the film's subject matter. The site also features a Talkback section for viewers to share their ideas and opinions, to preview clips of the film and more.
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