From Wed Feb 8 07:30:11 2006
Date: Tue, 7 Feb 2006 18:42:47 -0600 (CST)
Subject: [NYTr] PBS Brings to Life Forgotten Civil Rights Figure

Documentary looks at the shaping of Robert Williams, known as the “violent crusader.”

By Tim Whitmire, Associated Press Writer, Detroit News, 7 February 2006

The documentary about Robert Williams, shown with wife Mabel in Tanzania in 1969, chronicles his life in the South and during his exile abroad.

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,” says 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, says filmmaker Sandra Dickson, whose documentary “Negroes with Guns: Rob Williams and Black Power” premieres Tuesday as part of PBS's Independent Lens series.

The film, co-directed by Churchill Roberts, explores the events in the small town of Monroe, N.C., which 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,” says Dickson, co-director of the Documentary Institute at the University of Florida. “He's a controversial and, in my opinion, often misunderstood figure.”

The son of a railway worker, Williams grew up in Depression-era Monroe, N.C., 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 says Klan rallies regularly attracted thousands of participants.

“We were never looking for trouble,” says 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 says. 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.