Negroes with Guns
by Robert F. Williams
Marzani & Munsell, Inc.
New York 1962
Edited by Marc Schleifer (pp 7,126-128)
Scanned from the hardbound edition
by Walter Lippmann, August 2007.
It is eight years since the Supreme Court's historic decision on school segregation lifted the heart of the Negro people, giving strength to the struggle for voting rights and for integration of public facilities. The tenacious resistance of Southern racists including the use of violence condoned, when not abetted, by local authorities has given rise to bitter frustration and anger, bringing to the fore the issue of armed self-defense. In Monroe, North Carolina, under the leadership of Marine veteran Robert F. Williams, the Negro community took up guns for protection. Monroe, North Carolina has become the test case of the unqualified right of Negroes to armed self-defense when law and order break down.
The issue is biting deep in the Negro community and awareness of it is increasing in the rest of the country as symbolized by Jules Pfeiffer's cartoon in the New York Post, August 15, 1962. It is a portentous issue, being debated by articulate and thoughtful men, and we set forth here the position of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and that of the novelist and scholar on John Brown and the abolitionist movement, Truman Nelson, as an introduction to the story of the Monroe case by its central figure, Robert F. Williams.
Mr. Williams is now in Cuba, as a political exile. I was already there and obtained his story in a three-hour taped interview at the Hotel Capri, in the Vedado section of Havana (see photo opposite). The interview was broadcast by WBAI-FM in New York on May 31, 1962 and later by WKPF-FM, San Francisco. This book is essentially that interview, but to develop some of his points I've also used material from Mr. Williams' article and editorials in his newsletter, The Crusader, as well as from his interview with John Schultz published in Studies on the Left, Spring, 1962.
by Marc Schleifer
There is something about Robert F. Williams that frightens most American liberals—and many old-time radicals. Yet he is an attractive, interesting political figure to the many young people who have suddenly found themselves involved in politics in the last few years. I'm referring to the students who participate in peace demonstrations, the Freedom-Riders, the bohemians and artists who dug Fidel Castro in the Sierras and now defend his revolution. That social phenomenon which has taken a generalizing form from different responses—what C. Wright Mills referred to as the New Left. Why is Williams so attractive to the New Left and often somewhat distasteful to the Old one?
I think that both groups are responding to a sense of Williams' radical insistence on immediacy. The young Negro intellectuals entered the civil-rights struggle with a mentality expressing itself in the slogan—"Freedom Now!" The peace demonstrators are protesting the reasonable prospect of world-wide destruction some time this evening or possibly tomorrow afternoon. The Beat Fidelistas were won over by the barbudos because of their almost hopelessly romantic struggle and the apocalyptic quality of their goals, in other words precisely because they were revolutionaries rather than politicians.
But Williams' insistence on immediacy rubs against the style of the Old Left. Perhaps this is an incorrect designation. I do not think Williams would have made Big Bill Haywood, Jack Reed, Gene Debs, or Jack London uncomfortable. And I know that he enjoys the respect of W. E B. DuBois. Better the phrase, the Middle-Aged Left. One major historical event—the New Deal—separates Middle Age experience from that of the truly Old and New Left.
Its first political commitment was linked to the optimism and the best aspirations of the New Deal, and I suggest that its sense of style has been shaped by the experience. The Middle-Aged Left knows, intellectually, that the New Deal is forever dead, but emotionally it cannot quite accept this as a fact, and it has never quite recovered from its sudden isolation from a world of respectability and authority that nourished it for years. It is a style that is summed by the word "progressive." As a point of style it is interesting to note that Williams never once uses the word "progressive" in this book. When I meet other young radicals and talk with them, I almost never encounter the word in their vocabulary. When I do, I inquire and invariably I am talking with someone from a leftist family or with political associations that pre-date the New Left. The young people of the New Left consider and openly label themselves as radicals or even revolutionaries.
But if we are to seriously consider this division of the American Left into categories-by-chronology we then have a case where (to misapply some theory) a quantitative change should not necessarily lead to a qualitative change. Think of Eugene Debs in Atlanta. There was nothing old about the Old American Left. For many of the Middle-Aged Left this is a description of an affliction, an emotional and intellectual sclerosis, but for those who have established lines of free communication with the New Left, it is solely a statistic of birthdate.
I had always intended but never got around to asking Robert Williams if he has ever read George Sorel's Reflections on Violence. I doubt it. But I throw in his name, which suggests an interesting parallel to some of Williams' ideas, for the sake of an academic straw man. Williams' sources are not European. His ideas are pure expressions of his social existence as a Southern Negro. Nor is his stand one that makes him a unique figure in Afro-American history. He is unique only in that sheltered white consciousness that never read of the slave revolts in its history textbooks and knows exactly who Booker T. Washington is, but only vaguely if at all of W.E.B. DuBois.
Since the time of Reconstruction there have been Afro-Americans advocating much of the core of what Robert Williams advocates. Typical is the prominent Negro journalist John E. Bruce and his 1889 prophesy:
"I fully realize the delicacy of the position I occupy . . . and know too well that those who ,are to follow me will largely benefit by what I shall have to say in respect to the application of force as one of the means to the solution of the problem known as the Negro problem. I am not unmindful of the fact that there are those living who have faith in the efficacy of submission.... Those who are thus minded will advise a pacific policy in order as they believe to effect a settlement of this question, with which the statesmanship of a century has grappled without any particularly gratifying results. Agitation is a good thing, organization is a better thing. The million. Negro voters of Georgia, and the undiscovered millions in other southern states—could with proper organization and intelligent leadership meet force with force with most beneficial results... .
