“If I’m called a criminal for advocating that people have the right to defend themselves, for telling them to...fight for what they deserve; if that’s criminal, then I hope, I hope that I will always be a criminal.” -Robert F. Williams
As illustrated by the quote above from the documentary “Negroes With Guns”, Robert Williams’ call for the black population to defend themselves against violence was often met with criticism and backlash from both the United States government as well as members of the white population who believed that if blacks armed themselves, more riots and violence would ensue. In the documentary, Williams’ wife declared that Robert never wanted to be the leader of a national movement, but by confronting racial tensions in the South and calling blacks to claim their rights by any means necessary, Williams became a prominent leader of a widespread self-defense movement in the African American community.
One of the most effective ways that Williams confronted racial tensions in the South was by founding the Black Armed Guard in his hometown of Monroe, NC. This organization, which included black men of all ages, pledged to use violence as a response to any violence aimed at black members of the community. Williams also brought attention to the paradox of racial equality because he carried a pistol down the streets of Monroe. This assertion of his second amendment right, usually only practiced by Southern white men, was “unthinkable” for a black man at the time. Yet by showing his support for the equality and freedom of all citizens, Williams rebelled against the social norms of the time and encouraged others to do the same.
Another facet of Williams’ self-defense campaign that helped confront racial tensions was his encouragement of blacks to use violence to attain their constitutional rights when the Constitution itself was not being enforced. Two incidents helped Williams develop his support of violence as a tool to achieve social change. The first incident occurred in 1958 when some black children and white children were playing together and two black boys kissed a white girl as part of a game. The two young black boys were arrested, beaten, and then jailed in cruel conditions for six days without access to an attorney. Williams wrote several articles about the injustice of the case and the bad press succeeded in getting the boys released from jail early. The second incident was when a white man assaulted and tried repeatedly to rape a pregnant white woman but was found not guilty at his trial. Frustrated by the judges’ refusal in both cases to enforce the appropriate laws, Williams formally incited the black population to use violence, if necessary, to defend their rights and their livelihoods. While Williams was in self-exile in Cuba, he even used his radio show, “Radio Free Dixie”, to encourage African Americans to continue to confront racial tensions and oppression in the United States.
During the Civil Rights Movement, Robert Williams’ campaign for self-defense by any means necessary, including violence, gave blacks a chance to confront racial inequalities and to assert their desire for their rights and privileges as Americans. By founding the Black Armed Guard organization and using his radio show to voice his beliefs about how African Americans should claim their constitutional rights, Williams fostered a movement that condoned violence and contradicted the prominent non-violent movement of the time, championed by other leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and James Lawson. Since King and Williams had such different ideas about the most effective way to achieve change, how do you think they would defend their points of view if put in a room together? Which movement, nonviolent or self-defense, do you think was more effective during the Civil Rights Movement and why?