This book was suggested to me as a potentially interesting follow-up to Malcolm X’s autobiography. Robert Williams, I’ve since learned, was the first to develop and promote a theory of self-defense within the context of the black liberation movement, and was apparently a significant influence on Huey P. Newton. This book– well-written and a quick read– is a description of Williams’s experiences with armed resistance in Monroe, North Carolina, and of the events which led to his and his wife’s eventual emigration from the U.S. to Cuba.
While Malcolm X supported the concept of self-defense, it wasn’t discussed in much detail in his autobiography. And while I agree that those who face violent oppression are well within their moral rights to respond with violence in the struggle for liberation, I was interested in learning more about how self-defense functions to further that struggle in a way that passive non-violence does not. And this book was very instructive on that subject.
But it also helped me to clarify my thinking on the principles involved. I realized I’d always subscribed to mainstream society’s inaccurate characterization of the debate over the use of violence within the black liberation movement. Rather than properly viewing the disagreement as one between those who advocate pacifism and those who advocate self-defense, we seem to view it as one between those who would embrace violence indiscriminately and those who would reject it. This despite direct statements from Williams himself to the contrary:
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.
Still we continue to misinterpret the militant view, no doubt intentionally. Worth noting is that U.S. society, on the whole, is not necessarily predisposed to accept pacifism as a valid philosophy. At best, we might see it as nice in theory but insupportable in practice. At worst, we seem to view it as the last refuge of cowards. So it’s telling that we choose not to apply the “pacifism” label to the methods of Dr. King and the Freedom Riders. This allows us to obscure what might otherwise be a fairly glaring contradiction. Why do we elevate pacifism as the only appropriate path to liberation for the oppressed when we dismiss it so readily in every other context?
Williams, of course, makes the answer clear: because pacifism posed no real threat to white supremacy in the U.S. Armed resistance, however, was capable of wresting concessions from those in power, for several reasons:
- Such resistance exposed what Gloria House, in the book’s introduction, labeled the “cowardice inherent in mob mentality.” Actual violence was not necessarily even required; the mere threat of it often sufficed, even when the white mob had a numerical or tactical advantage, because racists were unwilling to trade what they viewed as their own superior lives for the inferior lives of non-whites.
- The laws were more readily enforced when the safety of whites was endangered. When the black community in Monroe armed itself and confronted a Klan motorcade which had targeted Dr. Albert E. Perry’s house, city officials, who until that point had consistently supported the Klan’s right to organize, convened in an “emergency session” to ban KKK motorcades from Monroe.
- Black resistance tended to garner the kind of international attention that the federal government was interested in avoiding, and thus federal law enforcement could often be persuaded to step in and uphold the law even when local authorities refused.
Reading Williams’s descriptions of the events in Monroe, it’s hard to disagree with his conclusion that the willingness to collect arms and employ self-defense accomplished goals which pacifism did not. In some cases, this resistance even paved the way for the successful employment of non-violent tactics, such as sit-ins:
There was less violence in the Monroe sit-ins than in any other sit-ins in the South. 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 had shown the willingness and readiness to fight and defend ourselves.
He describes how the Union County chapter of the NAACP, which was on the verge of dissolution when he joined, eventually saw a “rebirth into militancy” as a result of his attempts to recruit veterans who “who were very militant and who didn’t scare easily.” Despite the fact that the Union County chapter’s efforts were supported even by Southern white pacifists, they received very little support from the national leadership of the NAACP, which eventually suspended Williams from his position due to statements he’d made about the use of violence. But while the suspension was upheld even after Williams appealed it, it forced a debate on the issue of armed resistance and even the NAACP was eventually forced to “reaffirm the right of an individual and collective self-defense against unlawful assaults.”
