Armed and Ready : The Story of Rob F. Williams, Black History 365

Last spring and summer we’ve seen black lives being lost to the hands of police, and it’s been happening for decades, may I saw centuries. This past summer I became aware of “The Not Fucking Around Coalition (NFAC) a black nationalist paramilitary militia movement that arms itself against attacks from white supremacists and any other opposition. They once took the streets armed ready to defend against any white supremacists. The reason I’m bringing them up to start this post is that in this entry of Black History 365 I’ll be presenting the story behind Rob Williams and his version of Black Power which meant advocating for the arming of black people with guns to defend against the violence that came their way.

Robert Franklin Williams was the first African American civil rights leader to advocate armed resistance to racial oppression and violence. Robert F. Williams was born on February 26 1925 in Monroe, North Carolina. The fourth of five children born to Emma Carter Williams and John Williams, Williams quickly learned to navigate the dangers of being black in the Deep South. The Ku Klux Klan was rampant in the Deep South and in this case Monroe and their feared force and power where Williams lived in had the community regularly brutalized at the hands of these white supremacists. 

Williams’ grandmother, a well-read and proud woman was born a slave in Union County in 1858. She taught Williams to cherish his heritage and to not back down from adversity. Before she died, she presented her young grandson with his first gun, a rifle that had belonged to his grandfather, as a symbol of their family’s resistance against racial oppression. 

After high school, Williams joined the Marines with the hopes of being assigned to information services, where he could pursue journalism. He would instead receive a typical assignment given to African American Marines at that time: supply sergeant. Williams’ resistance to the Marine Corps’ racial discrimination earned him an “undesirable” discharge and which cause him to return to Monroe. 

Becoming a Leader

In 1956, Williams took over leadership of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) which was close to disbanding due to a relentless backlash by the Ku Klux Klan. Williams canvassed for new members and eventually expanded the branch from only six to more than 200 members. 

Williams would subsequently file for a charter in the National Rifle Association (NRA) and formed the Black Guard, an armed group committed to the protection of Monroe’s black population. Members received weapons and physical training from Williams to be prepared to keep the peace and come to the aid of black citizens, whose reports for help from law enforcement often went ignored. 

With his fellow NAACP members, Williams went on to start local civil rights campaigns and brought conditions of the Jim Crow South to the attention of the national and international media. Furthermore, Williams led an ongoing fight to integrate the local public swimming pool and opposed the condemnation of two young African American boys for the “crime” of kissing a white girl during a harmless child’s game, a cause that was deemed too controversial for the national NAACP. 

Profile of Rob Williams, facing left, aiming a pistol straight up wearing a white shirt, short Afro, a beard and mustache.

Meeting Violence with Violence 

In 1959, after a jury in Monroe acquitted a white man for the attempted rape of a black woman, Williams took matters into his own hands by making a historic statement on the courthouse steps. He said of his courthouse proclamation at a later press conference. “I made a statement that if the law of the United States Constitution cannot be enforced in this social jungle called Dixie, it is time that Negroes must defend themselves even if it is necessary to resort to violence. 

Negroes with guns - Robert F. Williams

“That there is no law here, there is no need to take the white attackers to the courts because they will go free and that the federal government is not coming to the aid of people who are oppressed and it is time for Negro men to stand up and be men and if it is necessary for us to die we must be willing to die. If it is necessary for us to kill we must be willing to kill.” 

At Odds with the Mainstream Civil Rights Movement 

The NAACP suspended Williams for advocating violence. In 1961, the Freedom Riders came to Monroe to demonstrate the efficacy of passive resistance, the hallmark of the mainstream Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. This type of action was nonretaliatory and didn’t take on the racism they were beaten down with by any means necessary. Moreover, an angry mob of Klansmen and Klan supporters overwhelmed the Riders, who called upon Williams and his Black Guard for help. Amid the chaos, Williams sheltered a white couple from an African American mob, only to be accused later of kidnapping them. 

Life in Exile

 With state and local authorities pursuing Williams for “kidnapping” and frenzied Klansmen calling for his death, Robert and Mabel Williams and their two small children fled Monroe. As a result, Fidel Castro granted Williams political asylum in Cuba and the family spent the next five years in Havana. Robert and Mabel Willias continued to fight for human rights from Havana through their news and music radio program, “Radio Free Dixie,” and the publication of Williams’ pamphlet, The Crusader, which reached an influential underground audience. In 1962, he wrote the book Negroes With Guns. 

Robert F. Williams - Wikipedia
The cover of Rob Williams’ book, Negroes With Guns. The title is written in boxy block lettering set on a darker background.

In 1966, Williams moved his family to China during the height of the Cultural Revolution. In China, he enjoyed celebrity status and fraternized with Mao Zedong and Chou En Lai. 

Homecoming 

In 1969, Williams returned to the U.S. aboard a TWA flight chartered by the federal government. All the charges against Williams were dropped and he went on to advise the State Department on normalizing relations with China. In regards to that, Williams did not, however, assume leadership of what had become a divided and beleaguered Black Power Movement. Instead, Williams accepted a position as a research associate at the Institute for Chinese Studies at the University of Michigan, and he and Mabel moved to Baldwin, near the University. In 1996 Williams died of cancer and buried in his hometown Monroe North Carolina. 

An elderly Rob Williams sits on a bench in a garden holding a walking cane. His hair and beard are mostly white, he is wearing a shirt and jeans and looks at the camera with a dignified expression.

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