As we continue to celebrate Black History Month, I’d like to spotlight the late Robert F. Williams on what would have been his 96th birthday.
Williams was born Feb. 26, 1925 in Monroe, NC. As leader of the Monroe branch of the NAACP back when the organization was considered radical and a communist front, Williams was a vocal player in the Freedom Movement. He is perhaps best known for advocating armed self-defense by African Americans, and successfully repelled a number of attempts at violence by mobs and night riders. His life story then takes on the character of a Cold War thriller when he was forced to flee to Cuba and then China to avoid Jim Crow “justice” in Monroe.
Williams was instrumental in creating the foundation for the later Black Power movement, though he did not take an active leadership role in it. While he was most certainly not opposed to nonviolence, he disagreed that was the best tactic in all circumstances, later saying “we had to resist, and that resistance could be effective if we resisted in groups, and if we resisted with guns.” Nevertheless, he remained adamant that “The weapons that you have are not to kill people with—killing is wrong… Your guns are to protect your families—to stop them from being killed.”
The life of Robert F. Williams is a case study not just in the violence and injustice of the Jim Crow South but also in the active debate in the Freedom Movement about how to liberate themselves. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is rightly remembered as a great man and a leader of the nonviolent arm of the movement; Robert F. Williams deserves commensurate respect as a Civil Rights leader, and studying him and his tactics is just as important to a full understanding of the movement as studying King is.
After finally returning home to the US in 1969, he settled in Michigan near family who had left the South. On October 15, 1996, Robert Williams passed away in his bed. Rosa Parks spoke at his funeral.
For further reading, I highly recommend Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams & the Roots of Black Power by Timothy B. Tyson (University of North Carolina Press, 1999). At 308 pages of content, it’s not exactly short, but it is extremely well written and as enjoyable as any history of a traumatic era can be.