If "By any means necessary" was a person
Most everyone knows of Malcolm X and his call to gain liberation for Black people “by any means necessary;” however, I’m not too sure how many people know of Robert F. Williams. Hailing from Monroe, North Carolina, Williams unapologetically lived by that creed. His background was a military veteran who advocated for equality and law and order, and he never backed down to threats of violence. It was said of him that he wanted and incited a race war, desired violence, and ran from persecution. However, the truth about Robert Williams is he protected his community from the blood-thirsty Klan, forced a pool closure because the city refused equal funding, and put the nation on notice that “we will shoot back.”
We will begin in 1955 when Williams was just out of the Marine Corps and back home in the segregated south. His time in the service had repeatedly marked him by discrimination, leaving him with a purpose to fight for his people once he left the military. Directly after Williams joined the Monroe chapter of the NAACP, the chapter was threatening to close due to the backlash from the Brown v. Board ruling. The landmark decision that struck a blow to segregation caused NAACP chapters across the nation to become targets. After the decision to end segregation in public schools, white officials began to pass laws that forced the NAACP chapters to publicly list the names of their members, priming for white reprisal against those whose names were given to the public. The South Carolina membership declined by 171, Florida by 369, Alabama by 587, and Louisiana by 1,347. This drastic decline, however, would not deter Williams from what he felt led to do.
Williams' refusal to let the Monroe chapter close would soon inspire the chapter to elect Williams as President and Dr. Albert E. Perry as Vice-President. With a slow start, he could not convince most of the old members to rejoin, so he began to go out and recruit a different class and mindset of people from the community. Williams himself said he recruited “a strong representation of returned veterans who were very militant and who didn’t scare easy.” Those brave men would set a tone of self-defense, which was certainly displayed when the Monroe Chapter fought to integrate the local swimming pool.
Up through 1956, multiple Black children had drowned after going to nearby swimming holes. The only pool in town, a pool that was paid for by a group of taxpayers that included the Black population of Monroe, did not allow the entry of the tax-paying Black population. As the president of the Monroe Chapter, Williams quickly went into action to provide a safe area for Black children to swim. In 1957 the Monroe Chapter requested that a Black swimming pool be built after the rejection of the request to integrate the pool, but the city said building a Black pool would be too expensive. The Monroe Chapter then suggested allowing perhaps 1 or 2 days when Black children would be permitted to use the pool to uphold the segregation the locals so desperately needed. That, however, was deemed too expensive also as the city would have to drain and refill the pool each time. From this point, there was a lengthy back-and-forth where the city officials said a pool would be built but couldn’t say if it would be built even within 15 years.
Williams and the Monroe Chapter’s next play was to organize stand-ins. Black residents would go ask for entry to the pool, knowing the outcome but needing to set the grounds for a case to bring to the courts. The Klan, of course, retaliated, holding open rallies and driving through Black neighborhoods while shooting out of the windows. When ministers went to city officials to request the officials ban the Klan from riding through Monroe, the officials refused by saying the Klan had just as much right to organize as the NAACP.
From the officials’ indifferent attitude, Williams knew the Black community would have to defend themselves, and he wrote to the NRA to request a charter. Within the year, the charter obtained arms through legal store purchases and donations from churches and grew to 60 members. Once the Klan heard the Black people of Monroe were arming themselves, they decided to drive up to Dr. Perry’s residence and shoot. The plan must have been to intimidate the Black community into submission, but the Monroe Chapter shot back and sent the Klan running with their tails tucked between their legs. This resistance stopped the routine motorcade the city officials at first refused to stop. After the shootout, the city officials put out a new city ordinance that banned the Klan from Monroe without a permit from the police chief. Still, retaliation came with the city stripping Dr. Perry of his medical license.
By October 1958, the back-and-forth with the city about the Black swimming pool was still an issue, but the Monroe case that would push its way to the front and become international news would be the “Kissing Case.” David Simpson (7) and Hanover Thompson (9) were both arrested and accused of the rape of a 7-year-old white girl, all because the white girl told her mother that she’d kissed Thompson on the cheek. At the onset of this case and before the international light, the national office of the NAACP refused to get involved in the case because it was a “sex case,” so Williams called Conrad Lynn, a civil rights lawyer. At the word of the white girl’s mother, the two innocent young boys were sentenced to 14 years at a reformatory. It would go on to become a headline in London after an English friend of Lynn’s went to the reformatory and took a picture of the boys. This is when the NAACP finally took interest in the case after the international outcry of support for the children. Finally, on February 13, 1959, the boys were released after President Roosevelt spoke to the governor.
As 1959 progressed, however, more horrors began to form. Both Georgia White and Mary Ruth Reed would be assaulted by white men and receive no justice. After Mary Ruth Reed’s case saw no justice, Williams was quoted saying,
“This demonstration today shows that the Negro in the South cannot expect justice in the courts. He must convict his attackers on the spot. He must meet the violence with violence, lynching with lynching.”
