Robert F. Williams: Civil Rights leader that promoted armed self-defense for blacks (Video and Biography)

Robert F. Williams {Negroes with GUNS}


Robert Franklin Williams (February 26, 1925 – October 15, 1996) was a civil rights leader, the president of the Monroe, North Carolina NAACP chapter in the 1950s and early 1960s, and author. At a time when racial tension was high and official abuses were rampant, Williams was a key figure in promoting both integration and armed black self-defense in the United States. He and his wife left the United States in 1961 to avoid prosecution for kidnapping. A self-professed Black Nationalist and supporter of liberation, he lived in both Cuba and communist China in self-imposed exile. He was a fugitive from justice for many years after he was falsely accused of kidnapping (The charges were later dropped).
Williams’ book Negroes with Guns (1962), published while he was in exile in Cuba, details his experience with violent racism and his disagreement with the pacifist Civil Rights Movement philosophies. It was influential with younger black men, including Huey Newton, who founded the Black Panthers.

Early life

Williams was born in Monroe, North Carolina in 1925 to Emma C. and John L. Williams, a railroad boiler washer. His grandmother, a former slave, gave Williams the rifle with which his grandfather, a Republican campaigner and publisher of the newspaper The People’s Voice, had defended himself in the hard years after Reconstruction. At the age of 11, Williams witnessed the beating and dragging of a black woman by the police officer Jesse Helms, Sr. (He was the father of future US Senator Jesse Helms.)
As a young man, Williams joined the Great Migration, traveling north for work during World War II. He witnessed race riots in Detroit in 1943, prompted by labor competition between European immigrants and African Americans. Drafted in 1944, he served for a year and a half in the segregated Army before returning home to Monroe.

Marriage and family

In 1947, Williams married Mabel Robinson, a fellow civil rights activist. They had two children together.

Kissing Case

Williams entered the national civil rights struggle by working with the NAACP as a community organizer in Monroe. When in 1958 he defended two young black boys, who were jailed after being accused of kissing a white girl, he became famous around the world. His publicity campaign helped provoke headlines in the global press, which ridiculed North Carolina officials. He was instrumental in shaming the local officials into releasing the boys. The controversy was known as the “Kissing Case”. (The white girl had kissed one of the boys on the cheek.)


On 12 May 1958, the Raleigh Eagle (North Carolina) reported that Nationwide Insurance Company was canceling Williams’ collision and comprehensive coverage, effective that day. They first canceled all of his automobile insurance, but decided to reinstate his liability and medical payments coverage, enough for Williams to retain his car license. The company said that Williams’ affiliation with the NAACP was not a factor; they noted “that rocks had been thrown at his car and home several times by people driving by his home at night. These incidents just forced us to get off the comprehensive and collision portions of his policy.” The newspaper article reported that Williams had said that six months before, a 50-car Ku Klux Klan caravan had swapped gunfire with a group of blacks outside the home of Dr. A. E. Perry, vice president of the local NAACP chapter. The article quotes police chief A. A. Maurey as denying part of that story. He said, “I know there was no shooting,” and explained that he had had several police cars accompanying the KKK caravan to watch for possible law violations.
The article quoted Williams: “These things have happened,” Williams insisted. “Police try to make it appear that I have been exaggerating and trying to stir up trouble. If police tell me I am in no danger and that they can’t confirm these events, why then has my insurance been cancelled?”

Black Armed Guard

The local NAACP was working to integrate the public swimming pools. They organized peaceful demonstrations, but some drew gunfire. No one was arrested or punished, although law enforcement officers were present.
Williams had already started the Black Armed Guard to defend the local black community from racist activity. At a time when gun ownership was fairly common in the South, KKK membership numbered some 15,000 locally.Black residents fortified their homes with sandbags and trained to use rifles in the event of night raids by the Klan.In Negroes with Guns (Chap 4), Williams writes: “[R]acist 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.”
Followers attested to Williams’ advocating the use of advanced powerful weaponry rather than more traditional firearms. Williams insisted his position was defensive, as opposed to a declaration of war. He called it “armed self-reliance” in the face of white terrorism. Threats against Williams’ life and his family became more frequent. In 1959, Williams debated the merits of nonviolence with Martin Luther King Jr at the NAACP convention. The national NAACP office suspended his local chapter presidency for six months because of his outspoken disagreements with the national leadership. He said his wife would take over his position and he would continue his leadership through her.

Freedom Riders

When CORE dispatched “freedom riders” from the North to Monroe to campaign in 1961, the local NAACP chapter served as their base. Around this time, a white couple in a town nearby drove through the black section of Monroe after some escalated disputes at the courthouse, but were stopped in the street by an angry crowd. For their safety, they were taken to Williams’ home.Williams initially told them that they were free to go, but he soon realized that the crowd would not grant safe passage. He kept the white couple in a house nearby until they were able to safely leave the neighborhood.

The FBI’s wanted poster alerted people to an armed kidnapper.

