Robert Williams Tribute
In the revolutionary atmosphere of the 1960s, Robert Williams seemed to be everywhere.
The civil rights activist's 1962 book "Negroes with Guns" is credited with being part of the intellectual foundation for the founding of the Black Panther Party....
But Williams name isn't included in most present-day accounts of the civil rights movement....
But while Williams used nonviolent protest and boycotts, he was also arming local blacks and teaching them marksmanship and self-defense. He and other activists lived in fear for their lives amid what the documentary describes as widespread and open Ku Klux Klan activity in Monroe and surrounding Union County, where [Timothy] Tyson said Klan rallies regularly attracted thousands of participants.
"We were never looking for trouble," said Yusef Crowder, a member of one of Williams' "Black Guard" units, in the film. "As long as you're peaceful, we're peaceful; but if you become violent, we have to become violent."
That approach had its merits. Here, from an earlier post of mine, are excerpts from some accounts of one example of Williams' armed self-defense actions in Monroe, a defense of the local NAACP chapter leader's house:
Civil rights volunteers, in groups of 50 a night, took turns standing guard at Albert Perry's house. They dug foxholes, piled up sandbags, and kept steel helmets and gas masks handy. They also stockpiled over 600 firearms.
On the night of October 5, 1957, a Klan motorcade approached the Perry house. The civil rights workers opened fire, having been told not to shoot unless necessary.
* * *
The fire was blistering, disciplined and frightening. The motorcade of about eighty cars, which had begun in a spirit of good fellowship, disintegrated into chaos, with panicky, robed men fleeing in every direction. Some had to abandon their automobiles and continue on foot.
Back to the review:
That position conflicted with the beliefs of some civil rights leaders and many of the white liberals who were beginning to support the movement. In 1959, the NAACP suspended Williams' chapter because of his Black Guard activities.
The two approaches clashed openly in the summer of 1961, when Freedom Riders from King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference arrived in Monroe to try to integrate the town through nonviolent protest — and prove to Williams that nonviolence was the best path. On a Sunday afternoon, they clashed with the Klan and others in downtown Monroe, sparking what Tyson and the documentary describe as a race riot.
In the middle of the chaos, a white couple drove into the heart of Monroe's black community and were surrounded by a mob.
"Williams comes out of his house, saying, 'You're not killing these people in my front yard,' and stops them from being killed," Tyson said. He kept the couple in his home for a couple of hours, shielding him from the mob — an action that led local police to charge him with kidnapping....
Tyson, author of the Williams biography "Radio Free Dixie," is interviewed extensively in the documentary. He believes Williams is left out of modern accounts of the civil rights movement because he "didn't fit into our kind of sugarcoated version" of that era.
"The history of the civil rights movement has been largely written by white liberals who admire the movement and in their sort of paternalistic way wish to protect it from its complexities," Tyson said. In writing a "politically acceptable and soothing account ... they've tended to grind off the rough edges and paper over the passionate differences of opinion."
He said many of the tributes to Rosa Parks following her death last year left out the fact that she was a black nationalist and a gun owner. Williams and Parks were close — when he was buried in Monroe following his death in 1996 at 71, Parks delivered his eulogy.
"Williams gets ignored because you can't tell his story without messing up the mainstream story," Tyson said.