This statement rocked the city and the nation, and it even got Williams suspended from the NAACP because the organization didn’t condone the violent statements that were said. Williams would go on to further explain,
“These court decisions open the way to violence. I do not mean that the Negroes should go out and attempt to get revenge for mistreatments or injustices…”
but the NAACP seemed to care more about the optics and politics than a vow of protection for the people.
Feeling he needed to combat the smear campaign of the controlled media and put useful information out to educate the people, Williams would go on to start The Crusader. Here he would lay bare even the discontent the NAACP was showering him with, especially about his appreciation for Cuba. He had visited Cuba once the NAACP distanced themselves and suspended him, and Williams was able to strengthen his ties abroad. This would come in handy more than he realized during the trip. As Williams sat out his suspension, the Monroe Chapter elected his wife as president until they re-elected him after the suspension.
In 1960 the Monroe Chapter began its sit-in campaign without the backing of the official office of the NAACP. As fate would have it, the sit-ins under the Monroe Chapter saw far less violence than any other sit-ins in the South with the full backing of the NAACP. Williams would go on to say,
“In other communities there were Negroes who had their skulls fractured; but not a single demonstrator was even spat upon during our sit-ins. We had less violence because we’d shown the willingness and readiness to fight and defend ourselves. We didn’t appear on the streets of Monroe as beggars depending upon the charity and generosity of the white supremacists.”
June of 1961 would soon come, and the issue of the Black pool was still up in the air. Once Williams heard that the city had extra funds, he organized a picket line in front of the “Whites Only” pool. As the picketers held their ground, Klan members would shoot at the area where a few would take a break at. Williams pressed for the police to handle the situation many times but was met with constant denial that anything nefarious was happening. On June 23, Williams was once again on his way to speak with the Justice Department when a white man attempted to run him off the road. As Williams led the chase to the police station, he recognized the assailant, managed to get the tag number, and fully informed the police. Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, the police said the information offered wasn’t anything they could use to bring charges against the guilty angry white man.
Two days later, Williams would be involved in another incident as he headed to the picket line with at least one other man. There was a mob of angry descendants of colonizers who were doing their best to prevent Williams from his destination. As he drove, another car attempted to ram him, and though Williams maneuvered to avoid the collision, the enraged mob was hellbent on contact. This altercation gave the sensitive crowd the excuse to demand reprisal. ( almost like the current conditioning of a select group of the white population who finds any reason to justify the killing of unarmed Black men ) Williams, however, was ready for the altercation that he’d tried to avoid. As the crazed driver prepared to act with a baseball bat, Williams pulled out his gun. His passenger would also pull out a gun on the crowd, and the scene finally turned into something the police—who’d been watching the whole thing—felt needed to be calmed. Though they attempted to seize the guns, Williams did not give up anything. The police would then be instructed to let the men pass, much to the on-lookers’ dismay that the arm “Negroes” weren’t being disarmed and arrested.
The pool would be closed for the rest of that year, infuriating the white population. Shootouts were routinely happening in the Black community, and Williams would have men stationed at his house around the clock. Despite their willingness to fight and evidence of fighting back, Williams knew they were outnumbered and outgunned. His next move was to appeal to his readers of The Crusader to petition the US Justice Department “to protest the fact that the 14th Amendment did not exist in Monroe and that the city officials, the local bureau of the FBI in Charlotte, and the Governor of the state of North Carolina were in a conspiracy to deny Monroe Negroes their Constitutional rights.” With all of the protests and letters, however, and even reaching Attorney General Robert Kennedy, all the US Justice Department did was ask the police chief if any of the allegations were true. A simple answer of “No” was all that was needed to brush aside demands for legal protection, safety, and equality over something as insignificant as the local pool.
Understanding that the amount of fighting that was going on needed to amount to something more than being able to swim, Williams, Perry, and John W. McDow came up with a 10-point plan. The petition was aimed at desegregation and a better quality of life for “non-whites” but focused heavily on equal employment. (It is would be wise to take note that this was part of the civil rights fight in order that we combat the narrative that the civil rights fight was simply about asking for proximity to whiteness, as some "woke" individuals continue to explain.) Monroe was estimated to have a Black population of 3000, with an estimated 1000 being unemployed. Through industrial plant work, Williams surmised the Black population was dealing with the same injustice that the American revolutionists in 1775 believed justified the revolt against Britain, which was taxation without representation. As northern industrial plants moved south to escape the northern unions, they began to receive special concessions that were paid for through taxes, taxes that were also being taken from the Black population. These plants, however, refused to hire Black people. As Williams said, “This amounted to taxation without representation, and it was one of our biggest complaints.” Employment, rather working domestic or not, was unbalanced. The Fair Labor and Standards Act of 1938 set standards for minimum wage, work week hours, and overtime pay. The minimum wage was $1.15 in 1961, which would translate to $46 per week. For the Monroe Black labor force, however, those who could earn a living as a maid or a porter saw $15 weekly. The only other work available for the Black labor force was picking cotton, which you could hope to earn $13 a week if you nearly killed yourself to get the 100lb for $2.50.
