Robert F. Williams & armed self-determination

By Larry Hales, Workers World, 5 February 2005

[Williams and FBI wanted poster]
Williams and FBI wanted poster
Robert F. Williams is often ignored in the sparse sections of recorded history dealing with the struggle of Black people in this country for basic human rights. A similar argument can be made for others who came before Williams.

Williams is ignored by bourgeois historians because of his militant approach to dealing with the racist violence against Black people. He advocated the right of armed self-determination for Black people against the Ku Klux Klan and even the police that supported them. Yet he was not the first to argue for armed self-determination.

In fact, the call for Black people to defend themselves against racist violence goes as far back as the days of U.S. slavery. And it comes as no surprise that the demand to end slavery came from a certain section of the U.S. ruling class out of fear, not remorse. The fear came from the rising threat of a southern-wide slave rebellion and the potential of uniting with Native people and poor whites who would support such a rebellion.

John Brown is looked to as a seminal figure in the armed struggle to end slavery and win rights for Black people. A true sense of the man has been and continues to be obscured. Often, textbooks paint him as a bushy bearded, wild-eyed old man. Despite this distortion, his acts of bravery and righteousness are greatly admired by Black people to this day and rightfully so.

Rarely ever mentioned in U.S. history are the Black militants that joined John Brown at the Harper's Ferry raid. One of the nine Black men that participated in the 1859 raid was Osborne P. Anderson. He survived the raid and wrote a narrative on this revolutionary attempt to arm the slaves, entitled A Voice From Harper's Ferry.

Three larger planned rebellions preceded the Harper's Ferry action. One was planned by an enslaved man named Gabriel Proesser in 1800. His plan was foiled by an informant and he and his co-conspirators were executed in Virginia.

In the same year an uprising was led by Charles Deslondes, a slave in Louisiana. He was able to mobilize hundreds of slaves that understood infantry tactics as they challenged the U.S. Army. Deslondes was eventually captured and also executed.

In 1822 Denmark Vesey, a free Black man, had drawn up a plan with a large number of enslaved and free Black people, to march on Charleston, S.C., bearing arms. They were betrayed and Vesey and 34 others were hanged.

Nat Turner led the most well-known slave rebellion. The Turner rebellion led to the killings of over 50 slavemasters in Southampton, Va. This act cemented in the slaveholders' minds that they were not safe, so long as they held other human beings in bondage.

History, too, frequently depicts Black people as being docile and of not having participated in acts of securing freedom. The rebellions, the work stoppages, the many escapes and everyday acts of defiance are lost in the telling.

Robert Williams is just one militant example of this.

Never back down

Prior to World War II, millions of Black people migrated from the South to the North to get jobs in factories and escape the lynchings and beatings of the KKK.

When the U.S. entered World War II in 1941, women entered the workforce in greater numbers than any other time as white male workers went to fight overseas. With Black people and women being integrated into the workforce in unprecedented numbers, this war helped to socialize U.S. industry. But the overall racist and sexist political climate did not change because of capitalist relations.

Robert Williams joined the army during this war. Much of his enlistment was spent with him being in trouble because he was a defiant man. He refused to conform and become the boy that a white-dominated society wanted to make him, especially the military. After leaving the military in 1946, he returned to Monroe, N.C., with a heightened political awareness.

In that same year, Williams took part in a militant act that set the tone for the rest of his life. He, along with 40 other Black men, pointed their rifles at KKK members that came to take away the body of a Black man who had been executed for killing a white man in a fight.

In the late 1950s, Williams became president of the Monroe NAACP chapter, which organized armed resistance to the KKK. He veered away from the major civil-rights leaders due to his understanding of the reactionary mindset of groups like the KKK and the racist police. He knew that if the racists saw that Black people would fight back, their resolve would melt away.

The nonviolence stance of the time had its place, but oppressed people also had the right to defend themselves from racist terror. Williams had a keen understanding of this, just as Malcolm X did.

The men that Williams had organized were highly disciplined and never used their arms for offensive purposes, but rather to defend their families, neighborhoods and nonviolent demonstrators from racist attacks.

In the early 1960s, Williams fled the U.S. to avoid trumped-up kidnapping charges. He was whisked from Canada by Cuban authorities, who provided him political asylum. He developed a friend ship with Presi dent Fidel Castro. Prior to his being forced into exile, Williams had visited Cuba as a member of the U.S.-based Fair Play for Cuba Committee.

He remained in Cuba until 1965 and then moved to Beijing, China, with his family. He returned to the U.S. in 1969. The trumped up kidnapping charges had been dropped. Williams passed away in 1996.

Robert Williams inspired the militant Black revolutionaries of the 1960s with his pamphlet, Negroes With Guns, which advocated armed self-determination for Black people. Like the Black heroes that advocated for a revolution to throw off the shackles of slavery in this country, Williams was a militant, shining example of the righteous tendency that has and can develop in opposition to the reactionary nature of the moneyed and racist class who try to smother the desire for freedom and justice.