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Robert F. Williams
Williams in 1961
Robert Franklin Williams

February 26, 1925 (1925-02-26)
DiedOctober 15, 1996(1996-10-15) (aged 71)
Occupation(s)Civil rights leader, author

Robert Franklin Williams (February 26, 1925 – October 15, 1996) was an American civil rights leader and author best known for serving as president of the Monroe, North Carolina chapter of the NAACP in the 1950s and into 1961. He succeeded in integrating the local public library and swimming pool in Monroe. At a time of high racial tension and official abuses, Williams promoted armed Black self-defense in the United States. In addition, he helped gain support for gubernatorial pardons in 1959 for two young African-American boys who had received lengthy reformatory sentences in what was known as the Kissing Case of 1958.

Williams obtained a charter from the National Rifle Association and set up a rifle club to defend Black people in Monroe from Ku Klux Klan or other attackers. The local chapter of the NAACP supported Freedom Riders who traveled to Monroe in the summer of 1961 in a test of integrating interstate buses. In August 1961 he and his wife left the United States for several years to avoid kidnapping charges after a white couple got lost in the black part of town in Monroe. The local police and the FBI allegedly convinced the couple to say Williams had kidnapped them, and the FBI put out a warrant for his arrest, causing him to flee to Cuba, and, later, the People's Republic of China. These charges were dropped by the state when his trial opened in 1975 following his return in 1970.

Williams advocated black self-defense.[1]: 123  Williams' book Negroes with Guns (1962) has been reprinted many times, most recently in 2013. It details his experience with violent racism and his disagreement with the non-violent wing of the Civil Rights Movement. The text was widely influential; Black Panther Party founder Huey Newton and African American Defense League founder Mauricelm-Lei Millere cited it as a major inspiration.

Early life


Robert Franklin Williams was born in Monroe, North Carolina, on February 26, 1925, to Emma Carter and John L. Williams who worked as a railroad boiler washer.[2][3] He had two sisters, Lorraine Garlington and Jessie Link, and two brothers, John H. Williams and Edward S. Williams.[3] His grandmother, a former slave of Yoruba ancestry, gave Williams his grandfather's rifle. His grandfather had been a Republican campaigner and publisher of the newspaper The People's Voice during the hard years after Reconstruction in North Carolina. At the age of 11, Williams witnessed the beating and dragging of a black woman by police officer Jesse Helms Sr.[4][5] Helms Sr., later the Monroe chief of police, was the father of future United States Senator Jesse Helms.[6][7][8]

As a young man, Williams joined the Great Migration, traveling north for industrial work during World War II. He witnessed the 1943 Detroit race riot prompted by labor competition between white and black Americans. Drafted in 1944, he served for a year and a half as a private in the then segregated Marines before returning home to Monroe.[9]

Marriage and family

In 1947, Williams married a 16-year-old African American woman named Mabel Ola Robinson, a fellow civil rights activist.[10][11] They had two children named John C. Williams and Robert F. Williams, Jr.[3]

Civil rights movement

Early NAACP activities

After returning to Monroe in 1955 following his war service in the Marines, Williams joined the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He wanted to change the segregated town to protect the civil rights of blacks.[12] The chapter had not been very active and was declining in numbers. Williams was elected president and Dr. Albert E. Perry as vice-president; the two generated new energy in the group during the 1950s.

First they worked to integrate the public library. After that success, in 1957 Williams also led efforts to integrate the public swimming pools, which were funded and operated by taxpayer monies. He had followers form picket lines around the pool. The NAACP members organized peaceful demonstrations, but opponents fired on their lines. No one was arrested or punished, although law enforcement officers were present.[13] At that time, Monroe had a large Ku Klux Klan chapter. The press estimated it had 7,500 members, while the city had a total of 12,000 residents.[14]

Black Armed Guard

Alarmed at the threat to civil rights activists, Williams had applied to the National Rifle Association (NRA) for a charter for a local rifle club.[15] He called the Monroe Chapter of the NRA the Black Armed Guard; it was made up of about 50–60 men, including some veterans like him. They were determined to defend the local black community from racist attacks, a goal similar to that of the Deacons for Defense who established chapters in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama in 1964–1965.[16]

Newtown was the black residential area of Monroe. In the summer of 1957, there were rumors that the KKK was going to attack the house of Dr. Albert E. Perry, a practicing physician and vice-president of the Monroe NAACP. Williams and his men of the Armed Guard went to Perry's house to defend it, fortifying it with sandbags. When numerous KKK members appeared and shot from their cars, Williams and his followers returned the fire, driving them away.[17]