North Carolina law enforcement admonished Williams and accused him of having kidnapped the couple. He and his family fled the state with local law enforcement in pursuit. His eventual interstate flight triggered prosecution by the FBI.
On August 28, 1961, an FBI Most Wanted warrantwas issued in Charlotte, North Carolina, charging Williams with unlawful interstate flight to avoid prosecution for kidnapping. The FBI document lists Williams as a “free lance writer and janitor” and states that (Williams)”…has previously been diagnosed as a schizophrenic and has advocated and threatened violence… considered armed and extremely dangerous.” After the appearance of this Wanted poster, signed by the director J. Edgar Hoover, Williams decided to leave the country.

Flight and return

Williams went to Cuba by way of Canada and then Mexico. He regularly broadcast addresses to Southern blacks on “Radio Free Dixie”, a station he established with assistance from Cuban President Fidel Castro and operated from 1962-1965. During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, Williams used Radio Free Dixie to urge black soldiers in the U.S. armed forces, who were then preparing for a possible invasion of Cuba to eliminate the Soviet nuclear arsenal, to engage in insurrection against the United States. “While you are armed, remember this is your only chance to be free. . . . This is your only chance to stop your people from being treated worse than dogs. We’ll take care of the front, Joe, but from the back, he’ll never know what hit him. You dig?”
During this stay, Mabel and Robert Williams published the newspaper, The Crusader. Williams wrote his book, Negroes With Guns, while in Cuba. It had a significant influence on Huey P. Newton, founder of the Black Panthers. Despite his absence from the United States, in 1964 Williams was elected president of the US-based Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM). In 1965 Williams traveled to Hanoi, then the capital of North Vietnam. He advocated armed violence against the United States during the Vietnam War, congratulated China on obtaining its own nuclear weapons (which Williams referred to as “The Freedom Bomb”), and sided with the North Vietnamese against the United States.
Some Communist Party USA members opposed Williams’ positions, suggesting they would divide the working class in the U.S. along racial lines. In a May 18, 1964 letter from Havana to his U.S. lawyer, civil rights attorney Conrad Lynn, Williams wrote:
…the U.S.C.P. has openly come out against my position on the Negro struggle. In fact, the party has sent special representatives here to sabotage my work on behalf of U.S. Negro liberation. They are pestering the Cubans to remove me from the radio, ban THE CRUSADER and to take a number of other steps in what they call `cutting Williams down to size.’…
The whole thing is due to the fact that I absolutely refuse to take direction from Gus Hall’s idiots…I hope to depart from here, if possible, soon. I am writing you to stand by in case I am turned over to the FBI…
Sincerely, Rob.
In 1965, Williams and his wife left Cuba to settle in China, where he was well received. They lived comfortably there and he associated with higher functionaries of the Chinese government. In January 1968, Lynn wrote to encourage Williams to return to the US. Williams responded:
The only thing that prevents my acceptance and willingness to make an immediate return is the present lack of adequate financial assurance for a fight against my being railroaded to jail and an effective organization to arouse the people.
I don’t think it will be wise to announce my nomination and immediate return unless the kind of money is positively available…
Lynn then wrote Williams in a January 24, 1968 letter that “You are wise in not making a decision to come back until the financial situation is assured.” Because no financial backing could be found, no 1968 “Williams for President” campaign was ever launched by Williams’ supporters in the United States. By November 1969, Williams apparently had become disillusioned with the U.S. left. As his lawyer, Conrad Lynn, noted in a November 7, 1969 letter to Haywood Burns of the Legal Defense Foundation (that can be found in Lynn’s papers at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University):
Williams now clearly takes the position that he has been deserted by the left. How and whether he fits black militant organizations into that category I don’t know. Radio Free Europe offered him pay to broadcast for them. So far he has refused. But he has not foreclosed making a deal with the government or the far right. He takes the position that he is entitled to make any maneuver to keep from going to jail for kidnapping…
Williams was suspected by the Justice Department of wanting to fill the vacuum of influence left after the assassinations of his friends Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. Hoover received reports that blacks looked to Williams as a figure similar to John Brown. Attempts to contact the U.S. government in order to return were rebuffed consistently. He returned via London, England to Detroit, Michigan in 1969 and was immediately arrested for extradition to North Carolina for trial on the kidnapping charge. Shortly after he returned, the approaching period of détente augured a warming of relations with the People’s Republic of China.
Williams was tried in Monroe, North Carolina in December 1975. The historian Gwendolyn Midlo Hall chaired his defense committee and a broad range of leftists arrived in town. Attorney William S. Kunstler represented Williams in court. The state of North Carolina dropped all charges against him almost immediately.

Later years

Williams was given a grant by the Ford Foundation to work at the University of Michigan Center for Chinese Studies. He wrote While God Lay Sleeping: The Autobiography of Robert F. Williams.
He died from Hodgkin’s disease in 1996. At his funeral, Rosa Parks, who started the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955, recounted the high regard for Robert F. Williams by those who marched peacefully with King in Alabama.

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