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

Outspoken and Feared but Largely Forgotten

By Felicia R. Lee, The New York Times, 7 February 2006

“Negroes With Guns,” a 1962 manifesto about a group battling the Klan and other white terrorists in Monroe, N.C., is still a compelling title. But the story of its author, Robert F. Williams, has gathered dust. Once one of the most feared men in the country, he was an architect of the modern black power movement and symbolized a century-long debate among blacks about the need to meet violence with violence.

Tonight, amid the Black History Month television programs about better-known figures and moments, comes the documentary “Negroes With Guns: Rob Williams and Black Power.” The one-hour film, being shown on the PBS series “Independent Lens,” is by Sandra Dickson and Churchill L. Roberts, co-directors of the Documentary Institute at the University of Florida.

Mr. Williams toppled from a big stage. He was a local N.A.A.C.P. president and World War II veteran who grabbed international headlines as he advocated for oppressed Southern blacks. He agitated for black freedom while self-exiled in Cuba and China from 1961 to 1969 to evade kidnapping charges in Monroe.

“Negroes With Guns,” put out by a left-wing New York publishing house, was cited as inspiration by Huey P. Newton, founder of the Black Panther Party, and other black power leaders and is considered one of the seminal documents of that movement. “He forces us to examine our notions of patriotism and the boundaries of acceptable behavior,” Ms. Dickson said in an interview about why she and Mr. Roberts chose their subject, whom they discovered while making “Freedom Never Dies: The Legacy of Harry T. Moore,” about the first murder of a major civil rights leader.

Through newsreel clips and interviews with family members, neighbors, historians and civil rights stalwarts like Julian Bond, the story of Mr. Williams, who died quietly in 1996 without ever meeting the filmmakers is rendered as fascinating in its own right.

Edie Falco, host of “Independent Lens,” asks rhetorically at the beginning of the film, “What's more American than carrying a gun?” Mr. Williams, in a suit and tie, speaking in his Southern drawl, takes on that subject early in the documentary.

“If the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution cannot be enforced in this social jungle called Dixie at this time, then Negroes must defend themselves, even if it is necessary to resort to violence,” Mr. Williams says evenly. The clip is from a 1959 press conference in Monroe. Mr. Williams was anguished, family and friends explain, by the dismissal of charges against a white man accused of the attempted rape of a pregnant black woman. There were witnesses, including her child.

It was a common occurrence in those days. The small town of Monroe, ancestral home of Jesse Helms, the former Republican senator known for his opposition to civil rights leaders and legislation, had Klan rallies in the 50's that drew as many as 15,000 people to the region. Mr. Williams founded his armed group, the Black Guard, after seeing Klan members make a black woman dance at gunpoint “like a puppet,” he says in an audiotape, heard over the film's scene of sad-faced blacks working at a Monroe poultry factory.

Still, the press conference comments earned Mr. Williams a six-month suspension as an N.A.A.C.P. branch president. Headlines denounced him as a “racial zealot.” In an interview in the film, Beatrice Colson says that as a young black girl in rural Monroe at the time, she and others “had mixed feelings about who this man was,” because blacks feared white retaliation.

He was also seen as a hero. “You become violent, we become violent,” Richard Crowder, a Black Guard member, says in an interview in the film. “We weren't attacking anybody, just protecting ourselves.”

Timothy B. Tyson, a historian, says of Mr. Williams in the documentary, “Threatened with death, he walked down the street carrying a pistol, which would be a normal white, Southern thing to do.”

Dr. Tyson is a professor of Afro-American studies at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and the author of the biography “Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power.” Mr. Williams was one of the first black leaders to use the cold war to embarrass the United States internationally, contrasting its claims of democratic superiority with the way American blacks were denied their rights and subjected to violence, Dr. Tyson said.

For example, Mr. Williams waged an unusual letter-writing campaign in 1958 that brought international attention and ultimately freedom to two black boys, ages 8 and 10, who had been terrorized by the Klan and were about to spend their youths in reform school after one supposedly was kissed by a white girl.

Glenda Gilmore, a professor at Yale who specializes in Southern and African-American history, said Mr. Williams had been neglected for decades, in part because his approach underscored the violence of white resistance to black equality. “Robert Williams is drawing on a tradition of people who always thought they should defend their homes,” Dr. Gilmore said. “Often, these people were lynched or driven out of the South in the dead of night,” after whites learned they were armed.

“Negroes With Guns” also shows how Mr. Williams trod the traditional route of trying to desegregate lunch counters and swimming pools peacefully, despite death threats.

In 1961, Mr. Williams fled for Cuba and then China with his wife, Mabel, and two young sons after he was pursued on kidnapping charges following a riot in downtown Monroe. His face flashed on television screens nationwide and on F.B.I. wanted posters. Mr. Williams always maintained that he was simply sheltering a white couple in his home from a mob. Dr. Tyson said the evidence against Mr. Williams was always flimsy. The last of the charges were dropped in 1976.

“Rob had a machine gun and I had a Luger,” Mabel Williams recalled of the night they fled Monroe. They feared lynching, she said. Her husband, she said, was not a Communist, a racist or anti-American, as he has sometimes been labeled. “He loved his country,” she said.

During their exile, the couple communicated with black leaders in the United States and shined an international spotlight on the black struggle at home. Perhaps even more important, they broadcast a music and commentary show from Havana, “Radio Free Dixie,” which was heard as far away as New York and Los Angeles and throughout the South. The topics included race riots and Vietnam, accompanied by jazz and the songs of Nina Simone and others in the protest tradition.

The C.I.A. expected Mr. Williams to emerge as the next radical black leader, Dr. Tyson says in “Negroes With Guns,” but he did not. Dr. Tyson's book describes Mr. Williams as quietly remaining in the Detroit area, where he lived after returning from exile, working with community and black nationalist groups, speaking on campuses and at prisons. “He never played the politics of civil rights celebrity,” Dr. Tyson said.

“Negroes With Guns” ends with images of a slower, white-haired Mr. Williams with a bushy white beard, near the end of his life. He died of Hodgkin's disease at 71. His dream, Mabel Williams says in the documentary, was to return to Monroe and live out his days as a gentleman farmer. Although he returned for visits, he never managed to move back.

Still, there are hints that the town is far different from the one Mr. Williams fled in 1961. The camera lingers on a Confederacy monument but then swings to a public swimming pool. It is full of both black and white children, laughing.