Could non-violence and love prevail in the face of intransigent racism? Robert Williams (1925-1996) doubted that they could. Historian Timothy B. Tyson has called Williams "one of the most dynamic race rebels of a generation that changed the world."1 Williams was born and raised in Monroe, North Carolina. After a tour of duty in the Marine Cops in the 1950s, he returned to Monroe where he discovered that such triumphs of non-violence as the Montgomery Bus Boycott had merely emboldened the local Ku Klux Klan and provoked violence against blacks. In 1956 he assumed leadership of the nearly defunct local NAACP chapter and within six months had expanded its membership from six to two hundred. Many of the new members were, like him, military veterans trained in the use of arms. In the late 1950s the unwillingness of Southern officials to address white violence against blacks made it increasingly difficult for the NAACP to keep all of its local chapters committed to non-violence. In 1959, after three white men were summarily acquitted of assaulting black women in Monroe, Williams publicly proclaimed the right of African Americans to armed self-defense. The torrent of criticism this statement brought down on the NAACP prompted its leaders—including Thurgood Marshall, Roy Wilkins, and Martin Luther King, Jr.—to denounce Williams. The NAACP eventually suspended him, but he continued to make his case for self-defense: "nonviolence is a very potent weapon when the opponent is civilized, but nonviolence is no repellent for a sadist."
In the excerpts from Negroes with Guns, Williams describes two weeks of picketing that erupted into violence against Freedom Riders in Monroe. He restrains the black response and even rescues a white couple who, at the height of the turmoil, stray into a black neighborhood. After the Monroe incident, Williams and his family fled to Canada and eventually to Cuba, eluding an FBI dragnet. From Havana the views he espoused in his publication The Crusader and on his program "Radio Free Dixie" helped move black activists, including the leadership of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), away from the strategy of pure non-violence. In 1965 Williams moved his family to Beijing, China. When Chinese-American relations improved, the United States government made it possible for him to return to this country. He moved to Michigan, where he supported himself as a writer and activist. His international perspective placed the African American struggle for civil rights into the larger global context of liberation movements. (13 pages.)
- How did the small town setting shape the goals, tactics, and conduct of the petition drive?
- How does Williams's story illustrate the ways in which local conditions established tensions between national and local civil rights leaders?
- What does Williams's story suggest about the national leadership of the civil rights movement in the 1960s?
- How does The Crusader differ from the Montgomery Improvement Association newsletter? What do those differences suggest about the struggles they represent?
- Compare the petition Williams presented to the Monroe Board of Aldermen with the resolution of the Montgomery bus boycotters. What accounts for the differences?
- What role does the Stegall incident play in Williams's story?
- How does Williams present himself in these chapters?
- In "Chicago's Eight Reasons," Walter White (see Theme II: MIGRATIONS) notes the role black World War I veterans played in the Chicago riots of 1919. Compare their role with that played by black veterans in the Monroe protest.
||What forms did African American protest take?|
||How did protest strategies and goals evolve over time?|
||In what ways was African American identity shaped in opposition to the larger American society?||
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Image: John H. Williams, Lorraine Williams Garlington, Edward Williams, and Dr. Albert E. Perry in the Perry living room, Monroe, North Carolina, 1961. Permission pending from John Williams and Wayne State University Press.
1 Timothy Tyson, "Introduction," Negroes with Guns, orig. publ. 1962 (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1998).