"Under the present condition of affairs the only hope, the only salvation for the Negro is to be found in a resort to force under wise and discreet leaders.
. . . The Negro must not be rash and indiscreet either in action or words but he must be very determined and terribly in earnest, and of one mind to bring order out of chaos and to convince southern rowdies and cutthroats that more than two can play at the game with which they have amused their fellow conspirators in crime for nearly a quarter of a century.
"Organized resistance to organized resistance is the best remedy for the solution of the vexed problem of the century which to me seems practicable and feasible and I submit this view of the question, ladies and gentlemen, for your careful consideration."
"HATE IS ALWAYS TRAGIC"
by Martin Luther King, Jr.
Those who adhere to the method of nonviolent direct action recognize that legislation and court orders tend only to declare rights; they can never thoroughly deliver them. Only when the people themselves begin to act are rights on paper given lifeblood. The method of nonviolent resistance is effective in that it has a way of disarming the opponent; it exposes his moral defenses, it weakens his morale and at the same time it works on his conscience.
Nonviolent resistance also provides a creative force through which men can channelize their discontent. It does not require that they abandon their discontent. This discontent is sound and healthy. Nonviolence saves it from degenerating into morbid bitterness and hatred. Hate is always tragic. It is as injurious to the hater as it is to the hated. It distorts the personality and scars the soul. Psychiatrists are telling us now that many of the inner conflicts and strange things that happen in the subconscious are rooted in hate. So they are now saying, "Love or perish." This is the beauty of nonviolence. It says you can struggle without hating; you can fight war without violence.
As a race, we must work passionately and unrelentingly for first-class citizenship, but we must never use second-class methods to gain it. If this happens, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and our chief legacy to the future will be an endless reign of meaningless chaos.
We have come to the day when a piece of freedom is not enough for us as human beings nor for the nation pf which we are part. We have been given pieces, but unlike bread, a slice of which does diminish hunger, a piece of liberty no longer suffices. Freedom is like life. You cannot be given life in installments. You cannot be given breath but not body, nor a heart but no blood vessels. Freedom is one thing—you have it all, or you are not free.
Our destiny is bound up with the destiny of America—we built it for two centuries without wages, we made cotton king, we built our homes and homes for our masters and suffered injustice and humiliation, but out of a bottomless vitality continued to live and grow. If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not extinguish our existence, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We feel that we are the conscience of America—we are its troubled soul.
(from an address to the National Press Club, Washington, D.C., July, 1962)
THE SOCIAL ORGANIZATION OF NON-VIOLENCE
by Martin Luther King, Jr.
Paradoxically, the struggle for civil rights has reached a stage of profound crisis, although its outward aspect is distinctly less turbulent and victories of token integration have been won in the hard-resistance areas of Virginia and Arkansas.
The crisis has its origin in a decision rendered by the Supreme Court more than a year ago, which upheld the pupil placement law. Though little noticed then, this decision fundamentally weakened the historic 1954 ruling of the Court. It is imperceptibly becoming the basis of a de facto compromise between the powerful contending forces.
The 1954 decision required for effective implementation resolute Federal action supported by mass action to under-gird all necessary changes. It is obvious that Federal action by the legislative and executive branches was half-hearted and inadequate. The activity of Negro forces, while heroic in some instances, and impressive in other sporadic situations, lacked consistency and militancy sufficient to fill the void left by government default. The segregationists were swift to seize these advantages, and unrestrained by moral or social conscience, defied the law boldly and brazenly.
The net effect of this social equation has led to the present situation, which is without clear-cut victory for either side. Token integration is a developing pattern. This type of integration is merely an affirmation of a principle without the substance of change.
It is, like the Supreme Court decision, a pronouncement of justice, but by itself does not insure that the millions of Negro children will be educated in conditions of equality. This is not to say that it is without value. It has substantial importance. However, it fundamentally changes the outlook of the whole movement, for it raises the prospect of long, slow change without a predictable end. As we have seen in Northern cities, token integration has become a pattern in many communities and remained frozen, even though environmental attitudes are substantially less hostile to full integration than in the South.
This then is the danger. Full integration can easily become a distant or mythical goal—major integration may be long postponed, and in the quest for social calm a compromise firmly implanted in which the real goals are merely token integration for a long period to come.
The Negro was the tragic victim of another compromise in 1878, when his full equality was bargained away by the Federal Government and a condition somewhat above slave status but short of genuine citizenship became his social and political existence for nearly a century.
There is reason to believe that the Negro of 1959 will not accept supinely any such compromises in the contemporary struggle for integration. His struggle will continue, but the obstacles will determine its specific nature. It is axiomatic in social life that the imposition of frustrations leads to two kinds of reactions. One is the development of a wholesome social organization to resist with effective, firm measures any efforts to impede progress. The other is a confused, anger-motivated drive to strike back violently, to inflict damage. Primarily, it seeks to cause injury to retaliate for wrongful suffering. Secondarily, it seeks real progress. It is punitive—not radical or constructive.