"After this clash the same city officials who said the Klan had a constitutional right to organize met in an emergency session and passed a city ordinance banning the Klan from Monroe without a special permit from the police chief."[14]

In Negroes with Guns, Williams writes:

[R]acists 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.[18] It has always been an accepted right of Americans, as the history of our Western states proves, that where the law is unable, or unwilling, to enforce order, the citizens can, and must act in self-defense against lawless violence.[19]

Williams insisted his position was defensive, as opposed to a declaration of war. He relied on numerous black military veterans from the local area, as well as financial support from across the country. In Harlem, particularly, fundraisers were frequently held and proceeds devoted to purchasing arms for Williams and his followers. He called it "armed self-reliance" in the face of white terrorism. Threats against Williams' life and his family became more frequent.[citation needed]

Kissing Case

Main article: Kissing Case

In 1958 Williams as head of the NAACP chapter defended two young black boys, ages seven and nine, who were jailed and beaten in Monroe after a white girl kissed each of them on the cheek and told her mother, who became enraged.[20] The incident was covered internationally and Williams became known around the world. His publicity campaign, inviting a barrage of headlines castigating Monroe and the US in the global press, was instrumental in shaming the officials involved.[21] Authorities eventually released the boys, who were pardoned by the governor of North Carolina, but the state never apologized for its treatment of them. The controversy was known as the "Kissing Case".


On May 12, 1958, the Raleigh Eagle, a North Carolina newspaper, reported that Nationwide Insurance Company was canceling Williams' collision and comprehensive coverage, effective that day. They first canceled all of his automobile insurance, but decided to reinstate his liability and medical payments coverage, enough for Williams to retain his car license. The company said that Williams' affiliation with the NAACP was not a factor; they noted "that rocks had been thrown at his car and home several times by people driving by his home at night. These incidents just forced us to get off the comprehensive and collision portions of his policy."[22]

The Raleigh Eagle reported that Williams had said that six months before, a 50-car Ku Klux Klan caravan had swapped gunfire with a group of blacks outside the home of Dr. Albert E. Perry, vice president of the local NAACP chapter. The article quoted police chief A. A. Maurey as denying part of that story. He said, "I know there was no shooting."[22] He said that he had had several police cars accompanying the KKK caravan to watch for possible law violations. The article quoted Williams: "These things have happened," Williams insisted. "Police try to make it appear that I have been exaggerating and trying to stir up trouble. If police tell me I am in no danger and that they can't confirm these events, why then has my insurance been cancelled?"[22]

The following year, Williams was so incensed with the decision of a Monroe court to acquit two white men of raping a black woman, Mary Reid, that he replied by saying on the courthouse steps:

We cannot rely on the law. We can get no justice under the present system. If we feel that injustice is done, we must then be prepared to inflict justice on these people. Since the federal government will not bring a halt to lynching, and since the so-called courts lynch our people legally, if it's necessary to stop lynching with lynching, then we must be willing to resort to that method. We must meet violence with violence.[23][24][25][26][27][28][29]

The Harvard Crimson quoted him[30] as saying "the Negro in the South cannot expect justice in the courts. He must convict his attackers on the spot. He must meet violence with violence, lynching with lynching." It is not known where these quotes originated.

Suspension from the NAACP

William's statement on the courthouse steps led to his suspension from the NAACP which claimed that he was advocating violence. Williams disavowed any reference to lynching, rejecting retaliatory force, also called retaliatory violence, claiming he only said that African Americans should act in armed self-defense if attacked by white people.[31][25][32][33][34]

Freedom Rides and prosecution

Further information: Freedom Riders

The FBI's wanted poster alerted people to an armed kidnapper.

Despite losing much support, civil rights activist James Forman was still supportive of Williams and his advocacy for using armed self defense against white oppression.[citation needed] Forman, who would also promote Williams' armed self-defense message during a visit to his home in Monroe, North Carolina, also agreed to assist Williams in organizing a Freedom Ride in Monroe.[citation needed] When CORE dispatched "Freedom Riders" to Monroe to campaign in 1961 for integrated interstate bus travel, the local NAACP chapter served as their base. They were housed in Newtown, the black section of Monroe. Pickets marched daily at the courthouse, put under a variety of restraints by the Monroe police, such as having to stand 15 feet apart. During this campaign, Freedom Riders were beaten by violent crowds in Anniston, Alabama and Birmingham.[35]

In 1959, Williams was in a shoot-out with Ku Klax Klan members and local police officers, from which he fled.[1]: 123 

