Ron Radosh

Robert F. Williams: A Flawed African-American Leader

Who was Robert F. Williams, whom Ann Coulter treats in her recent column as a civil rights hero?  That is true, but unfortunately, it’s only half the story. The main point of Coulter’s column is well-taken—liberals, not to mention most people in America, have little knowledge of what first led to gun control laws. Coulter writes:

Gun control laws were originally promulgated by Democrats to keep guns out of the hands of blacks. This allowed the Democratic policy of slavery to proceed with fewer bumps and, after the Civil War, allowed the Democratic Ku Klux Klan to menace and murder black Americans with little resistance.
(Contrary to what illiterates believe, the KKK was an outgrowth of the Democratic Party, with overlapping membership rolls. The Klan was to the Democrats what the American Civil Liberties Union is today: Not every Democrat is an ACLU’er, but every ACLU’er is a Democrat. Same with the Klan.)

At the end of the Civil War, as most leftist historians know very well, Democratic legislatures enacted the so-called “Black Codes,” which forbade blacks basic civil rights and led to the end of Radical Reconstruction that enabled civil rights for the former slaves. Blacks were also forbidden to own guns, the only recourse they might have had against the newly formed racist Ku Klux Klan, which terrorized black communities throughout the former slave South.

Skipping to the more recent past in the segregated South of the 1950s and 1960s, Coulter turns to the riveting story of an NRA member, a black activist named Robert F. Williams, who first told his story in 1962 in a book he titled Negroes with Guns.  (The full story of his life and impact can be found in the book by historian Timothy B. Tyson, Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power.)

Coulter writes how Williams, head of the Monroe, North Carolina NAACP, got a charter from the NRA and decided to fight head on growing racist activity from a new post-war KKK that beat, lynched, and murdered blacks at will, especially those who belonged to a civil rights group like the then mainstream NAACP. His organization armed itself and built what Williams called the Black Armed Guard, which, as Coulter writes, “stood sentry and repelled the larger, cowardly force.” Their resistance to Klan violence put an end to the vigilante racist whites immediately. As Coulter comments: “The NRA’s proud history of fighting the Klan has been airbrushed out of the record by those who were complicit with the KKK, Jim Crow and racial terror, to wit: The Democrats.”

Williams preached the doctrine of “armed self-defense,” which was rejected by Martin Luther King, Jr., who preached instead the Gandhian doctrine of non-violence, which was adopted by the mainstream civil rights movement. (In fact, when Bayard Rustin first met King at his home, he found the minister sitting with a gun on his table. Rustin told him if he was to be a leader extolling Gandhi, he had to immediately get rid of it.)

The other half of the story of Robert F. Williams, however, is a difficult one for anyone who is conservative to bring up as an example. What Coulter leaves out of her story is that Williams was a far-left revolutionary of a Maoist bent.

Williams, who was facing arrest because the racist North Carolina government put out a warrant for his arrest for supposedly kidnapping a white couple — whom he and his group were actually protecting from a mob — fled to Cuba. With the permission and support of Fidel Castro, Williams broadcast regularly to the U.S. from Cuba, operating a station he named “Radio Free Dixie.” During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, Williams urged American black soldiers to turn their guns on their commanders and engage in armed insurrection against the United States government. He said: “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?”

In fact, Williams wrote his book while in Cuba, and its first edition was published by a far-left American publisher. His book served as an inspiration to the late Huey P. Newton who, after reading it, formed the original Black Panther Party in California, which took up the cry of armed resistance and formed itself into a Marxist-Leninist vanguard organization. Williams then joined what was called the Revolutionary Action Movement. In 1965 he traveled to Hanoi, where he called for armed revolution in the United States and praised Maoist China for developing an atomic weapon, which he dubbed “The Freedom Bomb.”

In 1965, Williams and his wife decided Cuba was not radical enough, and he moved to China, which was more to his liking under the austere totalitarianism of Chairman Mao. In 1969, fed up with the Western left, Williams returned to the United States. He was sent to North Carolina to face jail for the charges that had been levied against him before he fled, but the state eventually dropped the charges against him. He was represented in court by the well-known leftist counsel William Kunstler.

Williams is a tragic case of how a courageous African-American leader was driven by the climate of hatred and violence in the old segregationist South to turn his hatred not only towards racism, but towards the United States and the very ideals that that its founders stood for. Like Paul Robeson, Williams too adopted the idea of communist revolution as that which he thought American blacks should espouse, and he used the reputation and respect he had gained in Monroe, North Carolina, from African-Americans to try and turn them against the country in which they lived.

Robert F. Williams was a civil rights hero. He fought off the Klan, with the support of the NRA to which he belonged. But if we are to single him out for praise, we should not ignore the whole story. We should note that his own heroism led to the thuggery  of Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver, and to those in today’s New Black Panther Party who carry on in their tradition. And that legacy, which also came out of the doctrine of “armed self-defense,” is not one that should be admired by anyone.