The current calls for violence have their roots in this latter tendency. Here one must be clear that there are three different views on the subject of violence. One is the approach of pure nonviolence, which cannot readily or easily attract large masses, for it requires extraordinary discripline and courage. The second is violence exercised in self-defense, which all societies from the most primitive to the most cultured and civilized, accept as moral and legal. The principle of self-defense, even involving weapons and bloodshed, has never been condemned, even by Gandhi, who sanctioned it for those unable to master pure nonviolence. The third is the advocacy of violence as a tool of advancement, organized as in warfare, deliberately and consciously. To this tendency many Negroes are being tempted today. There are incalculable perils in this approach. It is not the danger or sacrifice of physical being which is primary, though it cannot be contemplated without a sense of deep concern for human life. The greatest danger is that it will fail to attract Negroes to a real collective struggle, and will confuse the large uncommitted middle group, which as yet has not supported either side. Further, it will mislead Negroes into the belief that this 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. When the Negro uses force in self-defense he does not forfeit support—he may even win it, by the courage and self-respect it reflects. When he seeks to initiate violence he provokes questions about the necessity for it, and inevitably is blamed for its consequences. It is unfortunately true that however the Negro acts, his struggle will not be free of violence initiated by his enemies, and he will need ample courage and willingness to sacrifice to defeat this manifestation of violence. But if he seeks it and organizes it, he cannot win. Does this leave the Negro without a positive method to advance? Mr. Robert Williams would have us believe that there is no collective and practical alternative. He argues that we must be cringing and submissive or take up arms. To so place the issue distorts the whole problem. There are other meaningful alternatives.
The Negro people can organize socially to initiate many forms of struggle which can drive their enemies back without resort to futile and harmful violence. In the history of the movement for racial advancement, many creative forms have been developed—the mass boycott, sitdown protests and strikes, sit-ins,—refusal to pay fines and bail for unjust arrests—mass marches—mass meetings—prayer pilgrimages, etc. Indeed, in Mr. Williams' own community of Monroe, North Carolina, a striking example of collective community action won a significant victory without use of arms or threats of violence. When the police incarcerated a Negro doctor unjustly, the aroused people of Monroe marched to the police station, crowded into its halls and corridors, and refused to leave until their colleague was released. Unable to arrest everyone, the authorities released the doctor and neither side attempted to unleash violence. This experience was related by the doctor who was the intended victim.
There is more power in socially organized masses on the march than there is in guns in the hands of a few desperate men. Our enemies would prefer to deal with a small armed group rather than with a huge, unarmed but resolute mass of people. However, it is necessary that the mass-action method be persistent and unyielding. Gandhi said the Indian people must "never let them rest," referring to the British. He urged them to keep protesting daily and weekly, in a variety of ways. This method inspired and organized the Indian masses and disorganized and demobilized the British. It educates its myriad participants, socially and morally. All history teaches us that like a turbulent ocean beating great cliffs into fragments of rock, the determined movement of people incessantly demanding their rights always disintegrates the old order.
It is this form of struggle—non-cooperation with evil through mass actions—"never letting them rest"—which offers the more effective road for those who have been tempted and goaded to violence. It needs the bold and thebrave because it is not free of danger. It faces the vicious and evil enemies squarely. It requires dedicated people, because it is a backbreaking task to arouse, to organize, and to educate tens of thousands for disciplined, sustained action. From this form of struggle more emerges that is permanent and damaging to the enemy than from a few acts of organized violence.
Our present urgent necessity is to cease our internal fighting and turn outward to the enemy, using every form of mass action yet known—create new forms—and resolve never to let them rest. This is the social lever which will force open the door to freedom. Our powerful weapons are the voices, the feet, and the bodies of dedicated, united people, moving without rest toward a just goal. Greater tyrants than Southern segregationists have been subdued and defeated by this form of struggle. We have not yet used it, and it would be tragic if we spurn it because we have failed to perceive its dynamic strength and power.
To set the record straight on any implications that I am inconsistent in my struggle against war and too weak-kneed to protest nuclear war, may I state that repeatedly, in public addresses and in my writings, I have unequivocally declared my hatred for this most colossal of all evils and I have condemned any organizer of war, regardless of his rank and nationality. I have signed numerous statements with other Americans condemning nuclear testing and have authorized publication of my name in advertisements appearing in the largest circulation newspapers in the country, without concern that it was then "unpopular" to so speak out.
(Liberation, October, 1959)
Negroes With Guns:
On a cool pre-dawn morning in October 1961, from the Havana office of Western Union, this reporter filed an urgent message PRESS COLLECT AFRO-AMERICAN BALTIMORE MARYLAND. Robert F. Williams had successfully slipped through a continent-wide FBI net. Via a new Underground Railway he had just arrived in Cuba.
As I watched the smiling Cuban teletypist punch out the long exclusive story, and as I envisioned Afro-American staff members in Baltimore ripping the cablegram off our office teleprinter a fraction of a second later, I knew that a watershed point in the civil rights movement had been reached. For, in the person of Rob Williams and his flight to the safety of a liberated U.S. colony, the Negro struggle at home had become linked to the worldwide anti-colonial revolution in a dramatic manner that North American mass media could not conceal.
The issues raised in this crucial book by Robert Williams, Martin Luther King and Truman Nelson deserve the fullest, the calmest, the most honest discussion. The decision of a frightened white America to grapple with, or to shrink from, the grave implications of the Monroe story will largely shape this country's destiny at home and her fate abroad.
Mr. Truman Nelson, historian and novelist of the abolitionist movement, shows clearly that Henry David Thoreau would have approved Mr. Williams' position.
JOHN O. KILLENS:
Whether we agree with Mr Williams or not, he is dealing with a question which every thoughtful Negro in America is pondering. There are many roads to freedom.