On August 28, 1961, the FBI issued a warrant in Charlotte, North Carolina, charging Williams with unlawful interstate flight to avoid prosecution for kidnapping. The FBI document lists Williams as a "freelance writer and janitor ... [Williams] ... has previously been diagnosed as a schizophrenic and has advocated and threatened violence ... considered armed and extremely dangerous."[36] Williams fled to Cuba, and then to China.[1]: 123 

Exile and return


See also: American fugitives in Cuba

Williams went to Cuba in 1961 by way of Canada and Mexico. He regularly broadcast addresses from Cuba to Southern blacks on "Radio Free Dixie". He established the station with approval of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, along with assistance of the government, and operated it from 1962 to 1965.[37]

During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, Williams used Radio Free Dixie to urge black soldiers in the U.S. armed forces, who were then preparing for a possible invasion of Cuba, to engage in insurrection against the United States.

While you are armed, remember this is your only chance to be free. ... This is your only chance to stop your people from being treated worse than dogs. We'll take care of the front, Joe, but from the back, he'll never know what hit him. You dig?[38]

During this stay, Mabel and Robert Williams published a newspaper, The Crusader. He wrote his book Negroes with Guns while in Cuba. It had a significant influence on Huey P. Newton, founder of the Black Panthers and in later years Mauricelm-Lei Millere, the founder of African American Defense League. Despite his absence from the United States, in 1964 Williams was elected president of the US-based Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM).[39]

Visit to Hanoi

In 1965 Williams traveled to Hanoi, then the capital of North Vietnam. In a public speech, he advocated armed violence against the United States during the Vietnam War, congratulated China on obtaining its own nuclear weapons (which Williams referred to as "The Freedom Bomb"), and showed his solidarity with the North Vietnamese against the United States military attacks against that country.[40]

Some Communist Party USA members opposed Williams' positions, suggesting they would divide the working class in the U.S. along racial lines. In a May 18, 1964, letter from Havana to his U.S. lawyer, civil rights attorney Conrad Lynn, Williams wrote:

... the U.S.C.P. has openly come out against my position on the Negro struggle. In fact, the party has sent special representatives here to sabotage my work on behalf of U.S. Negro liberation. They are pestering the Cubans to remove me from the radio, ban THE CRUSADER and to take a number of other steps in what they call 'cutting Williams down to size.' ...

The whole thing is due to the fact that I absolutely refuse to take direction from Gus Hall's idiots ... I hope to depart from here, if possible, soon. I am writing you to stand by in case I am turned over to the FBI ...

Sincerely, Rob.


Mao Zedong meeting with Robert F. Williams.

In 1963, Williams attended Mao Zedong's 70th birthday party as an honored guest.[1]: 123 

From 1966 to 1969, Williams lived in China, where he continued to publish The Crusader, which praised armed liberation movements in the United States and elsewhere.[41]: 34 

Williams described China as last hope for African Americans, contending that "Without China, there can be no Black struggle in America."[41]: 34  In a speech at a demonstration against United States imperialism in 1966, Williams praised what he described as the militant friendship between the Chinese and the revolutionary American people.[41]: 34 

Represented by the ACLU and human rights lawyer Michael Tigar, he won a lawsuit against the U.S. Postmaster General, in which the statute allowing the U.S. Post Office to refuse to deliver foreign-origin publications deemed to be "communist political propaganda" except at the specific prior request of the addressee was declared unconstitutional under the First Amendment and the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.[42] In January 1968, Conrad Lynn wrote to encourage Williams to return to the U.S.,[citation needed] to which Williams responded:

The only thing that prevents my acceptance and willingness to make an immediate return is the present lack of adequate financial assurance for a fight against my being railroaded to jail and an effective organization to arouse the people. I don't think it will be wise to announce my nomination [for President of the United States] and immediate return unless the kind of money is positively available...[citation needed]

Lynn wrote Williams in a letter on January 24, 1968: "You are wise in not making a decision to come back until the financial situation is assured." Because no financial backing could be found, no 1968 "Williams for President" campaign was ever launched by Williams' supporters in the United States. By November 1969, Williams apparently had become disillusioned with the U.S. left. As his lawyer, Conrad Lynn, noted in a November 7, 1969 letter to W. Haywood Burns of the Legal Defense Foundation:

Williams now clearly takes the position that he has been deserted by the left. How and whether he fits black militant organizations into that category I don't know. Radio Free Europe offered him pay to broadcast for them. So far he has refused. But he has not foreclosed making a deal with the government or the far right. He takes the position that he is entitled to make any maneuver to keep from going to jail for kidnapping...[43]

Williams was suspected by the Justice Department of wanting to fill the vacuum of influence left after the assassinations of his friends Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Hoover received reports that blacks looked to Williams as a figure similar to John Brown, the militant abolitionist who attacked a federal armory at Harper's Ferry before the American Civil War attempting to arm and free enslaved Black people. Williams' attempts to contact the U.S. government in order to return were consistently rebuffed.[44]


Williams' wife, Mabel Williams returned first, entering the United States in September 1969.[45] Williams returned via London, England, reaching Detroit, Michigan, in 1969. He was immediately arrested for extradition to North Carolina for trial on the kidnapping charge.

