Robert Franklin Williams (February 26, 1925 – October 15, 1996) was an American civil rights leader and author, best known for serving as president of the Monroe, North Carolina, chapter of the NAACP in the 1950s and early 1960s. At a time when racial tension was high and official abuses were rampant, Williams was a key figure in promoting armed black self-defense in the United States. He succeeded in integrating the local public library and swimming pool in Monroe. He helped gain gubernatorial pardons for two African-American boys convicted for molestation in the controversial Kissing Case of 1958.
He obtained a charter from the National Rifle Association and set up a rifle club that acted to defend blacks from Ku Klux Klan night riders. He led the NAACP to support Freedom Riders who traveled to Monroe in the summer of 1961, in a test of integrating interstate buses. That year he and his wife left the United States to avoid prosecution for kidnapping, on charges related to violence and white opposition to the Freedom Ride. A white couple sought shelter in Williams' home after being confronted by black protesters, and law enforcement claimed that Williams had prevented them from leaving. A self-professed Black Nationalist, Williams lived in both Cuba and The People's Republic of China during his exile between 1961 and 1969.
Williams' book Negroes with Guns (1962) details his experience with violent racism and his disagreement with the non-violent wing of the Civil Rights Movement. The text was widely influential; Black Panther Party founder Huey Newton cited it as a major inspiration. Rosa Parks gave the eulogy at Williams’ funeral in 1996, praising him for "his courage and for his commitment to freedom", and concluding that "The sacrifices he made, and what he did, should go down in history and never be forgotten."
Robert Franklin Williams was born in Monroe, North Carolina, on February 26, 1925 to Emma Carter and John L. Williams, a railroad boiler washer. He had two sisters, Lorraine Garlington and Jessie Link; and two brothers, John H. Williams and Edward S. Williams. His grandmother, a former slave, gave Williams his grandfather's rifle. His grandfather had been a Republican campaigner and publisher of the newspaper The People's Voice during the hard years after Reconstruction in North Carolina. At the age of 11, Williams witnessed the beating and dragging of a black woman by a police officer, Jesse Helms, Sr. Helms Sr., later the chief of police, was the father of future US Senator Jesse Helms.
As a young man, Williams joined the Great Migration, traveling north for industrial work during World War II. He witnessed race riots in Detroit in 1943, prompted by labor competition between ethnic European Americans and African Americans. Drafted in 1944, he served for a year and a half as a private in the segregated Marines before returning home to Monroe.
In 1947, Williams married a 16-year-old African American woman named Mabel Ola Robinson, who was a fellow civil rights activist. They had three children named John C. Williams, Robert F. Williams, Jr., and Franklin H. Williams.
After returning to Monroe from the Marines in 1945, Williams joined the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), working to change the segregated town. The chapter had not been very active and was declining in numbers. Williams was elected president and Dr. Albert E. Perry, physician and vice-president, began to turn it around during the 1950s.
First they worked to integrate the public library. After that success, in 1957 Williams also led efforts to integrate the public swimming-pools. He had followers form picket lines around the pool. The NAACP members organized peaceful demonstrations, but some of these drew gunfire. No one was arrested or punished, although law enforcement officers were present. At the end of the 1950s, Monroe had a large Ku Klux Klan chapter, estimated by the press to have 7,500 members, when the city had a total of 12,000 residents.
Alarmed at the violence that civil rights activists risked, Williams had applied to the National Rifle Association (NRA) for a charter for a local rifle club. He called the Monroe Chapter of the NRA the Black Armed Guard, made up of about 50–60 men, some veterans like him. They were determined to defend the local black community from racist attacks, a goal similar to that of the Deacons for Defense in Louisiana and Mississippi.
Newtown was the black residential area of Monroe. In the summer of 1957, there were rumors that the KKK was going to attack the house of Dr. Albert Perry, a practicing physician and vice-president of the Monroe NAACP. Williams and his men of the Armed Guard went to Perry's house to defend it, fortifying it with sandbags. When numerous KKK members appeared and shot from their cars, Williams and his followers returned the fire, driving them away.
"After this clash the same city officials who said the Klan had a constitutional right to organize met in an emergency session and passed a city ordinance banning the Klan from Monroe without a special permit from the police chief."
In Negroes with Guns, Williams writes:
"[R]acists consider themselves superior beings and are not willing to exchange their superior lives for our inferior ones. They are most vicious and violent when they can practice violence with impunity." He wrote, "It has always been an accepted right of Americans, as the history of our Western states proves, that where the law is unable, or unwilling, to enforce order, the citizens can, and must act in self-defense against lawless violence."
