What Would Robert Williams Do? Words from the Man Who Inspired the Panthers

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This is Robert Williams.

In the mid 50’s, Williams took the helm of the local NAACP chapter in Monroe NC. Economic reprisals and attacks from the KKK had strangled the membership of the organization to just six members. He made a pilgrimage from pool halls to street corners; reached out to local tenant farmers and old buddies from the military, and built their ranks from about one (him) to more than 300.

Williams also started an NRA chapter that came to be known as the Black Armed Guard. They protected the Freedom Riders in the early 60’s. They also protected themselves from nighttime attacks. In short, they did what people right now are whispering about doing.

It was just another good time Klan night, the high point of which would come when they dragged Dr. Perry (Williams’ NAACP vice president) across the state line, if they didn’t hang him or burn him first. But near Dr. Perry’s home their revelry was suddenly shattered by the sustained fire of scores of men who had been instructed not to kill anyone, if it weren’t necessary.

The firing was blistering, disciplined and frightening. The motorcade of about eighty cars, which had begun in a spirit of good fellowship, disintegrated into chaos, with panicky robed men fleeing in every direction.

Julian Mayfield, as quoted in The Making of Black Revolutionaries.

Dylann Roof after he was taken into custody.
Dylann Roof after he was taken into custody.

After the attack on Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church by Dylann Roof, I thought of Williams. Leaders and law enforcement struggled to find the right word for what had happened. Was it terrorism or a hate crime? Was he a politicized lone wolf or just a troubled, unstable young man?

And we wrung our hands and gnashed our teeth, trying to determine what to do next. On one Facebook thread, one officer within the NAACP suggested that he would rather sacrifice his life and protect everyone that he could, than ever use a gun.

He said, “While taking the high road is long and arduous and even deadly if you ask Dr. King, at the end of the day taking the high road is an investment into a more peaceful planet.”

It should be noted that Dr. King sought a concealed carry license early in his career but was turned down by local police. It should also be noted that for much of his career he was protected by the Deacons for Defense. Finally, it should be noted that while King abhorred the idea of guns as a political tool, he recognized their importance in armed self-defense. 

Others suggested that we should vote. Just vote…

Meanwhile, since Roof murdered Cynthia Hurd, 54; Susie Jackson, 87; Ethel Lance, 70; Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, 49; Hon. Rev. Clementa Pinckney, 41; Tywanza Sanders, 26; Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., 74; Rev. Sharonda Singleton, 45; Myra Thompson, 59, six Black  churches burned to the ground in five Southern states. Although no suspects or motive have been announced, arson has been named as the cause of three of the fires so far.

Would vigilant men with guns have been able to stop Roof? There is no way to answer that question conclusively, but it might have given them a fighting chance.

I started Daddys-Gun to demonstrate that Black people have a long and illustrious history of fighting the good fight. I didn’t expect that our nation would be faced with challenges that so closely echoed the battles that we endured fifty or sixty years ago. But when I heard about Roof, and then the burning churches, my mind went to Bombingham Al, and the little girls lost in the 16th Street Baptist Church.

I’m not going to tell anyone what to do. I suspect that will change from person to person, and congregation to congregation. I suspect, also, that there are already a large number of congregations that have quietly decided to arm themselves.

This is Bishop Ron Gibson from Preachers of LA. Gibson serves at Life Church of God in Christ. He is often armed.
This is Bishop Ron Gibson from Preachers of LA. Gibson serves at Life Church of God in Christ. He is often armed. How many others just like them, are quietly armed behind the pulpit? Photo Courtesy of Entertainment Tonight

I’m saying, simply, that history has provided us with a blueprint in men like Robert Williams and the Deacons for defense. Even if you don’t choose to follow their path, you should know their stories.