The Monroe Chapter had prepared to picket around the courthouse to push the 10-point plan, but Freedom Riders, those who are now praised for their participation in the civil rights fight, decided to involve themselves in Monroe's fight. The Freedom Riders felt they could show Williams how to get results without being violent. As the mindset of the southern white population would dictate, the Freedom Riders would soon see violence. The violence would become so bad that the reverend who Martin Luther King Jr. had sent as a “mediator” of sorts would turn to Williams for assistance. The "mediator" needed Williams to convince the governor’s assistant to find a Freedom Rider who’d been lost in the woods trying to flee an angry mob. As the governor’s assistant got on the phone with Williams, he said, “You mean to tell me that you’re not dead yet?” Williams attempted to explain to the assistant that the help being requested wasn’t on behalf of anyone in the Monroe Chapter, it was for a "white boy." The assistant didn’t care and told Williams he was getting the violence he’d been asking for. Williams called him “the biggest fool in the whole world!”
On August 27, 1961, all hell would break loose. The southern white population had a group they could push around and build blood-thirsty confidence on. The southern white force would make their way to the picket line and beat any and everyone they despised for the simple fact of protesting for human rights. The commotion would make it from the courthouse to Williams’s house as a white couple decided to show their southern pride by riding through the neighborhood. The community wasn’t having it and made Bonnie and Clyde get out at gunpoint. They were hustled over to Williams’s lawn as the offended community left the consequences up to Williams.
Williams knew there would no way out of it for anyone who harmed the couple, regardless of their arrogance. He cautioned the people back, and the female began to scream that they’d been kidnapped. Williams reminded her that they could leave whenever they wanted, they just had to go back through the people they’d just pissed off. The woman cried, “You should take us out of here…If you took us out of here, they wouldn’t bother us.” Williams replied. “Lady, I didn’t bring you here, and I’m not going to take you away.” Williams had been busy trying to organize his self-defense guard to prepare for what they figured would come that night. Before much else could happen, however, Williams explains, “an airplane flew over us. The airplane probably was either from the Klan or the Sheriff’s Department. They use plenty of light planes and we were constantly getting calls threatening to bomb us from the air since my house was too well guarded to get us from the ground. So when this plane swooped over the house about fifteen men armed with high-powered .30-caliber rifles opened fire [on the plane]. Mrs. Stegall had been very indignant and arrogant, but as soon as she saw this she realized how serious was the situation; that these people were angry and really meant business.” Soon a car full of whites pulled up, and a shootout between the men on the street and the car erupted. Williams made his way into his house with Mrs. Stegall and her Klan member husband holding on to him for dear life.
Once inside, Williams would receive a call from the chief of police informing him that in thirty, he’d be hanging in the courthouse square for all the “race trouble” he’d caused. More calls would come in to warn Williams, and he also saw and heard newsflashes on the television and radio, and after realizing the police were trying to block off his street, he and his wife narrowly escaped. New York would be their first destination, then Canada, and then Cuba.
Robert F. Williams would receive political asylum in Cuba because though Williams ran from no crime and merely to escape being hung in the town square, the US had charged him with kidnapping the Klan couple. From exile, Williams continued to speak; The Crusader continued; he went on to work with such groups as the Cuban Youth Organization, and he wrote: “Negroes with Guns.” Williams, in 1962 would also become the mentor of Max Stanford, the founder of the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM). RAM’s armed resistance philosophy, inspired by Williams, brought in both Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton before they went on to establish the Black Panther Party. While in Cuba, Williams would also take in Ernest Thomas of the Deacons for Defense and Justice for counsel and aid with resources. Williams was also selected as president of the Republic of New Africa (RNA) in 1969, which was an attempt at a new nation for Black Americans when Black leaders—including Queen Mother Moore and Betty Shabazz—decided there should be Black sovereignty and self-determination apart from the clutches of a slowly dying Jim Crow.
Robert Williams’s legacy is not something we should send off into exile to be forgotten. The conditioned narrative we are given for successful civil rights progress is passivity, asking and bowing our heads in “righteousness.” That was not our only path, however, and should not be celebrated as such. No one advocates violence, and neither did Williams. Williams advocated for defense, armed defense only in the face of brutality and death. That is a strong message and “conditioning” to send to the men who the community charges with “needing to find the backbone” to protect the community. Williams’s stand forced the Klan out of the neighborhood, the police to “keep the peace,” and the pool to close if there was to be no equal funding. Accepting white violence and returning it with nonviolent is what forced Williams out of Monroe, allowing white Monroe to freely express their violence for a short while longer.
Robert Williams stood for “by any means necessary,” be it sit-in, stand-in, or a shootout. This is Black American History.