Williams insisted his position was defensive, as opposed to a declaration of war. He relied on numerous black military veterans from the local area, as well as financial support from across the country. In Harlem, particularly, fundraisers were frequently held and proceeds devoted to purchasing arms for Williams and his followers. He called it "armed self-reliance" in the face of white terrorism. Threats against Williams' life and his family became more frequent.
Decades later, political analyst Mary E. King noted that "The patriarchal metaphors of Williams' appeals for violence in response to violence in the name of protecting women curiously echoed the paternalistic rubric that was hypocritically used to justify white violence." Historian Timothy Tyson observed that both non-violence and armed militancy were heavily gendered in the civil rights era: "Contestations of a notion of manhood that excluded black men did not start or stop with black nationalists …foot soldiers in Martin Luther King’s nonviolent armies frequently carried placards reading, 'I am a MAN'” King wrote of Williams that he worked within the law to achieve justice; he appealed to federal authorities to combat the racism of Monroe.
In 1958 Williams as head of the NAACP chapter defended two young black boys, ages nine and seven, who were jailed in Monroe after a white girl kissed one of them. The incident was covered internationally and Williams became known around the world. His publicity campaign, inviting a barrage of headlines castigating Monroe and the US in the global press, was instrumental in shaming the officials involved. They eventually released the boys. The governor of North Carolina pardoned the boys, but the state never apologized for its treatment of them. The controversy was known as the "Kissing Case."
On May 12, 1958, the Raleigh Eagle (a North Carolina newspaper) reported that Nationwide Insurance Company was canceling Williams' collision and comprehensive coverage, effective that day. They first canceled all of his automobile insurance, but decided to reinstate his liability and medical payments coverage, enough for Williams to retain his car license. The company said that Williams' affiliation with the NAACP was not a factor; they noted "that rocks had been thrown at his car and home several times by people driving by his home at night. These incidents just forced us to get off the comprehensive and collision portions of his policy."
The Raleigh Eagle reported that Williams had said that six months before, a 50-car Ku Klux Klan caravan had swapped gunfire with a group of blacks outside the home of Dr. A. E. Perry, vice president of the local NAACP chapter. The article quoted police chief A. A. Maurey as denying part of that story. He said, "I know there was no shooting." He said that he had had several police cars accompanying the KKK caravan to watch for possible law violations. The article quoted Williams: "These things have happened," Williams insisted. "Police try to make it appear that I have been exaggerating and trying to stir up trouble. If police tell me I am in no danger and that they can't confirm these events, why then has my insurance been cancelled?"
The following year, Williams was so incensed with the decision of a Monroe court to acquit two white men of raping a black woman, Mary Reid, that he replied by saying on the courthouse steps:
"We cannot rely on the law. We can get no justice under the present system. If we feel that injustice is done, we must then be prepared to inflict justice on these people. Since the federal government will not bring a halt to lynching, and since the so-called courts lynch our people legally, if it's necessary to stop lynching with lynching, then we must be willing to resort to that method. We must meet violence with violence." The Harvard Crimson quoted him as saying "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." It is not known where these quotes originated.
This statement led to William's suspension from the NAACP which said that he made "violent" statements, accompanied by distortions in the mainstream media, like the New York Times, and by Martin Luther King, among other nonviolent activists, about what he said despite the fact that he disavowed any reference to lynching, rejecting retaliatory force, also called retaliatory violence, and only said that African Americans should act in armed self-defense if attacked by white people.
When CORE dispatched "Freedom Riders" to Monroe to campaign in 1961 for integrated interstate bus travel, the local NAACP chapter served as their base. They were housed in Newtown, the black section of Monroe. Pickets marched daily at the courthouse, put under a variety of restraints by the Monroe police, such as having to stand 15 feet apart. During this campaign, Freedom Riders were beaten by violent crowds in Anniston, Alabama and Birmingham.
Around this time, a white couple from a nearby town drove into the black section of Monroe when other streets were closed by mobs because of protests at the county courthouse. They were stopped in the street by an angry crowd. For their safety, they were taken to Williams' home.
Williams initially told them that they were free to go, but he soon realized that the crowd would not grant safe passage. He kept the white couple in a house nearby until they were able to safely leave the neighborhood. North Carolina law enforcement accused Williams of having kidnapped the couple. He and his family fled the state with local law enforcement in pursuit.
On August 28, 1961, the FBI issued a warrant in Charlotte, North Carolina, charging Williams with unlawful interstate flight to avoid prosecution for kidnapping. The FBI document lists Williams as a "freelance writer and janitor ... [Williams] ... has previously been diagnosed as a schizophrenic and has advocated and threatened violence... considered armed and extremely dangerous." After a Wanted poster, signed by the director J. Edgar Hoover, was distributed, Williams decided to leave the country.