The Reverend King, Mr. Nelson and Mr. Williams have done a great service in setting this problem before the American public.
from review by Sylvester Leaks
Chairman, Harlem Writers Workshop
NEGROES WITH GUNS is a powerful and moving story. The message comes across loud and clear.... This whole book is an indictment of the incredible inequities now existing in the U.S.; we all know the contempt in which the world holds South Africa. Yet it is really very difficult to see any basic difference between Monroe and Sharpeville; variance is only in degree of oppression.
NEGROES WITH GUNS symbolizes the dawning of a new militancy by Negroes in their relentless struggle to be free.... It may very well prove to be the most significant and prophetic book since the Souls of Black Folk, by W. E. B. DuBois, was published in 1909.
Marzani & Munsell, Inc.
100 WEST 23rd STREET, NEW YORK 11, N. Y.
THE RESISTANT SPIRIT
by Truman Nelson
The real test of a leader is whether he is prophetical: whether he has impacted in him those elements which, once accepted in his image, can transform many people completely, and millions of others to a point where they can accept this transformation without active resistance. The revolution within the law—the keeping of the law when the government breaks it—now taking place in the South has cast up two leaders. Both, fortunately and inevitably, are Negroes and they have both given their total concern to the complete liberation of their people.
One, Martin Luther King, is popular, highly regarded by the press and considered above reproach in liberal and genuinely religious circles. He is an eloquent man and has ready access to almost all national media, infinitely more than any of his race has ever had before (a great achievement in itself); his passage in and out of Southern jails has become almost a national sabbatical observance, well illustrated by every form of picture making. His prayers and protestations of love for his enemies, his dignity, the appealing power of his serious, intact personality, the overwhelming invulnerability of his moral position seemingly leave nothing to be desired in him but the stamina to last out, in his person, a struggle which he constantly compares to Gandhi's forty-year effort to free India.
The other, Robert Williams, is almost exactly the reverse of this. He is either completely ignored or viciously attacked by the press. His image now luridly persists in circulars in post offices all over the country as a fugitive from justice, a "wanted" man. He is described as "heavily armed and dangerous," and as a madman, a schizophrenic. He is said to be in unlawful flight to avoid prosecution for kidnapping; citizens are urged to inform the F.B.I. of his whereabouts. No official has seen fit to take down this vindictive circular, this printed form of character assassination, although it has been known for many, many months that Williams is a political refugee in Cuba. Furthermore, the alleged "kidnapping" for which he was hunted with drawn guns is of such little moment that others under the identical indictment, and in the law's custody right now, have not been brought to trial a year after the incident, and the trial has now been adjourned, sine die!
If anyone on the American scene would seem to be a "damaged soul," it is this harried man, whose life has been one of constant struggle and flight, who is in exile, whose personality has been placed in some sort of awful limbo in the American consciousness as having lost all value for the struggle to which he pledged his existence long ago. And yet there is a nagging doubt in many people whether Williams is not the real prophet of the two.
It is possible to appease this doubt by saying, well, they are both prophets, both useful, each in his own way, but somehow history does not permit this plural vision of redemptive personalities. It is either/or when the chips are down, and history has a curious way of selecting the most unlikely and unloved people for its charismatic figures. I must confess that it is the sheer "orneriness" of Williams that catches my eye, my attention, and my profound sympathy. The fact that he is kept out of the press, that he is difficult, that he cannot adjust himself to loving his enemies, that he is almost always vituperous and undiplomatic toward the political rulers of the South and has made implacable enemies of them all, from the Governor of his state, who calls full-dress news conferences to denounce him, down to the chief and the rest of the police force of Monroe, North Carolina, who call him on the phone to tell him he will be hanging in the square before the courthouse in a few minutes ... this makes me hear in him the thunder of Sinai.
But the question cannot be settled merely by saying Williams has the sound of the prophet, as precisely as the ring of silver on marble. The saint must be given his due. Martin Luther King has made great advances in a cause to which his own devotion has been unsurpassed. He has a clear posture of advance, and it has worked before and may again. His management of the Montgomery bus boycott, in which he exploited the technique of noncooperation with evil through mass action, brought the attention of the world to the Negro plight. Furthermore, he won; the buses are no longer segregated in Montgomery, Alabama. And he won in a peaceful way, while under brutal attack, not excluding attempts to take his life. During it all, in spite of provocation of the most exacerbating kind, he never lost control of his policy of non-violent resistance.
However, the current application of these techniques in Albany, Georgia, while evoking stupendous publicity, has not been effective in achieving Negro demands for racial equality there. If the Albany Movement is a benchmark of massive desegregation, than it indicates stalemate, or regression. To many, it is King's methods that are at fault here and it is appropriate to let them pass once more in review.
Martin Luther King has developed a line of strategy now so widely accepted that there is a danger that he will become the present-day Booker T. Washington, and will have to be dealt with, ultimately, as a positive hindrance to Negro liberation. Already, liberals are cataloging as "good" Negroes and "bad" Negroes those who, respectively, follow King or Robert Williams. The editor of a leading New York liberal newspaper, asked recently why he did not tell the full story of Williams and Monroe, visibly retreated, saying: Williams is a bad guy.
There are many points of divergence between these two. One, mentioned as a gambit, is that King does not make allowance for, or establish protection against, reprisals, as Williams does. The importance of this maneuver can be swiftly taught by this news story out of Albany, Georgia:
"A week after the Negro college students' prayer for freedom, six carloads of men broke into the house of one of the students and, armed with guns, clubs and iron pipes, beat the boy and his mother and sister. The mother's leg was broken, her scalp smashed open, and her hands crushed, and she spent three months on crutches. In a sworn statement,, she said that one of the men who had beaten her was a police deputy. No charges were lodged."
