Robert F. Williams, president of the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Monroe, North Carolina, became embroiled in a 1959 controversy surrounding remarks he made following the acquittal of a white man accused of attempting to rape a black woman. An article appearing in the 7 May 1959 New York Times claimed that Williams had asserted that the failure of the courts demanded that African Americans “meet violence with violence.… We are going to have to try and convict these people on the spot” (“N.A.A.C.P. Leader Urges ‘Violence’”). Martin Luther King condemned Williams’ comments, sparking a debate between the two leaders on the efficacy of nonviolence.
Born in Monroe, North Carolina, in February 1925, Williams was the grandson of a former slave. Through his grandmother’s tales and political observations, he was made aware of racial injustice at an early age. As a young man Williams went north to find work. During World War II he was drafted into the Army and served 14 months. He returned to Monroe and married Mabel Robinson in 1947. During the next several years Williams enrolled in various college programs. Unable to secure a job, Williams enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1954, where he was an outspoken opponent of racial segregation in the armed forces. His candor concerned the Marines, who placed Williams under investigation and gave him an “undesirable” discharge.
In 1955 Williams returned to Monroe with a renewed vigor for race relations. He was hopeful about the May 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education. “I was sure that this was the beginning of a new era in American democracy,” Williams said (Tyson, 73). With membership dwindling in the Monroe NAACP branch, Williams got involved with the organization and was elected president. In 1956 news of the Montgomery bus boycott bolstered Williams’ spirits. He called those involved with the bus protest the “patriots of passive revolution” (Tyson, 78). Addressing those who attempted to stifle the revolution in Montgomery, Williams quipped: “Has an American no right to walk when to ride would degrade his dignity? Has our beloved Republic reached the stage that the jails have no room for criminals, because they are filled with liberty-loving citizens whose only crime is that there voices cry out for freedom?” (Tyson, 78).
From 6 members at the beginning of Williams’ term, the Monroe NAACP branch grew to 121 members in late 1959. After his controversial statement calling for armed retaliation against racial injustice in May 1959, NAACP Executive Secretary Williams found himself suspended from his post by Roy Wilkins. Williams unsuccessfully appealed his suspension to delegates attending the group’s national convention in July.
In King’s address at the July convention he reaffirmed his commitment to nonviolence: “We all realize that there will probably be some sporadic violence during this period of transition, and people will naturally seek to protect their property and person, but for the Negro to privately or publicly call for retaliatory violence as a strategy during this period would be the gravest tragedy that could befall us” (Papers 5:248). The press quickly seized on “The Great Debate,” and Anne and Carl Braden’s Southern Patriot published King’s and Williams’ views on the role of violence in the struggle for integration in early 1960.
In 1961 a representative of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was sent to Monroe to investigate the racial situation there and to support the early Freedom Rides. When King declined an offer from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to participate in the rides, Williams sent King a scathing telegram: “No sincere leader asks his followers to make sacrifices that he himself will not endure. You are a phony.… If you lack the courage, remove yourself from the vanguard.… Now is the time for true leaders to take to the field of battle” (31 May 1961).
As racial tensions increased in Monroe, the town erupted into violence fueled by white racists. Williams and his wife fled to Cuba in late 1961 to escape the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which sought to arrest them on kidnapping charges related to the violence in Monroe. Once in Cuba Williams wrote his memoir, Negroes with Guns (1962). In the book’s prologue Williams attempted to clarify what he believed was a distortion of his position on violence: “I do not advocate violence for its own sake, or for the sake of reprisals against whites.… My only difference with Dr. King is that I believe in flexibility in the freedom struggle” (Williams, 40).
From Cuba, the couple continued to publish their newspaper, The Crusader, and aired a radio program called Radio Free Dixie. In 1965 they moved to China, returning to the United States in 1969. While in exile Williams was elected president of the Republic of New Africa, a revolutionary organization aimed at establishing a separate black nation in the southern United States. He resigned from the organization after his return to the United States.
In 1976 North Carolina dropped remaining criminal charges against Williams. In 1996, he died of Hodgkin’s disease at age 71.
“The Great Debate: Is Violence Necessary to Combat Injustice?” January 1960, in Papers 5:300.
King, Address at the Fiftieth Annual NAACP Convention, 17 July 1959, in Papers 5:245–250.
King, “The Social Organization of Nonviolence,” October 1959, in Papers 5:299–304.
“N.A.A.C.P. Leader Urges ‘Violence,’” New York Times, 7 May 1959.
Tyson, Radio Free Dixie, 1999.
Williams, Negroes with Guns, 1962.
Williams to King, 31 May 1961, MLKP-MBU.