Williams criticized white liberals and “black Quislings” alike for suggesting that blacks reject militancy in favor of pacifism:
The existence of violence is at the very heart of a racist system… [The Afro-American militant] does not introduce violence into a racist social system– the violence is already there and has always been there… When people say that they are opposed to Negroes ‘resorting to violence’ what they really mean is that they are opposed to Negroes defending themselves and challenging the exclusive monopoly of violence practiced by white racists.
Williams theorizes that while passive non-violent resistance may have led to some gains, they were limited in scope. The integration of certain public spaces and services (e.g. public libraries, swimming holes, the Montgomery public transit system), while symbolically important in that the segregation of those spaces represented a “direct personal assault on a Negro’s dignity,” did not require much in the way of sacrifice from whites. Williams predicted that only when blacks rose to demand true economic parity would they face the fiercest resistance, and in that case, self-defense would be necessary to remind the white racist that “in attacking us he risks his own life.”
It’s evident to me that those engaged in the struggle for liberation should be the only ones to define the terms and methods of that struggle. Which is to say that whites, liberal or no, should have no place in that process (aside from a willingness to support black self-determination), and it’s clear that Williams felt much the same about the leadership of the mainstream civil rights movement. But what of those engaged in the struggle who do not speak from a position of power and who disagree with the use of violence, whether for self-defense or otherwise? bell hooks in Rock My Soul: Black People and Self-Esteem:
When we reexamine our history we see African-American antiracist resistance move from being rooted in a love ethic and a moral philosophy centered on peace and reconciliation to a rhetoric and practice of violence. This embracing of violence as an accepted means of solving conflict and social control was an endorsement of the very politics of domination that was at the heart of antiblack racial terrorism. It has ramifications far beyond the social and political realm. It brought a socially legitimized ethos of violence into black family life. It made violence acceptable by suggesting that black men needed to be able to enact violence in order to be men… It was one of the first indications that black folks had internalized habits of being learned from their oppressors.
There does seem to be some evidence for the fact that armed resistance was justified by paternalistic attitudes towards women and rooted in a desire to reaffirm a masculine identity. Williams:
As a tactic we use and approved non-violent resistance. But we also believe that a man cannot have human dignity if he allows himself to be abused, to be kicked and beaten to the ground, to allow his wife and children to be attacked, refusing to defend them and himself on the basis that he’s so pious, so self-righteous, that it would demean his personality if he fought back.
hooks’s criticism strikes me as entirely valid, but it also seems clear that violence was a necessary part of confronting deeply entrenched white supremacy. Is it possible to subvert the fact that men use violence to define themselves as men by questioning and eventually rejecting the concept of manhood altogether? Or is violence, even in the service of liberation, inseparable from patriarchal notions of dominance and submission? Obviously there aren’t any easy answers here. But I imagine that hooks and other black feminist writers have explored this in more detail elsewhere, so I expect I have some research to do.
This post doesn’t really seem complete without a mention of the trumped-up kidnapping charges and U.S. persecution which forced Williams and his wife to flee to Cuba. They were granted political asylum and spent four years there, publishing The Crusader and broadcasting on Radio Free Dixie. This book was also written in that period of exile. Williams:
I could think of no other place in the Western Hemisphere where a Negro would be treated as a human being, where the race problem would be understood, and where people would not look upon me as a criminal but as a victim of a trumped-up charge– a charge designed to crush the militant leaders who were beginning to form a new movement, a new militant movement designed for the total liberation of the Afro-Americans.
I hadn’t realized before this how much significance the Cuban Revolution held for blacks in the U.S. during the civil rights era. But the fact that it was the only Western country where Williams felt he’d be safe from racist persecution speaks volumes. Maybe I’ll come back to this when I’ve read more about Cuba, but I felt it deserved at least a mention here.
At any rate: great book, and I’m glad it was recommended to me. It’s a little dispiriting that I’d never even heard of Robert Williams before, but it’s not surprising. Maybe certain influences are too difficult to whitewash and it’s easier to ignore them altogether– which probably makes them all the more important to talk about.