'Negroes with Guns': A Radical Battle with Racism

In the 1950s and 1960s, civil rights radical Rob Williams fought racism with a vengeance. A PBS documentary, Negroes with Guns: Rob Williams and Black Power, explores Williams' controversial legacy. Farai Chideya speaks with Sandra Dickson, one of the film's producers.

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In the early 1960's, a North Carolina NAACP leader named Rob Williams decided he would no longer turn the other cheek. Williams and his wife Mabel took up arms in response to Klan violence in his hometown of Monroe. It was a sharp departure from the non-violent tactics of that period. But Williams was committed to protecting the residents of his hometown. Tonight on PBS, a new documentary explores the controversial legacy of the often forgotten civil rights leader. It's titled Negroes with Guns: Rob Williams and Black Power. NPR's Farai Chideya spoke with Sandra Dickson, one of the filmmakers.

FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:

So why did you decide to tell the story of Rob Williams, who's hardly a well known public figure in this documentary.

Ms. SANDRA DICKSON (Filmmaker): I think that was a large part of the appeal. It's a relatively unknown story of an individual who's really the forefather of the black power movement, who laid the intellectual foundation for the Panthers and others. I think also it's this dramatic David vs. Goliath story. This man was a local community activist, whose actions would propel him and his cause onto a national and international stage.

CHIDEYA: In 1959, after a jury in Monroe acquitted a white man for the attempted rape of a black woman, Williams made a historic statement.

Mr. ROB WILLIAMS (Activist): 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 that if it's necessary for us to die, we must be willing to die; if it's necessary for us to kill, we must be willing to kill.

Ms. DICKSON: I think it's important to understand, and Rob Williams has often been misunderstood, particularly in the early '60s he was labeled as a violent crusader by the press, and that's not a fair or very nuanced representation of Rob Williams. Because Rob Williams was using boycott and pacifists or passive resistance in the '50s.

But finally, after a couple of court cases when it was just egregious examples of misjustice on behalf of the African American community said enough. If you bring violence to our door, we will not run into our houses, lock up and close the windows and hide.

Mr. WILLIAMS: We must make use of the gas bombs, the lye cans, the ice picks, the switchblade, the axe, the hatchet, the razor, the brick and the bullet. We shall meet machine gun with machine gun, hand grenade with hand grenade in a new spirit of meeting violence with violence.

Ms. DICKSON: Needless the say, the orthodox civil rights movement was alarmed. This is part of the controversial aspect of Rob Williams.

CHIDEYA: Now, you profile his wife Mabel, who certainly helped promote her husband's cause. Let's listen to a little bit of what she says in the film.

Ms. MABEL WILLIAMS: He used to tell a story about George Washington going out and fighting and then returning to Mt. Vernon to live out his days as a gentleman farmer, or whatever, and he said, I would like to have, in our race, somebody who struggled against the system and went home to Mt. Vernon. And so Monroe was kind of like his Mt. Vernon.

Ms. DICKSON: She followed him around the world, basically, left her home, her family, her friends because she believed so strongly not only in him, but in the cause of civil rights.

CHIDEYA: Now, when you say that she left her home and went around the world, they lived in Cuba and China. That is about as far as you can get from Monroe, North Carolina.

Ms. DICKSON: Well, yes. And imagine the controversy. This is the height of the Cold War, and here Rob and Mabel Williams are taking refuge in Cuba.

CHIDEYA: Explain to us the circumstances that caused the Williams family to flee.

Ms. DICKSON: A group of freedom riders had come to town in August of 1961, and although Rob wasn't participating with them because he would not take a position of being passive when it came to resistance, he was supporting them, offering them housing, transportation. Their presence there brought in the Klan in huge numbers. Well, during the course of this event, and there was a standoff in the African American portion of town, Rob Williams and his followers were there, armed. Depending on whose story you hear, a white couple said they accidentally ended up in that part of town. The African American community believes that they intentionally drove through. But regardless, they ended up being surrounded by a group of African Americans who were threatening their lives.

Rob Williams intervened and saved the couple or protected the couple. Two hours later, the couple are released. They said that they were held hostage by African Americans, and the state brought kidnapping charges. Well, Williams was not aware of the kidnapping charges. But that evening someone called and said you'll be hanging in the courtyard square by midnight. And so they fled.

Ms. WILLIAMS: We just walked about the back door and that was one of the most frightful things that I've ever done in my life. I had on the worst dress you could ever imagine (laughter) because I had just washed my clothes the day before. Rob had a machine gun and I had his Luger, and the two boys were right there with us.

Ms. DICKSON: And by the time they reached New York, the FBI had an APB out saying he was wanted, armed and dangerous on kidnapping. And so he eventually would make his way to Canada and then to Cuba for exile.

CHIDEYA: So what are you hoping that people take away from this film or similar projects in terms of refocusing their view of the civil rights era or the black power era?

Ms. DICKSON: I hope it adds some texture and richness to the dominant media portrayal of the civil rights movement as being passifist in nature. The other thing, I hope it causes people to argue, to debate, to agree to disagree, but also to examine the notions of what it means to be a patriot and what are the acceptable limits of dissent.

CHIDEYA: Sandra Dickson joined us from the University of Florida. She's one of the filmmakers behind the documentary, Negroes With Guns: Rob Williams and Black Power. It airs tonight on PBS. Sandra, thanks for joining us.

Ms. DICKSON: My pleasure. Thank you.

GORDON: That was NPR's Farai Chideya.

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GORDON: That's our program for today. Thanks for joining us. To listen to the show, visit NPR.org. And if you'd like to comment, call us at 202-408-3330. NEWS AND NOTES was created by NPR News and the African American Public Radio Consortium.

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