Williams went to Cuba in 1961 by way of Canada and Mexico. He regularly broadcast addresses from Cuba to Southern blacks on "Radio Free Dixie". He established the station with approval of Cuban President Fidel Castro, along with assistance of the Cuban citizens, and operated it from 1962 to 1965.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, Williams used Radio Free Dixie to urge black soldiers in the U.S. armed forces, who were then preparing for a possible invasion of Cuba, to engage in insurrection against the United States.
"While you are armed, remember this is your only chance to be free. ... This is your only chance to stop your people from being treated worse than dogs. We'll take care of the front, Joe, but from the back, he'll never know what hit him. You dig?"
During this stay, Mabel and Robert Williams published a newspaper, The Crusader. He wrote his book Negroes With Guns while in Cuba. It had a significant influence on Huey P. Newton, founder of the Black Panthers. Despite his absence from the United States, in 1964 Williams was elected president of the US-based Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM).
In 1965 Williams traveled to Hanoi, then the capital of North Vietnam. In a public speech, he advocated armed violence against the United States during the Vietnam War, congratulated China on obtaining its own nuclear weapons (which Williams referred to as "The Freedom Bomb"), and showed his solidarity with the North Vietnamese against the United States military onslaught of the country.
Some Communist Party USA members opposed Williams' positions, suggesting they would divide the working class in the U.S. along racial lines. In a May 18, 1964, letter from Havana to his U.S. lawyer, civil rights attorney Conrad Lynn, Williams wrote:
...the U.S.C.P. has openly come out against my position on the Negro struggle. In fact, the party has sent special representatives here to sabotage my work on behalf of U.S. Negro liberation. They are pestering the Cubans to remove me from the radio, ban THE CRUSADER and to take a number of other steps in what they call `cutting Williams down to size.'...
The whole thing is due to the fact that I absolutely refuse to take direction from Gus Hall's idiots...I hope to depart from here, if possible, soon. I am writing you to stand by in case I am turned over to the FBI...
In 1965, Williams and his wife left Cuba to settle in China, where he was well received. They lived comfortably there and he associated with higher functionaries of the Chinese government. In January 1968, Conrad Lynn wrote to encourage Williams to return to the U.S., to which Williams responded:
The only thing that prevents my acceptance and willingness to make an immediate return is the present lack of adequate financial assurance for a fight against my being railroaded to jail and an effective organization to arouse the people.
I don't think it will be wise to announce my nomination and immediate return unless the kind of money is positively available...
Lynn wrote Williams in a letter on January 24, 1968: "You are wise in not making a decision to come back until the financial situation is assured." Because no financial backing could be found, no 1968 "Williams for President" campaign was ever launched by Williams' supporters in the United States. By November 1969, Williams apparently had become disillusioned with the U.S. left. As his lawyer, Conrad Lynn, noted in a November 7, 1969 letter to W. Haywood Burns of the Legal Defense Foundation:
Williams now clearly takes the position that he has been deserted by the left. How and whether he fits black militant organizations into that category I don't know. Radio Free Europe offered him pay to broadcast for them. So far he has refused. But he has not foreclosed making a deal with the government or the far right. He takes the position that he is entitled to make any maneuver to keep from going to jail for kidnapping...
Williams was suspected by the Justice Department of wanting to fill the vacuum of influence left after the assassinations of his friends Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. Hoover received reports that blacks looked to Williams as a figure similar to John Brown, the militant abolitionist who attacked a federal facility at Harper's Ferry before the American Civil War. Williams' attempts to contact the U.S. government in order to return were consistently rebuffed.
His wife Mabel Williams returned first, entering the United States in September 1969. Williams returned via London, England to Detroit, Michigan in 1969 and was immediately arrested for extradition to North Carolina for trial on the kidnapping charge. Shortly after he returned, the approaching period of détente augured a warming of relations with the People's Republic of China.
Williams was tried in Monroe, North Carolina, in December 1975. The historian Gwendolyn Midlo Hall chaired his defense committee and a broad range of leftists arrived in town. Attorney William Kunstler represented Williams in court. The State of North Carolina dropped all charges against him almost immediately.
Williams died at age 71 from Hodgkin's lymphoma on October 15, 1996. He had been living in Baldwin, Michigan. At his funeral, Rosa Parks, who started the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955, recounted the high regard for Williams by those who marched peacefully with King in Alabama. He was survived by his grandsons Robert F. Williams III and Benjamin P. Williams, and his daughter-in-law, Melanie Williams. His wife, Mabel, lived for 18 more years after his death, dying on April 19, 2014.