Williams says that this kind of incident would not have happened in Monroe after the Negroes armed there, because they were "people with strength."
There has been a certain amount of debate between King and Williams. It has not been very intense because the Negro people are wiser than we are, and do not destroy one another out of doctrinal differences. Both make concessions of agreement with the correctness of the other's position. King says that the principle of self-defense, even involving weapons and bloodshed, "has never been condemned, even by Gandhi, who sanctioned it for those unable to master pure non-violence." The inference here is that somewhat inferior people defend themselves violently but allowance must be made for their human imperfection ... or lack of theological school training.
Williams, in this very book, says he is not against the passive resistance advocated by King and others, but differs with him only over the lack of flexibility pacifist commitments impose on a struggle. At other times, however, Williams has made serious charges which should be further ventilated. He claims that hundreds of thousands of dollars are being sent into the South to convert the Negroes into non-violence, to buy the militancy out of them, and thereby to prolong the very condition of passivity to wrong which he feels brought on the brutal exploitation of the Negro in the first place. He says the Uncle Toms of the South are the most outspoken exponents of non-violence, and profit most from the form the struggle is presently taking.
King, although giving lip service to support of Williams, constantly refers to everything but non-violent resistance as a "second-class method." This does not seem to me very helpful to the Williams school of resistance. Furthermore, it never fails to infuriate me personally as a form of segregation in itself—making me, for example, of the second class because I cannot, temperamentally or historically, accept the validity of total passive resistance. It makes me want to lock horns with King, to debate him.
As the heir of a great tradition of revolutionary morality, I resent his position, not believing that Lexington Green, Concord Bridge, and the celebration of the Fourth of July were at all second class. This second class-ship is extendable to the great resistance movements of World War II against the Nazis. It can be extended to various phases of the African struggle, to the liberation now shaping up in Angola and just consummated in Algeria.
It is, in fact, so utterly inconsistent with our American tradition and what I believe is still basic in the hearts and minds of the American people as a whole that I think it should be attacked as an error, a damaging heresy, and that Mr. King should debate the whole question with someone outside his own race, and so let the chips fall where they may. And speaking of race, I might also say that I believe that the non-violent resistance advocated by Mr. King is acceptable to vast numbers of whites in this country because it is racist.
William Lloyd Garrison, the only truly creative American pacifist, was so strongly of this opinion that he would not tolerate anyone denying the slave weapons of force and insurrection without denying himself, all other whites, his government and every other government in the world the same advantage, and held that as long as there was a tool of coercion in the hands of anyone, only a pure pacifist and anarchist could deny a like weapon to the slave. His vehemence and rancor on this question come out fully in his review of Uncle Tom's Cabin:
"That all slaves of the South ought to repudiate all carnal weapons, shed no blood, be obedient to their masters, wait for peaceful deliverance and abstain from all insurrectionary movements is everywhere taken for granted, because the victims are black! They cannot return blow for blow, or conspire for the destruction of their oppressors. They are required by the Bible to put away all wrath, to submit to every conceivable outrage without resistance. None of their advocates may seek to inspire them to imitate the example of the Greeks, the Poles, the Hungarians, our revolutionary sires, for such teaching would evince a most un-Christian and blood-thirsty disposition. But for those whose skin is of a different complexion, the case is materially altered. Talk not to the whites of peacefully submitting, of overcoming evil with good when they are spit upon and buffeted, outraged and oppressed.... Oh No, for them it is, let the blood of the tyrants flow! Is there one law of submission for the black man and another law of rebellion and conflict for the white man? When it is that the whites are trodden in the dust, does Christ justify them in taking up arms to vindicate their rights? And when it is the blacks that are thus treated, does Christ require them to be patient, long suffering, harmless and forgiving?"
Martin Luther King's theoretical position is supposed to be half Christ, half Gandhi, but the Christian line is hardly applicable to the avowed militancy of non-violent active resistance. The appropriate Bible text says quite clearly to "Resist not evil but whosoever shall smite thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also." It takes considerable manipulation to say that this means "Do resist evil." King states emphatically in his Stride Toward Freedom that non-violent resistance is true resistance and "ultimately the way of the strong man." That is to say, it is "passive physically," but strongly active "spiritually." I must confess that Dr. King and myself part company right here. I cannot conceive how anyone can resist an assailant "spiritually" unless it is possible to interrupt a headlong rush of assault by some sort of instant hypnosis.
He mentions several other precepts of Gandhi which I find highly debatable. One does not seek to defeat, for example, one's opponent or humiliate him in any way so that one creates, after the struggle, "the beloved community." Nor does one apply condemnation of the evil being attacked to any specific person. The basic tension in the South, he says, is not between white people and Negro people but between justice and injustice. By loving them, he feels that the Southern whites will see that their side is one of injustice and be awakened to a sense of moral shame which will bring, in the end, redemption and reconciliation.
It's going to be a long row to hoe to bring the white South to any sense of shame, or to make them wake up to the brute fact that the golden age they hark back to and are fighting tooth and nail to perpetuate was a slave-holding, slave-breeding, slave-driving, slave-hunting hell on earth. The crime of the white South is centered in their racist unity of loyalty which blinds them to the real state of their society and its discontents. I really do not think that their eyes will be opened by any words of love addressed to them by a people whom they have already trodden underfoot for hundreds of years, while saying all the while, that they loved them like their own families.
There is no question that King's method is permeated through and through with Gandhianism and that he has been striving with all his verbal might to fix it permanently in the minds of the struggling Negroes of the South. He quotes approvingly certain remarks of Gandhi which are as repulsive as any made by the most jingoistic of sword-rattling generals, calling for sacrifice and death. "Rivers of blood may have to flow before we gain our freedom, but it must be our blood," says Gandhi.
