[picture: Robert F Williams and his wife and comrade Mabel Williams in exile in Cuba circa 1961]
Why do I speak to you from exile?
Many people will remember that in the summer of 1957 the Ku Klux Klan made an armed raid on an Indian community in the South and were met with determined rifle fire from the Indians acting in self-defense. The nation approved of the action and there were widespread expressions of pleasure at the defeat of the Kluxers who showed their courage by running away despite their armed superiority. What the nation doesn’t know, because it has never been told, is that the Negro community in Monroe, North Carolina, had set the example two weeks before when we shot up an armed motorcade of the Ku Klux Klan, including two police cars, which had come to attack the home of Dr. Albert E. Perry, vice-president of the Monroe chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The stand taken by our chapter resulted in the official re-affirmation by the NAACP of the right of self-defense. The Preamble to the resolution of the 50th Convention of the NAACP, New York City, July 1959, states: “. . . we do not deny, but reaffirm, the right of an individual and collective self-defense against unlawful assaults.”
Because there has been much distortion of my position, I wish to make it clear that I do not advocate violence for its own sake or for the sake of reprisals against whites. Nor am I against the passive resistance advocated by the Reverend Martin Luther King and others. My only difference with Dr. King is that I believe in flexibility in the freedom struggle. This means that I believe in non-violent tactics where feasible; the mere fact that I have a Sit-In case pending before the U.S. Supreme Court bears this out. Massive civil disobedience is a powerful weapon under civilized conditions where the law safeguards the citizens’ right of peaceful demonstrations. In civilized society the law serves as a deterrent against lawless forces that would destroy the democratic process. But where there is a breakdown of the law, the individual citizen has a right to protect his person, his family, his home and his property. To me this is so simple and proper that it is self-evident.
When an oppressed people show a willingness to defend themselves, the enemy, who is a moral weakling and coward, is more willing to grant concessions and work for a respectable compromise. Psychologically, moreover, racists consider themselves superior beings and are not willing to exchange their superior lives for our inferior ones. They are most vicious and violent when they can practice violence with impunity. This we have shown in Monroe. Moreover, when because of our self-defense there is a danger that the blood of whites may be spilled, the local authorities in the South suddenly enforce law and order when previously they had been complacent toward lawless, racist violence. This too we have proven in Monroe. It is remarkable how easily and quickly state and local police control and disperse lawless mobs when the Negro is ready to defend himself with arms.
Furthermore, because of the international situation, the Federal Government does not want racial incidents which draw the attention of the world to the situation in the South. Negro self-defense draws such attention, and the Federal Government will be more willing to enforce law and order if the local authorities don’t. When our people become fighters, our leaders will be able to sit at the conference table as equals, not dependent on the whim and the generosity of the oppressors. It will be to the best interests of both sides to negotiate just, honorable and lasting settlements.
The majority of white people in the United States have literally no idea of the violence with which Negroes in the South are treated daily-nay, hourly. This violence is deliberate, conscious, condoned by the authorities. It has gone on for centuries and is going on today, every day, unceasing and unremitting. It is our way of life. Negro existence in the South has been one long travail, steeped in terror and blood-our blood. The incidents which took place in Monroe, which I witnessed and which I suffered, will give some idea of the conditions in the South, conditions that can no longer be borne. That is why, one hundred years after the Civil War began, we Negroes in Monroe armed ourselves in self-defense and used our weapons. We showed that our policy worked. The lawful authorities of Monroe and North Carolina acted to enforce order only after, and as a direct result of, our being armed. Previously they had connived with the Ku Klux Klan in the racist violence against our people. Selfdefense prevented bloodshed and forced the law to establish order. This is the meaning of Monroe and I believe it marks a historic change in the life of my people. This is the story of that change.
Self-Defense Prevents Bloodshed
In June of 1961 the NAACP Chapter of Monroe, North Carolina, decided to picket the town’s swimming pool. This pool, built by WPA money, was forbidden to Negroes although we formed one quarter of the population of the town. In 1957 we had asked not for integration but for the use of the pool one day a week. This was denied and for four years we were put off with vague suggestions that someday another pool would be built. Two small Negro children had meantime drowned swimming in creeks. Now, in 1961, the City of Monroe announced it had surplus funds, but there was no indication of a pool, no indication of even an intention to have a pool. So we decided to start a picket line. We started the picket line and the picket line closed the pool. When the pool closed the racists decided to handle the matter in traditional Southern style. They turned to violence, unlawful violence.
We had been picketing for two days when we started taking lunch breaks in a picnic area reserved for “White People Only.” Across from the picnic area, on the other side of a stream of water, a group of white people started firing rifles and we could hear the bullets strike the trees over our heads. The chief of police was on duty at the pool and I appealed to him to stop the firing into the picnic area. The chief of police said, “Oh, I don’t hear anything. I don’t hear anything at all.” They continued shooting all that day. The following day these people drifted toward the picket line firing their pistols and we kept appealing to the chief of police to stop them from shooting near us. He would always say, ‘Well, I don’t hear anything.”
