1957, Monroe, North Carolina. Robert Franklin Williams and a group of black Americans from “the most militant branch of the NAACP” opened fire on a Ku Klux Klan convoy. In that convoy were two police cars. Williams would be hounded by the law and forced into exile in Cuba for this act (and other acts of resistance in the south), where he wrote Negroes With Guns. In it he explained:
Because there has been much distortion of my position, I wish to make it clear that I do not advocate violence for its own sake or for the sake of reprisals against whites. Nor am I against the passive resistance advocated by the Reverend Martin Luther King and others. My only difference with Dr. King is that I believe in flexibility in the freedom struggle. This means that I believe in non-violent tactics where feasible; the mere fact that I have a Sit-In case pending before the U.S. Supreme Court bears this out. Massive civil disobedience is a powerful weapon under civilized conditions where the law safeguards the citizens’ right of peaceful demonstrations. In civilized society the law serves as a deterrent against lawless forces that would destroy the democratic process. But where there is a breakdown of the law, the individual citizen has a right to protect his person, his family, his home and his property. To me this is so simple and proper that it is self evident.
What has changed? While the Klan has declined, the brutality and racism of American police is as real in 2015 as it was in 1957. Law enforcement no longer dons white sheets, but practices racist violence in blue uniforms. (Let’s also not forget that in 2014 the Klan was found to have infiltrated a Florida police department and racist scandals are still common in police departments.) It was post-’57 that we saw the birth of Special Weapons And Tactics (SWAT), police squads created with the specific purpose of crushing the Black Panther Party and armed with military weapons and training. Post-’57 gave us the War On Drugs and the subsequent prison population explosion, stealing the lives of millions of black, brown and white men and women. The crude racism of the Klan’s mobs gave way to efficient, institutional racism.
What, then, has changed? Williams wrote “where there is a breakdown of the law,” but when has the law not been broken? Do we not have the same right to defend ourselves against men in blue suits as we do against men in white sheets?
All this time three policemen had been standing about fifty feet away from us while we kept waiting in the car for them to come and rescue us. Then when they saw that we were armed and the mob couldn’t take us, two of the policemen started running. One ran straight to me, grabbed me on the shoulder, and said, “Surrender your weapon! Surrender your weapon!” I struck him in the face and knocked him back away from the car and put my carbine in his face, and I told him we were not going to surrender to a mob. I told him that we didn’t intend to be lynched. The other policeman who had run around the side of the car started to draw his revolver out of the holster. He was hoping to shoot me in the back. They didn’t know that we had more than one gun. One of the students (who was seventeen years old) put a .45 in the policeman’s face and told him that if he pulled out his pistol he would kill him. The policeman started putting his gun back into the holster and backing away from the car, and he fell into the ditch.
This was not the end of the story of our struggle in Monroe in 1961. By a quirk of fate the next episode involved the Freedom Riders and their policy of passive resistance. The contrast between the results of their policy and the results of our policy of self-defense is a dramatic object lesson for all Negroes. But before I go on to that I have to describe how our policy of self-defense developed and how the Negro community in Monroe came to support my conclusion that we had to “meet violence with violence.”
After the Klan was repelled in the ’57 shootout outside the NAACP headquarters home of Dr. Perry, they turned to purely legal forms of intimidation. As Williams put it, “After the Klan learned that violence wouldn’t serve their purpose they started to use the racist courts.” An abortion accusation was filed against a physician who fought Jim Crow. Two black children, aged 7 and 9, were arrested on rape charges. One of the boys, Hanover Thompson, had received a kiss on the cheek from a white playmate. This was all that was necessary to hold the two boys incommunicado in a juvenile reformatory for fourteen years.
