PBS television is premiering a fascinating documentary tonight about a little-known aspect of the Southern Civil Rights Movement.
"Negroes with Guns," part of PBS's Independent Lens programming, tells the story of Robert Williams, an African-American community leader in Monroe, North Carolina who rose to international noteriety in the 1950s and 60s.
he PBS website gives a thumbnail sketch of the Williams story:
In 1956, Williams took over leadership of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which was close to disbanding due to a relentless backlash by the Ku Klux Klan. Williams canvassed for new members and eventually expanded the branch from only six to more than 200 members.
Williams also filed for a charter from the National Rifle Association (NRA) and formed the Black Guard, an armed group committed to the protection of Monroe's black population. Members received weapons and physical training from Williams to prepare them to keep the peace and come to the aid of black citizens, whose calls to law enforcement often went unanswered.
With his fellow NAACP members, Williams waged local civil rights campaigns and brought the conditions of the Jim Crow South to the attention of the national and international media. Williams led an ongoing fight to integrate the local public swimming pool and opposed the condemnation of two young African American boys for the "crime" of kissing a white girl during a harmless child's game - a cause that had been deemed too controversial for the national NAACP.
The controversy continued in 1959 when, after a white man was let off for raping a black woman, Williams -- a former Marine -- declared:
There is no law here, there is no need to take the white attackers to the courts because they will go free and that the federal government is not coming to the aid of people who are oppressed, and it is time for Negro men to stand up and be men and if it is necessary for us to die we must be willing to die. If it is necessary for us to kill, we must be willing to kill.
The national NAACP, unnerved by this seeming endorsement of violence, responded by suspending Williams. In 1961 Freedom Riders appeared in Monroe to show that "passive resistance" worked better. But an angry Klan mob overwhelmed the peaceful protesters, who sought help from Williams' Black Guard.
In the confusion, Williams was charged with "kidnapping" a white couple. Sensing he could never get a fair trial in Monroe, Williams fled the country for Cuba, where Fidel Castro gave him political asylum. After a stint in China, Williams came home in 1969. The charges were later dropped, and he passed in 1996.
Williams' story -- like that of the Deacons for Defense in Louisiana -- challenges the mainstream portrayal of the civil rights movement which, while rightly emphasizing the effective non-violent tactics used by Martin Luther King, Jr., the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and other groups, often overlooks the bloody nature of the struggle, and the sizable numbers in the freedom movement who backed up their peaceful demonstrations by maintaining their right to self-defense in the face of brutal violence.
Those wanting to know more about Robert Williams and this untold story of the Southern movement should check out the tonight's documentary (see local listings here), as well as the excellent book "Radio Free Dixie" by historian Timothy Tyson (a board member at the Institute for Southern Studies).
Chris Kromm is executive director of the Institute for Southern Studies and publisher of the Institute's online magazine, Facing South.