The pool remained closed but we continued the line and crowds of many hundreds would come to watch us and shout insults at the pickets. The possibility of violence was increasing to such a proportion that we had sent a telegram to the U.S. Justice Department asking them to protect our right to picket. The Justice Department referred us to the local FBI. We called the local FBI in Charlotte and they said this was not a matter for the U.S. Justice Department; it was a local matter and they had checked with our local chief of police, who had assured them that he would give us ample protection. This was the same chief of police who had stood idly by while these people were firing pistols and rifles over our heads, the same chief of police who in 1957 had placed two police cars in a Klan motorcade that raided the Negro community.
Attempt to Kill Me
On Friday, June 23, 1961, I went into town to make another telephone call to the Justice Department. While I was there I picked up one of the pickets and started back to the line at the swimming pool, which was on the outskirts of town. I was driving down U.S. Highway 74 going east when a heavy car (I was driving a small English car, a Hillman), a 1955 DeSoto sedan, came up from behind and tried to force my lighter car off the embankment and over a cliff with a 75foot drop. I outmaneuvered him by speeding up and getting in front of him. Then he rammed my car from the rear and locked the bumper and started a zig-zag motion across the highway in an attempt to flip my light car over. The bumpers were stuck and I didn’t use the brake because I didn’t want to neutralize the front wheels.
We had to pass right by a highway patrol station. The station was in a 35-mile-an-hourr zone and by the time we passed it the other car was pushing me at 70 miles an hour. I started blowing my horn incessantly, hoping to attract the attention of the highway patrolmen. There were three patrolmen standing on the opposite side of the embankment in the yard of the station. They looked at the man who was pushing and zig-zagging me across the highway and then threw up their hands, laughed, and turned their backs to the highway.
He kept pushing me for a quarter of a mile until we came to a highway intersection carrying heavy traffic. The man was hoping to run me out into the traffic, but about 75 feet away from the highway I was finally able to rock loose from his bumper, and I made a sharp turn into the ditch.
My car was damaged. The brake drum, the wheels, and the bearings had been damaged, and all of the trunk compartment in the rear had been banged in. After we got it out of the ditch, I took the car back to the swimming pool and showed it to the chief of police. He stood up and looked at the car and laughed. He said, I don’t see anything. I don’t see anything at all.” I said, “You were standing here when I left.” He said, ‘Well, I still don’t see anything.” So I told him I wanted a warrant for the man, whom I had recognized. He was Bynum Griffin, the Pontiac-Cheverolet dealer in Monroe. He said, I can’t give you a warrant because I can’t see anything that he’s done.” But a newspaperman standing there started to examine my car, and when the chief of police discovered that a newspaperman was interested, then he said, ‘Well, come to the police station and I’ll give you a warrant.”
When I went to the police station he said, ‘Well, you just got a name and a license number and I can’t indict a man on that. You can take it up with the Court Solicitor.” I went to the Court Solicitor, which is equivalent to the District Attorney, and he said, ‘Well, all you got here is a name and a number on a piece of paper. I can’t indict a man on these grounds.” I told him that I recognized the man and mentioned his name. He said, “Wait a minute,” and he made a telephone call. He said, I called him and he said he didn’t do that.” I again told him that I had recognized the man and that I had the license number of the car that he had used.
Finally the Court Solicitor said, “Well, if you insist, I’ll tell you what you do. You go to his house and take a look at him and if you recognize him, you bring him up here and I’ll make out a warrant for him.” I told him that was what the police were being paid for, that they were supposed to go and pick up criminals. So they refused to give me a warrant for this man at all.
“God Damn, The Niggers Have Got Guns!”
The picket line continued. On Sunday, on our way to the swimming pool, we had to pass through the same intersection (U.S. 74 and U.S. 601). There were about two or three thousand people lined along the highway. Two or three policemen were standing at the intersection directing traffic and there were two policemen who had been following us from my home. An old stock car without windows was parked by a restaurant at the intersection. As soon as we drew near, this car started backing out as fast as possible. The driver hoped to hit us in the side and flip us over. But I turned my wheel sharply and the junk car struck the front of my car and both cars went into a ditch.
Then the crowd started screaming. They said that a nigger had hit a white man. They were referring to me. They were screaming, “Kill the niggers! Kill the niggers! Pour gasoline on the niggers! Burn the niggers!”
We were still sitting in the car. The man who was driving the stock car got out of the car with a baseball bat and started walking toward us saying, “Nigger, what did you hit me for?” I didn’t say anything to him. We just sat there looking at him. He came up close to our car, within arm’s length with the baseball bat, but I still hadn’t said anything and we didn’t move in the car. What they didn’t know was that we were armed. Under North Carolina state law it is legal to carry firearms in your automobile so long as these firearms are not concealed.