I find this utterly disgusting. Why should Gandhi, or any other human being, throw a whole people, bound and gagged against physical resistance, into the slaughter pen to submit and bleed until the slaughterer gets tired and puts off his killing clothes and goes about some other business, unpunished, even unquestioned, for his shedding of innocent blood. Who is Gandhi to decide whose blood is to be expendable?
Then King quotes Gandhi on willingness to go to jail if necessary, quotes him as saying one should go "as a Bridegroom enters the Bride's chamber." How ironic this is, and how naive! The young lad who goes into a Southern jail is actually more of a reluctant, terrified bride. There are perverts in these Southern jails; perverts, sadists, sexually corrupt men of unspeakable desires and violences.
These evil men are part of the penal apparatus of the white South. The beatings, kickings, and floggings, and other sexual indulgences they administer upon men sent among them for protesting racial injustices are approved by the authorities as part and parcel of the process of enforcement.
Not only are they approved, but prisoners are offered rewards for carrying them out ... these obscene bargains. In Williams' own town of Monroe, Howard Stack, a pathologically violent man, in prison on assault charges, with a long record of this criminal activity, made a written confession that "The Monroe Police and deputy forces ... put to me a proposition. If I would, by force, assault one of the Freedom Riders, they would see I went free of my charges."
Whereupon he beat one Richard Griswold nearly to death while the authorities turned their backs. This practice is apparently so inextricably connected with the forms of due process in the white South that, when appraised of it, and sent the handwritten confession, the Justice Department of the United States replied that it did not, in their eyes, reveal evidence of violation of a Federal law, and that they had closed their files on the whole matter. The fact is that the real punishment, the de facto punishment of those arrested for protesting racist practices, comes during that confinement which King, quoting Gandhi, endorses as like a Bridegroom entering a Bride's chamber.
This is not to say that this cause is not worthy of going to jail for, but to candy this experience over with this saccharine rhetoric, so characteristic of this movement, prevents people from seeing the Southern jailhouses for what they really are—hell-holes of human degradation only slightly better than the Hitler death camps. Infernos where Freedom Riders, after the routine beatings by five or six deputies, have had their fingers bent back until they broke, their pants slashed and a high voltage electric cattle goad applied to their testicles. Where women have been whipped with wide leather belts on their bare breasts, buttocks, and between their legs, according to The Catholic Worker. Where, according to the "50 States Report," a Government publication, people are killed before their trials by excesses of torture or jailhouse lynchings and reported as suicides. This is what Williams means whe he talks about the lack of flexibility in pacifist commitments. When you are pledged to love everybody and your adversary is a louse, how can you tell the truth about him?
One of the most disturbing aspects of the King line in respect to desegregation is that it does not relate closely to the historical struggle of abolitionism before the Civil War, a struggle which was truly integrated, and which worked. The quotations which follow represent in essence the line, the texts, the scriptures of the American Anti-Slavery Movement and it is obvious that the new testament that King is trying to build up out of Gandhianism - does not evoke the same reverberations. Furthermore, it seems to me that the new texts of Martin Luther King are not rooted in the minds and hearts of the American people, and that in order for him to do this he will have to dislodge or gloss over some of the best outbursts of the high poetry of the resistant spirit.
The great abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison also called himself a non-resistant, and talked non-resistance. He told the slaves not to insurrect, but did so with the hard knowledge that if they did the Government of the United States would send an army against them in the name of the Union itself, and as part of the contract between the sections that slavery was to be tolerated and supported in return for Southern cooperation in the American Revolution.
Garrison felt that this immoral contract had to be broken first; this is why he had on the masthead of The Liberator, "No Union with Slaveholders. The U.S. Constitution is a covenant with death and an agreement with Hell." This grievous flaw in the Constitution was supposed to have been forever nullified by the Fourteenth Amendment but it is obvious that the accommodations it represented still hold in our national life in respect to the concessions made to Southern politicians defending Southern "institutions."
Garrison, in fact, began his career like King, saying that "moral suasion" would melt the hard hearts of the racist slaveholders, but he became disabused of this notion after a decade of futile effort. "There is not any instance recorded, either in sacred or profane history, in which the oppressors and enslavers of mankind, except in individual cases, have been induced by moral suasion, to surrender their despotic power and let the oppressed go free; but in nearly every instance, from the time that Pharaoh and his host were drowned in the Red Sea, down to the present day, they have persisted in their evil course until some sudden destruction came upon them, or they were compelled to surrender their ill gotten power in some other manner. Of all oppressors and tyrants who have cursed and afflicted mankind, none have ever equalled the enslavers of the colored race—especially American Republican Slaveholders—in ferociousness of spirit, moral turpitude of character, and desperate depravity of heart. I regard their conversion, as a body, to the side of bleeding humanity, by appeals to their understanding, consciences and hearts about as hopeless as any attempt to transform wolves and hyenas into lambs and doves by the same process. Their understandings have become brutish, their consciences seared as with a hot iron, and their hearts harder than adamant."
