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PBS remembers forgotten civil-rights figure

‘Negroes with Guns’ examines life of activist Robert Williams
/ Source: The Associated Press

In the revolutionary atmosphere of the 1960s, Robert Williams seemed to be everywhere.

The civil rights activist’s 1962 book “Negroes with Guns” is credited with being part of the intellectual foundation for the founding of the Black Panther Party. After fleeing the United States in the early 1960s, the North Carolina native ended up a guest of Fidel Castro in Cuba, where he met Che Guevara. He left Cuba for China, where he witnessed the beginning of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution.

“Robert Williams,” said Malcolm X, “was just a couple years ahead of his time.”

But Williams’ name isn’t included in most present-day accounts of the civil rights movement. He is little remembered even in his home state, where his argument that blacks should arm themselves against the threat of violence by segregationist whites earned him at the height of his notoriety the label “violent crusader.”

Williams is a natural subject for study, said filmmaker Sandra Dickson, whose documentary “Negroes with Guns: Rob Williams and Black Power” premieres Tuesday as part of PBS’ Independent Lens series (check local listings).

The film, co-directed by Churchill Roberts, explores the events in the small town of Monroe, N.C., that made Williams a leading advocate of deviating from the nonviolent methods of Martin Luther King Jr. and the mainstream civil-rights movement.

“It’s a very dramatic story,” said Dickson, co-director of the Documentary Institute at the University of Florida. “He’s a controversial and, in my opinion, often misunderstood figure.”

The kissing rape caseThe son of a railway worker, Williams grew up in Depression-era Monroe, about 25 miles southeast of Charlotte. He served in the military before returning home in the 1950s and getting involved in the fight to end Jim Crow laws.

He first came to prominence after a 1958 incident in which two black children, ages 8 and 10, were jailed on a rape charge after a white girl said she had kissed one of the boys. A local judge sentenced the boys to reform school.

Williams, who headed the local NAACP chapter, became what biographer Timothy Tyson calls “a one-man press office for the kissing case,” winning international media coverage that compelled Gov. Luther Hodges to release the boys after four months.

But while Williams used nonviolent protest and boycotts, he was also arming local blacks and teaching them marksmanship and self-defense. He and other activists lived in fear for their lives amid what the documentary describes as widespread and open Ku Klux Klan activity in Monroe and surrounding Union County, where Tyson said Klan rallies regularly attracted thousands of participants.

“We were never looking for trouble,” said Yusef Crowder, a member of one of Williams’ “Black Guard” units, in the film. “As long as you’re peaceful, we’re peaceful; but if you become violent, we have to become violent.”

That position conflicted with the beliefs of some civil-rights leaders and many of the white liberals who were beginning to support the movement. In 1959, the NAACP suspended Williams’ chapter because of his Black Guard activities.

The two approaches clashed openly in the summer of 1961, when Freedom Riders from King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference arrived in Monroe to try to integrate the town through nonviolent protest — and prove to Williams that nonviolence was the best path. On a Sunday afternoon, the Freedom Riders clashed with the Klan and others in downtown Monroe, sparking what Tyson and the documentary describe as a race riot.

In the middle of the chaos, a white couple drove into the heart of Monroe’s black community and were surrounded by a mob.

“Williams comes out of his house, saying, ’You’re not killing these people in my front yard,’ and stops them from being killed,” Tyson said. He kept the couple in his home for a couple of hours, shielding them from the mob — an action that led local police to charge him with kidnapping.

“Negroes with Guns” brings the events of that summer to life with still photographs, newspaper articles and a contemporary news documentary — “Robert Williams: Violent Crusader” — broadcast in 1961 by Charlotte television station WBTV.

“We knew that this existed, but the station didn’t know about it,” Dickson said.

No film, however, is believed to have survived of Williams’ 1961 interview with Jesse Helms, then a commentator for Raleigh’s WRAL-TV who went on to a long career as a conservative U.S. senator. Helms, perhaps Monroe’s most famous native, is believed to have been one of the last people to speak to Williams before he fled the city to avoid the kidnapping charge.

Few whites who lived in Monroe at the time were willing to work with the filmmakers, Dickson said, and only one white local, Vann Secrest, is interviewed onscreen. The owner of a vintage automobile Dickson wanted for the documentary refused to rent her the car because the film is about Williams.

The hourlong film speeds tantalizingly through Williams’ globetrotting later years: his exiles in Cuba and China and his return to the United States at the behest of a Nixon-era State Department eager to debrief him on Mao prior to making their diplomatic efforts to reopen relations with China.

“Don’t look at our film as a biography,” Dickson said. “It is not. It nails down this key chapter in Rob Williams’ life.”

Tyson, author of the Williams biography “Radio Free Dixie,” is interviewed extensively. He believes Williams is left out of modern accounts of the civil-rights movement because he “didn’t fit into our kind of sugarcoated version” of that era.

“The history of the civil-rights movement has been largely written by white liberals who admire the movement and in their sort of paternalistic way wish to protect it from its complexities,” Tyson said. In writing a “politically acceptable and soothing account ... they’ve tended to grind off the rough edges and paper over the passionate differences of opinion.”

He said many of the tributes to Rosa Parks following her death last year left out the fact that she was a black nationalist and a gun owner. Williams and Parks were close — she delivered his eulogy when he was buried in Monroe following his death in 1996 at age 71.

“Williams gets ignored because you can’t tell his story without messing up the mainstream story,” Tyson said.