I had two pistols and a rifle in the car. When this fellow started to draw back his baseball bat, I put an Army .45 up in the window of the car and pointed it right into his face and didn’t say a word. He looked at the pistol and he didn’t say anything. He started backing away from the car.
Somebody in the crowd fired a pistol and the people again started to scream hysterically, “Kill the niggers! Kill the niggers! Pour gasoline on the niggers!” The mob started to throw stones on top of my car. So I opened the door of the car and I put one foot on the ground and stood up in the door holding an Italian carbine.
All this time three policemen had been standing about fifty feet away from us while we kept waiting in the car for them to come and rescue us. Then when they saw that we were armed and the mob couldn’t take us, two of the policemen started running. One ran straight to me, grabbed me on the shoulder, and said, “Surrender your weapon! Surrender your weapon!” I struck him in the face and knocked him back away from the car and put my carbine in his face, and I told him we were not going to surrender to a mob. I told him that we didn’t intend to be lynched. The other policeman who had run around the side of the car started to draw his revolver out of the holster. He was hoping to shoot me in the back. They didn’t know that we had more than one gun. One of the students (who was seventeen years old) put a .45 in the policeman’s face and told him that if he pulled out his pistol he would kill him. The policeman started putting his gun back into the holster and backing away from the car, and he fell into the ditch.
There was a very old man, an old white man out in the crowd, and he started screaming and crying like a baby, and he kept crying, and he said, “God damn, God damn, what is this God damn country coming to that the niggers have got guns, the niggers are armed and the police can’t even arrest them!” He kept crying and somebody led him away through the crowd.
Self-Defense Forces Protection
Steve Presson, who is a member of the Monroe City Council, came along and told the chief of police to open the highway and get us out of there. The chief of police told the City Councilman, “But they’ve got guns!” Presson said, “That’s OK. Open the highway up and get them out of here!” They opened the highway and the man from the City Council led us through. All along the highway for almost a third of a mile people were lined on both sides of the road. And they were screaming “Kill the niggers! Kill the niggers! We aren’t having any integration here! We’re not going to swim with niggers!”
By the time we got to the pool the other students who had gone on had already started the picket line. There were three or four thousand white people milling around the pool. All the city officials were there, including the Mayor of Monroe. They had dark glasses on and they were standing in the crowd, which kept screaming. Then the chief of police came up to me and said, “Surrender your gun.” I told him that I was not going to surrender any gun, that the guns were legal, and that the mob was dangerous; if he wanted those guns he could come to my house and get them after I got away from there. Then he said, ‘Well, if you hurt any of these white people here, God damn it, I’m going to kill you!” I don’t know what made him think that 1 was going to let him live long enough to shoot me. He kept saying, “Surrender the gun!” while the white people kept screaming.
The City Councilman reappeared and said that the tension was bad and that there was a chance that somebody would be hurt. He conceded that I had a right to picket and he said that if I were willing to go home he would see that I was escorted. I asked him who was going to escort us home. He said “the police.” I told him that 1 might as well go with the Ku Klux Klan as go with them. I said I would go with the police department under one condition. He asked what that was. I told him I would take one of the students out of my car and let them put a policeman in there and then I could rest assured that they would protect us. And the police said they couldn’t do that. They couldn’t do that because they realized that this policeman would get hurt if they joined in with the mob.
The officials kept repeating how the crowd was getting out of hand; somebody would get hurt. I told them that I wasn’t going to leave until they cleared the highway. I also told them that if necessary we would make our stand right there. Finally they asked me what did I suggest they do, and I recommended they contact the state police. So they contacted the state police and an old corporal and a young man came; just two state patrolmen. Three or four thousand people were out there, and the city had twenty-one policemen present who claimed they couldn’t keep order.
The old man started cursing and told the people to move back, to spread out and to move out of there. And he started swinging a stick. Some of the mob started cursing and he said, “God damn it, I mean it. Move out.” They got the message and suddenly the crowd was broken up and dispersed. The officials and state police knew that if they allowed the mob to attack us, a lot of people were going to be killed and some of those people would be white.
Two police cars escorted us out; one in front and one behind. This was the first time this had ever been done. And some of the white people started screaming “Look how they are protecting niggers! Look how they are taking niggers out of here!”
As a result of our stand and our willingness to fight, the state of North Carolina had enforced law and order. Just two state troopers did the job and no one got hurt in a situation where normally (in the South) a lot of Negro blood would have flowed. The city closed the pool for the rest of the year and we withdrew our picket line.
This was not the end of the story of our struggle in Monroe in 1961. By a quirk of fate the next episode involved the Freedom Riders and their policy of passive resistance. The contrast between the results of their policy and the results of our policy of self-defense is a dramatic object lesson for all Negroes. But before I go on to that 1 have to describe how our policy of self-defense developed and how the Negro community in Monroe came to support my conclusion that we had to “meet violence with violence.”
The story begins in 1955 when, as a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, I returned to my home town of Monroe and joined the local chapter of the NAACP.