Garrison did not follow this up with an appeal for violence but he never stopped denouncing, with invective flowing like a stream of volcanic lava, the slaveholder, his family, and his whole society. He called them murderers, kidnappers, thieves, whoremongers, and used every incitement he could lay tongue to which would compel their expulsion from any connection with a democracy. Ideologically he hammered on a single point: the revolutionary contradictions that have been literally built into race relations in this land of the free. His age was then as full of revolutionary upheaval as ours is now (tremulous with light, he called it) and to those enthusiasts so eager to applaud the revolutions in Greece, France, and Hungary he suggested that the slaves "will find all the urgings and incentive to insurrect their want in your speeches, your parades, your celebrations. You do not regard anything done to a black man as an outrage, but touch your prerogatives and see how you threaten!"
As the Anti-Slavery Movement drew to its climax and the South found it necessary to use more and more Federal power to uphold its institutions, the men of conscience in the North were confronted with the issue of whether they would use violence against slavery and racism. It is one thing to say I have the courage not to resist in a Christ-like way, any attack on my own person, but what if the man next to you is being brutally handled, and you have the means at hand to help him? Theodore Parker, in 1850, gave the answer of the decade to this dilemma.
In a meeting of the Boston ministers, a majority of them decided that the fugitive slave should be given up and the contract with the South adhered to; otherwise the nation would be rent unto destruction. Parker disagreed with this, instinctively and violently, saying:
"I would rather see my own house burnt to the ground, and my family thrown, one by one, amid the blazing rafters of my own roof, and I myself be thrown in last of all, rather than have a single fugitive slave sent back. I have in my church black men, fugitive slaves. They are the crown of my apostleship, the seal of my ministry. It becomes me to look after their bodies in order to save their souls. I have been obliged to take my own parishioners into my house to keep them out of the clutches of the kidnappers. I have had to arm myself. I have written my sermons with a pistol on my desk, loaded, a cap on the nipple and ready for action. Yea, with a drawn sword within reach of my right hand. This I have done in Boston; in the middle of the nineteenth century; have been obliged to do it to defend the members of my own church, women as well as men. You know I do not like fighting. I am no non-resistant; that nonsense never went down with me. But it is no small matter which will compel me to shed human blood. But what could I do? I was born in the little town where the fight and bloodshed of the Revolution began. The bones of the men who first fell in that war are covered by the monument at Lexington, it is 'sacred to liberty and the rights of mankind.' This is the first inscription that I ever read. These men are my kindred. My grandfather fired the first shot in the Revolution, the blood that flowed there was kindred to this which courses in my veins today. With these things before me, these symbols, with these memories, when a parishioner, a fugitive, pursued by kidnappers, came to my house, what could I do but take her in and defend her to the last? O, My brothers, I am not afraid of men. I can offend them, I care nothing for their hate, or their esteem. I am not very careful of my reputation. But I should not dare to violate the eternal law of God."
This, I submit, is a man speaking directly to the true American consciousness, the real, revolutionary American consciousness. This is how Americans think of themselves, this is what they admire and cleave to. This is the permanent in it, the noble in it, that which transcends the accidents in which politicians plunge us into unwitting support for tyrannies and corruptions. When the Negro is constantly presented to this consciousness as submissive, or passively resistant, or passive to attacks on his person, he is alien to it. It is alien to the Negro himself. I know he wants to resist and everyone else does too. But he is constantly being talked out of it and an image is superimposed over this will to resist, an image which the Southern racists want accepted, that the Negro will not fight for his own liberation, which is bad enough, but what is worse, will not turn a hand to save his brother, assaulted at his side. There may be a strengthening power of love in submitting to attack on yourself. But there is love as well in saving your brother, protecting him, fighting for him ... one would think to hear the Gandhians talk that there is no love at all in laying down one's life for another.
This is the price, I feel, for full inclusion into the American consciousness, the will to visibly resist. Every great leader knew this. The miraculously transforming words of John Brown in his Speech to the Court were based on it. "Had I interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends, either father, mother, brother, sister, wife or children, or any of that class, and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been alright. Every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment."
No one has spoken more truly to the hearts of men meditating oppression, nor put men more movingly in the shoes of the oppressed. Even Garrison, still a pacifist-anarchist, could not deny its rightness. "I am a non-resistant--a believer in the inviolability of human life under all circumstances; I therefore, in the name of God, disarm John Brown and every slave at the South. But I do not stop here; if I did I would be a monster. I also disarm, in the name of God, every slaveholder and tyrant in the world. For wherever this principle is adopted, all fetters must instantly melt, and there can be no oppressed and no oppressor, in the nature of things. I not only desire, but have labored unceasingly to effect the peaceful abolition of slavery, by an appeal to the reason and conscience of every slaveholder; yet, as a peace man ... an ultra peace man, I am prepared to say, success to every slave insurrection in the South and in every slave country. I do not see how I compromise or stain my peace profession in making that declaration. Whenever there is a contest between the oppressed and the oppressor—the weapons being equal between both parties, God knows my heart must be with the oppressed and always against the oppressor. Rather than see men wearing their chains in a cowardly and servile spirit, I would rather see them breaking the head of a tyrant with other chains. Give me, as a non-resistant, Bunker Hill and Lexington and Concord, rather than the cowardice and servility of a Southern slave plantation."
Again, I ask, does this echo and reverberate in the deeps of the American consciousness? Is this not the burden of our education, of our culture, of our democratic will .. in its best phase, not in terms of the New Calvinism of the Pentagon which directs all its destructive forces against an enemy whose inate evil consists of the fact that it is as strong as, or stronger than, we are ... but in terms of the will of a free people who want every other people to be free, who are instinctively groping for a country which is the world and countrymen who are mankind.
