Blogs > Liberty and Power > Robert F. Williams and "Negroes With Guns"

Feb 26, 2006 12:53 am

Robert F. Williams and "Negroes With Guns"

Few individuals in American history better exemplified organized armed self-defense for individual rights than Robert F. Williams. He had a remarkable life which took him from the American South, to Cuba, then China, and back to the United States.

Williams was born on this day in Monroe, North Carolina in 1925. He was very much a product of the twin traditions of Southern black gun culture and civil rights.

He entered the national limelight in 1958 when, as head of the local NAACP, he defended two black boys who had been jailed after they were accused of kissing a white girl. He followed this by organizing the Black Armed Guard which worked in cooperation with the National Rifle Association. The Guard encouraged blacks to purchase guns and mobilize to defend civil rights.

In 1959, Williams gained a national following when he debated Martin Luther King Jr. in the black press on the merits of relying on guns for self-defense. Williams argued that the prospect that blacks would be able and willing to shoot back was the best way to prevent violence and make civil-rights gains.

Despite his differences with King, Williams' armed followers protected the Freedom Riders when they came to Monroe. This led to a controversy that led to (apparently trumped up) kidnapping charges against Williams. These charges related to an incident involving a white couple who had wandered into the black area of Monroe by mistake.

Williams fled to Cuba where he made broadcasts to the U.S. on “Radio Free Dixie.” While there, he authored Negroes with Guns. The book emphasized the importance of armed self-defense throughout black history.

It did not take Williams long to have a falling out with Castro and he made his way to China. Throughout these years, he hoped to return to the United States. His prospects for a reconciliation improved when U.S./Chinese relations thawed in the Nixon administration. Eager for inside information on China, the same U.S. government that had once pursued Williams turned to him for advice. Williams returned to the United States where he was hired by the University of Michigan Center for Chinese Studies. Meanwhile, the state of North Carolina dropped all pending charges against him. He died in 1996.

The best general source on Williams’ life is Timothy Tyson, Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power.

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Craig J. Bolton - 2/27/2006

Well, let's hope so, because the alternative is that you and a lot of other good people are going to have tank treads across your bodies.

Personally, I've always liked the old ditty "He who frights and runs aways, lives to fight another day." As I recall, the first American Revolutionaries were known for "sneak attacks," themselves hiding behind the cover of trees and firing at those nice neat redcoats marching in perfect straight lines. And who was that general who once said: "The goal is not to die for your ideals, but to make the other guy die for his."?

Keith Halderman - 2/27/2006

You are making the same point that Bill Marr used to make when disparaging gun rights as a foundation of liberty. He would say that the guns Americans now use would useless against the army's tanks. However, I believe that if it ever came to the point where I felt the need to pick up a gun to defend my freedom many of those driving the tanks would be on my side.

David T. Beito - 2/27/2006

Do you think that slavery would have ended in America in the 1820s had we stayed loyal to king and country?

Craig J. Bolton - 2/27/2006

With this I cannot disagree.

I am merely concerned with the number of otherwise rational seeming people who seem to think that liberty in general and Western civilization in particular are going to be rescued by "gun rights."

Of course, if the danger flows not from government, but from violent private individuals or groups that are out to lynch you or burn your home then guns are a great idea [much better than bare fists or fencing foils]. But I do think we have to be realistic about the circumstances when such tools are effective and when they are not.

Mark Brady - 2/27/2006

And let us not forget the role of thousands of slaves who fought with the British in the American Revolution to throw off the shackles of slavery. See Simon Schama's new book Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution (Ecco, to be published May 1, 2006).

William Marina - 2/26/2006

Actually, Williams' view is that of every rebellion, certainly the Amer. Rev.
Imagine, that instead of syphoning off a number of Black Civil War soldiers to subdue the Indians, all
Black veterans with guns had been given a piece of prime farmland in the South (this is the way today the Chinese farm out their veterans into the western provinces). The Klan might have found that a bit tougher nut to crack!

David T. Beito - 2/26/2006

Williams was really pretty moderate on this for the most part. He emphasized that arming as a deterant to attack not a means to overthrow the government.

As Tom indicates, he had a strong case. Increasingly, the consensus of historians who have dealt with this is that the Klan was more likely to avoid confrontation when they knew that blacks might shoot back. His articles debating with King from 1959 would be well worth distributing at an IHS or Cato conference.

David T. Beito - 2/26/2006

I agree. Actually, King was not entirely against armed self-defense, at least in 1959. In his written debate with Williams, he said that he everyone had a right to use deadly force to defend themselves.....he just didn't think it was the best strategy at the time.

Tom G Palmer - 2/26/2006

I share Mr. Bolton's general doubts about an armed population as a political program, but certainly in the context of racist sheriff's departments and intimidation by the KKK, White Citizens' Councils, and the like, self-defense was an especially important right and option for black Americans. It was unlikely to lead to the overthrow of oppressive governments, but it would have helped people to defend themselves from those intent on harming or intimidating them, thus raising the costs to the intimidators and -- plausibly -- inducing among them greater respect (in practice, if not in theory) for the rights of black people.

Craig J. Bolton - 2/26/2006

But I have the same problem with this approach when advocated for Black liberation as when advocated by people in libertarian circles to "keep us free." My problem is that government has assured to itself a sufficiently dominate position in the use of force that possession of a gun, or 20 guns, for defense against tyranny is simply going to get yourself and a few government grunts killed. No other consequence for anyone else [other than, perhaps, some bad publicity for your "cause"].

Ask the surviving people in MOVE or the Branch Davidians if you think that keeping yourself armed will keep you free [or make you free].

Does that mean that one shouldn't own arms? No, of course not, but it does mean that owning arms is not a feasible political program. In fact, of course, it isn't a political program at all. As Williams' example shows, Marxist Leninists can also be armed and advocate "gun rights."

William Marina - 2/26/2006

I well remember reading Williams' book when it came out, at a time when I was teaching both Black History & American Diplomacy, and many of us were involved in both Civil Rights and Vietnam War protests.
I always felt King's approach was contingent on your opponent having some respect for the law,
whereas there were parts of the South where that simply was not the case.
As someone who had written on the role of weaponry in History -- that, for example, in Ancient Greece, one spear=one vote, was more relevant than high Democrtic theory -- I thought Williams' position had a great deal of validity with respect to fighting the Empire.