Williams was tried in Monroe, North Carolina, in December 1975. The historian Gwendolyn Midlo Hall chaired his defense committee and a broad range of left wing activists arrived to support him. Noted attorney William Kunstler represented Williams in court. The State of North Carolina dropped all charges against him almost immediately.[46]


Williams died at age 71 from Hodgkin's lymphoma on October 15, 1996.[3] He had been living in Baldwin, Michigan. At his funeral, Rosa Parks, an activist known for sparking the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955, recounted the high regard for Williams by those who joined with Martin Luther King Jr. in the peaceful marches in Alabama.[4] Parks gave the eulogy at Williams' funeral in 1996, praising him for "his courage and for his commitment to freedom". She concluded, "The sacrifices he made, and what he did, should go down in history and never be forgotten."[47][48]




  1. ^ a b c d Crean, Jeffrey (2024). The Fear of Chinese Power: An International History. New Approaches to International History series. London, UK: Bloomsbury Academic. ISBN 978-1-350-23394-2.
  2. ^ Robert Franklin Williams in North Carolina Birth Index, Family Search
  3. ^ a b c d Yoruba ancestry Robert Franklin Williams in Michigan Obituaries, Family Search.
  4. ^ a b Timothy B. Tyson, "Robert F. Williams: 'Black Power' and the Roots of the African American Freedom Struggle", in Susan M. Glisson (ed.), The Human Tradition in the Civil Rights Movement, Rowman & Littlefield, 2006, pp. 227–54; accessed May 12, 2011.
  5. ^ pp. 227-28.
  6. ^ Jesse Helms: Timeline, PBS
  7. ^ "Jesse Helms Center". Archived from the original on February 26, 2017. Retrieved February 25, 2017.
  8. ^ Robert and Mabel Williams Resource Guide, p. 36.
  9. ^ Robert F Williams's United States World War II Army Enlistment Records, Family Search
  10. ^ [Mabel Ola Robinson in North Carolina Birth Index], Family Search
  11. ^ Umoja, Akinyele; Stanford, Karin L.; Young, Jasmin A. (July 11, 2018). Black Power Encyclopedia: From "Black is Beautiful" to Urban Uprisings [2 volumes]. ABC-CLIO. p. 822. ISBN 978-1-4408-4007-4.
  12. ^ Robert and Mabel Williams Resource Guide, p. 9.
  13. ^ "In Memory of Robert F. Williams: A Voice for Armed Self-Defense and Black Liberation", Revolutionary Worker, November 17, 1996.
  14. ^ a b Williams, Robert F. "1957: Swimming Pool Showdown", Southern Exposure, c. Summer 1980; the article appeared in a special issue devoted to the Ku Klux Klan, accessed November 17, 2013.
  15. ^ Truman Nelson, 'People with Strength: The Story of Monroe, North Carolina', 1962, within 'Robert and Mabel Williams Resource Guide' (San Francisco: Freedom Archives, 2005), pp. 55, 59.
  16. ^ Nelson, People with Strength, pp. 49, 60, 65.
  17. ^ "In Memory of Robert F. Williams", Revolutionary Worker, November 17, 1996;
    Timothy Tyson, "Robert Franklin Williams: A Warrior for Freedom;"
    Timothy Tyson, "Introduction" to Robert Williams Papers, p. vi.
  18. ^ In Thomas (Chapter 4), Spooks, Sex & Socio-Diagnostics, section: "Sadistic White Insanity".
  19. ^ "Negroes With Guns", Ann Coulter blog, 18 April 2012.
  20. ^ Robert and Mabel Williams Resource Guide , p. 12.
  21. ^ Nelson, People with Strength: The Story of Monroe, North Carolina, pp. 62-63.
  22. ^ a b c Insurance cancelled, Raleigh Eagle, May 12, 1958, p. 15.
  23. ^ Tyson, Timothy B. (1997). "Robert F. Williams, NAACP: Warrior and rebel". Crisis. Vol. 104, no. 3. Baltimore, MD: Crisis Publishing Company. p. 17. ISSN 1559-1573.
  24. ^ James Bock, "A new debate over nonviolence Militant: A fiery black advocate of violence in the 1960s has returned to the spotlight with recent revelations that Thurgood Marshall passed information about him to the FBI," Baltimore Sun, March 2, 1997.
  25. ^ a b Timothy B. Tyson, "Robert F. Williams: "Black Power" and the Roots of African American Freedom Struggle",The Human Tradition in the Civil Rights Movement, ed. Susan M. Glisson, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littefield, 2006, p. 236
