Black World War II veterans changed the climate of the South. Most of this story is unknown, or not much told. Yet no single group was more important to the modern civil rights movement than these men. It was they who first took young organizers from SNCC and CORE under their wings in the rural south. Some, as World War II and Korean War veterans did in Louisiana as the Deacons for Defense and Justice, formed organizations to protect nonviolent civil rights workers. Not surprisingly despite often working in tandem, there was sometimes tension. Over the next two days we will be looking at armed protection from veterans in the civil rights movement. It was civil rights struggle in Monroe, North Carolina, and the NAACP branch there led by Robert Williams and Dr. Albert Perry that first brought armed self-defense and nonviolence in contact and tension with one another:
On the night of October 5, 1957, after holding a rally complete with a cross burning, a heavily armed motorcade of klansmen headed toward Dr. Albert Perry’s home on the outskirts of Monroe. However, an attack had been anticipated. Helmeted men from the NAACP, with automatic weapons, were dug in behind sandbag fortifications and hidden in other strategic places around the house. When the klan convoy arrived at Perry’s home and opened fire, they were immediately met with disciplined, withering volleys from the defenders. The men shooting back at the klansmen were apparently not shooting to kill, for the gunfire was aimed low, but they were definitely determined to drive the klansmen away with the threat of death. “We shot it out with the klan and repelled their attack,” Williams recalled later. “And the klan didn’t have any more stomach for this type of fight. They stopped raiding our community.” The next day Monroe’s City Council banned ku klux klan motorcades.
Neither Williams nor Perry could possibly have imagined then how controversial — or how influential — their branch of the NAACP would become. Because of their leadership, the tactics and strategies of armed self-defense — as practiced by persons and communities under assault for their civil rights efforts — became nationally visible. It was in Monroe, moreover, that the principled practice of armed self-defense first converged with the modern civil rights movement’s emergent tactics and strategies of nonviolence. yet this confluence has often been oversimplified as a clash between violent and nonviolent ideas and approaches to civil rights struggle. This oversimplification ignores the more complex tensions between the priorities of local black communities and the priorities of national civil rights organizations — tensions that are embedded in and that much more accurately describe events in Monroe between the swimming-pool protests of 1957 and Williams’s eventual exile from the United States in 1961.
Williams’s militant self-defensive tactics quickly attracted the attention of the national civil rights establishment. Arguing for the necessity of organized self-defense in a September 1959 article in Liberation magazine, Williams praised Martin Luther king Jr. as “a great and successful leader of our race,” but he also insisted that black southerners often had to face “the necessity of confronting savage violence” with violence of their own. “I wish to make it clear that I do not advocate violence for its own sake, or for the sake of reprisals against whites,” he wrote. “Nor am I against the passive resistance advocated by Reverend Martin Luther King and others. My only difference with Dr. King is that I believe in flexibility in the freedom struggle.”
Responding in the same magazine a month later, King acknowledged that nonviolence as a philosophy could be difficult for the average person to grasp, but he also worried that even the sort of restrained violence that Williams was advocating put the black struggle at risk because it could “mislead Negroes into the belief that [violence] is the only path and place them as a minority in a position where they confront a far larger adversary than it is possible to defeat in this form of combat.” In this, King was expressing a reality that southern blacks had long understood: overt or preemptive displays of force by black people — like that organized by black World War I veterans in Houston, Texas, in 1917 — ran the risk of eliciting an overwhelming and brutal response by local and national authorities.
But Rev. King also acknowledged that there could be value in armed self-defense. “When the Negro uses force [emphasis added] in self-defense,” the advocate of nonviolence wrote in his response to Williams, “he does not forfeit support — he may even win it, by the courage and self-respect it reflects.” In this exchange, King seems to have misunderstood Williams as inviting blacks to kill whites with impunity. For his part, Williams may have equated nonviolence with pacifism, not fully understanding the forcefulness of nonviolent direct action.
This exchange between Robert Williams, a gruff working-class leader, and Martin Luther King Jr., a prince of the black Baptist church who was rapidly rising to national prominence as a civil rights leader, forecast the political and class tensions that would be increasingly significant inside the southern Freedom Movement of the 1960s. Tensions between local grass-roots organizers and the national civil rights establishment were growing rapidly as the 1950s drew to a close. One telling episode was the infamous 1958 “kissing case” in Monroe, when a young white girl, six-year-old Sissy Marcus, playfully kissed a seven-year-old black boy, David “Fuzzy” Simpson, as nine-year-old James Hanover Thompson — also black — stood by. The two boys were quickly arrested for “molestation” and sentenced to reform school until they reached the age of twenty-one. After the boys had been detained for three months, North Carolina’s governor bowed to public outrage, international media attention, and outside legal assistance and pardoned them. The legal assistance came primarily from New York attorney Conrad Lynn, who became involved because the NAACP said it would not take the case, arguing that it did not take on “sexual” cases. Eventually, however, embarrassed by its lack of involvement, the organization did involve itself with the case.
Whether because of political disagreements with Williams or because of his strategic choices, the national NAACP hierarchy simply had no respect or affection for the Monroe branch leader. NAACP executive director Roy Wilkins dismissively called him “the Lancelot of Monroe,” and NAACP counsel and future Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall even suggested to the FBI that the agency investigate Williams. Yet ironically, whatever the basis of the NAACP’s objection to Williams, it does not seem to have had anything to do with his use of guns. In 1959, at the very Convention that suspended Williams from the NAACP, the organization passed a resolution affirming the right of self-defense.
[Excerpted with permission from This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible, by Charles E. Cobb Jr. Available from Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Book Group. Copyright © 2014]