Meanwhile, when black men and women were victimized by white offenders they did not receive equal treatment under the law. White juries routinely excused white offenses. This is a pattern we continue to see today, especially if the defendant is a white policeman. This is what catalyzed Williams’s belief that the law could no longer be relied upon for justice:
I told them that in a civilized society the law is a deterrent against the strong who would take advantage of the weak, but the South is not a civilized society; the South is a social jungle. So in cases like this we have to revert to the law of the jungle; it had become necessary for us to create our own deterrent. I said that in the future we would defend our women and children, our homes and ourselves with our arms. That we would meet violence with violence.
My statement was reprinted all over the United States. What I had said was, “This demonstration today shows that the Negro in the South cannot expect justice in the courts. He must convict his attackers on the spot. He must meet violence with violence, lynching with lynching.”
This isn’t the civil rights narrative we’re taught. And yet, Williams was a seed of the militant civil rights movement. It was Williams and his story that inspired Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale and the armed struggle ethic of the Black Panther Party. While the state, power and white supremacy quickly co-opted the nonviolent struggle of Martin Luther King Jr., it would be much harder to co-opt “meet violence with violence, lynching with lynching.”
We should clarify here, as did Williams: “I was speaking of self-defense when the courts fail to protect us.” This was not a call of random violence against white men and women. It wasn’t a call for racially motivated lynching. Instead, it was a call for extralegal forms of justice when the criminal justice system fails. It was a call for the black community to defend itself, with violence, and impose its own laws, codes and punishments in response to injustices from outside the community.
This [NAACP] pamphlet tried to confuse my demand that Negroes meet violence with violence as a means of self-defense with the advocacy of lynch law. In its own way the national office contributed to the erroneous impression played up by the racist press that I was agitating for race war and the indiscriminate slaughter of white people.
I wonder if what Williams said would be permitted today: “lynching with lynching.” We’re seeing a lot of manufactured outrage, reactionary responses to increased awareness of anti-police and anti-brutality movements. How about Saida Grundy, the university professor who is currently being dragged through the particularly anti-intellectual court of public opinion for a Twitter comment condemning “white masculinity.” And how about Ebony Dickens and Michael Leshawn McCullum, who I’ve commented on, who essentially reiterated “lynching with lynching” in a not particularly tactful way. Those two were arrested.
(If you follow the discourse of reactionaries, by the way, many will condemn “political correctness” or so-called “social justice warriors.” But isn’t the epitome of stupidly pronounced political correctness actually found in the manufactured sensitivity of such reactionaries themselves? The type of person who becomes outraged over a critique of “white masculinity” is also the first to deny the myriad manifestations of racism in the American way of life. And that is the same double standard Williams recounted in Negroes With Guns, when white Americans formed lynch mobs but cried foul when black Americans stood up to those mobs with weapons.)
In 1960 we started a sit-in campaign. We became the thirteenth town in North Carolina to start sit-in demonstrations. Though the NAACP wasn’t taking notice, our sit-ins proved that self-defense and non-violence could be success-fully combined. There was less violence in the Monroe sit-ins than in any other sit-ins in the South. In other communities there were Negroes who had their skulls fractured, but not a single demonstrator was even spat upon during our sit-ins. We had less violence because we had shown the willingness and readiness to fight and defend ourselves. We didn’t appear on the streets of Monroe as beggars depending upon the charity and generosity of white supremacists. We appeared as people with strength, and it was to the mutual advantage of all parties concerned that peaceful relations be maintained.
Williams titled the fourth chapter of Negroes With Guns “Non-Violence Emboldens the Racists.” This isn’t a popular idea today. Nonviolence, including forms of nonviolent resistance and even nonviolent civil disobedience, has been co-opted by the state and in many cases is directly endorsed by the state. We’re taught, wrongly, that it was nonviolence and nonviolence alone that changed the world: from Gandhi’s struggles in British India, to Martin Luther King Jr. in the USA, to Nelson Mandela in South Africa.
We’re conditioned to forget that it was the persons who resisted with force that made way for the potential of nonviolent activism. That if nonviolent activism can work, it is only because those in power realize the alternative to acquiescing nonviolent demands is violence. It is time to return to what Williams called “flexibility in the freedom struggle.”