  26. ^ Christopher B. Strain, Pure Fire: Self-defense as Activism in the Civil Rights Era, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2005, p. 59.
  27. ^ James Forman,The Making of Black Revolutionaries, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000, second printing, p. 176.
  28. ^ "The Robert Williams Case",The Crisis, Jun-Jul 1959, Vol. 66, no. 6, p. 327-329.
  29. ^ Nelson on pages 65-66 in People With Strength: The Story of Monroe, North Carolina, quotes Williams as saying "This court has proved that Negroes cannot receive justice from the courts. They must convict their attackers on the spot. They must meet violence with violence!".
  30. ^ Cowan, Paul S. (March 16, 1963). "Negroes With Guns". The Harvard Crimson. Retrieved November 5, 2019.
  31. ^ Timothy B. Tyson, "Robert F. Williams: NAACP "Warrior and Rebel," p. 17.
  32. ^ Thomas Bynum, NAACP Youth and the Fight for Black Freedom, 1936–1965, Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2013, p. 125.
  33. ^ Strain, Pure Fire: Self-defense as Activism in the Civil Rights Era, p. 60, 66, 181, 206.
  34. ^ Forman, The Making of Black Revolutionaries, 159.
  35. ^ Forman, James (1997). The Making of Black Revolutionaries (1 ed.). University of Washington Press. p. 196. ISBN 9780295976594.
  36. ^ Robert and Mabel Williams Resource Guide, p. 19.
  37. ^ Robert and Mabel Williams Resource Guide, pp. 20-21.
  38. ^ Michael Dobbs, One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War, Knopf (2008).
  39. ^ "Exile Robert Williams' Wife Returns to US from Africa", The Afro American (Baltimore, Maryland), August 30 or September 6, 1969 (unclear).
  40. ^ Williams, Robert F., "Speech Delivered at the International Conference for Solidarity with the People of Vietnam Against U.S. Imperialist Aggression for the Defense of Peace. Hanoi, Democratic Republic of Vietnam November 25–29, 1965" (March 1965). The Crusader 6(3), pp. 1-5.
  41. ^ a b c Minami, Kazushi (2024). People's Diplomacy: How Americans and Chinese Transformed US-China Relations during the Cold War. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. ISBN 9781501774157.
  42. ^ Williams v. Blount, 314 Federal Supplement 1356 (U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia (3-judge court) June 17, 1970).
  43. ^ Conrad Lynn to Haywood Burns, November 7, 1969, Conrad Lynn Papers, Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, Boston University.
  44. ^ Tyson, Timothy B. (September 1998). "Robert F. Williams, "Black Power," and the Roots of the African American Freedom Struggle" (PDF). The Journal of American History. 85 (2): 564. doi:10.2307/2567750. JSTOR 2567750 – via JSTOR.
  45. ^ "Exile Robert Williams' Wife Returns to US from Africa", The Afro American (Baltimore, Maryland), August 30 or September 6, 1969; p. 22, accessed November 17, 2013.
  46. ^ "Charges Dropped Against Williams", Wilmington Morning Star (UPI). January 17, 1976, p. 2.
    Gwendolyn Midlo Hall Papers (1939-1991), Bentley Historical Library[permanent dead link], University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan.
  47. ^ Timothy B. Tyson, "Robert Franklin Williams: A Warrior For Freedom, 1925-1996" Archived July 8, 2013, at the Wayback Machine Investigating U.S. History (City University of New York); accessed October 3, 2016.
  48. ^ Robert and Mabel Williams Resource Guide (San Francisco: Freedom Archives, 2005), p. 38.
  49. ^ "In Memory of Robert F. Williams:A Voice for Armed Self-Defense and Black Liberation– Forum". Retrieved August 27, 2010.
  50. ^ "Independent Lens . NEGROES WITH GUNS: Rob Williams and Black Power". PBS. Retrieved August 27, 2010.
  51. ^ "Press and Photos – Negroes With Guns – Rob Williams and Black Power". Retrieved August 27, 2010.

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