Reverend King often mentions Henry David Thoreau as one of his ideological guides, but he is talking about the early Thoreau. The Thoreau of Civil Disobedience was a passive resister; there is no doubt of this, who let his body be confined without struggling. He then believed that his meditations followed the jailor out into the world "without let or hindrance, and they were really all that was dangerous." But this was while being locked up by gentle Sam Staples, who would not have considered changing Henry's mind about anything, and being let out the next morning after Aunt Maria put a shawl over her head and came down and paid the trifling fine.
A few years later, as an aftermath of the capture and return of the fugitive Anthony Burns to the iron house of bondage, certain abolitionists who had tried forcibly to rescue him were confined in jail in Boston. Thoreau spoke of this incarceration at the anti-slavery celebration in Framingham with corrosive indignation, saying, "I had thought the house was on fire and not the prairie, but though several of the citizens of Massachusetts are now imprisoned for attempting to rescue a slave from her own clutches, not one of the speakers at the Kansas Meeting expressed regret for it, not one ever referred to it."
There is nothing here about the slave, Anthony Burns, submitting his body to confinement in a peaceful way, being content with the free exercise of his mind. Nor is there any condemnation, but only the highest praise for those citizens of Boston, led by Theodore Parker, who attempted to rescue, by force and arms, a legally adjudged, and legally confined and remanded, fugitive slave.
Thoreau had some bitter things to say about the citizens of Massachusetts who did not resist this. He hears them saying this about their public shame: "Do what you will, O Government, with my wife and children, my mother and brother, my father and sister, I will obey your commands to the letter. It will indeed grieve me if you hurt them, if you deliver them to overseas to be hunted by hounds, or to be whipped to death; but never-the-less, I will peaceably pursue my own chosen calling on this fair earth, until, perchance, one day, when I have put on mourning clothes for them dead, I shall have persuaded you to relent. Such is the attitudes, such are the words of Massachusetts."
Then he gives his side of the dialogue: "Rather than do this, I need not say what match I would touch, what system endeavor to blow up, but as I love my life, I would side with the light and let the dark earth roll from under me, calling my mother and brother to follow."
Oddly enough, here follow the words of Martin Luther King, so like those of the inert souls of Massachusetts men that Thoreau was trying to regenerate. "American Negroes must come to the point where they can say to their white brothers, paraphrasing the words of Gandhi, `We will match your capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. We will not hate you, but we cannot, in good conscience, obey your unjust laws. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children; send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities and drag us out on some wayside road, beating us and leaving us half dead, and we will still love you. But we will soon wear you down by our capacity to suffer. And in winning our freedom we will so appeal to your heart and consciousness that we will win you in the process."
No, I say, an everlasting No! to this. Two hundred years of appeal by accumulative suffering to the hearts of racists is enough, enough, enough! The American Negro is not a downtrodden Hindu, a palpitating mass of ingrained and inborn submission to being put in his place, a citizen of a land so impoverished and barren that a lifetime of abject starvation is the common lot, a land where living is so hard that men want a God so they can hate him.
The American Negro is a citizen in a rich land, with a citizen's rights and duty to resist; resist all attempts to deprive him of its manifold blessings. Why should he be urged to go through this Hindu-izing to regain the rights he already had in 1776? He was here then, you know, and he fought alongside the rest of us out of the same revolutionary morality, for the same revolutionary rights now re-emphasized in the Fourteenth Amendment; the idea that all men before the law are exactly equal, and that no man can take away these equalities except as forfeiture for a crime adjudged and confirmed by ancient and democratic due process.
The Negro always had these rights by the book; they have been taken away from him only by force and fraud, which he has always resisted, but in vain. And not passively, on his knees, but on his feet, until he went down, a victim of blood and violence. Now should he be urged to suffer another hundred years of beatings, bombings, and aggressions by nothing but "soul force" and "spirituality"? Suffer again and again until the white South gets around to "loving" him? That is a lunatic society down there; they will never stop beating until the rest of the country makes them stop. If we say the Negro is a citizen then he has a clear duty to resist tyranny and dictatorship, legally and peacefully if he can, forcibly if he must. He is the birthright possessor of inalienable rights. He cannot give them up if he wants to. He was not born to be a punching bag to test the longevity of the Southern whites' desire to beat him.
In the latter pages of this book, Robert Williams also quotes Thoreau. But this is the final Thoreau, the Thoreau who shouldered for the rest of his short life, the full burden of his affinity with John Brown's revolutionary morality, as exemplified by the action at Harpers Ferry. This is a morality completely affirmed by Justice Douglas of the United States Supreme Court.
Declaration of Independence is our Creed," says Justice
Douglas in his piece, "The U.S. and the Revolutionary Spirit." We should not be afraid to talk revolution,
to voice our approval of it, he says. We should become the active protagonist of independence of all people, he says. He defines certain areas of the human condition where active struggles for change should be supported in the name of our own revolutionary tradition. He urges us to go smack up against the darkness and pain of continuing feudalism. "There is political feudalism wherever people have no voice in their affairs. There is political feudalism where a dynasty has the trappings of a parliamentary system but manipulates it for the benefit of a ruling class. .. . Revolution in the twentieth century means rebellion against another kind of feudalism ... economic feudalism ... the United States should promote democratic revolutions against these conditions of economic feudalism." That's what the Judge said. Those are his very words.
And this is what Williams is saying, and fighting about ... only he says it about us, and millions, especially black millions, find that it is largely true. They want to struggle peacefully and democratically against this continuing feudalism. There is, after all, a Fourteenth Amendment on the books. It says quite clearly that "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the States wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States, nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty or property, without due process of the laws, nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction, the equal protection of the laws."
It is obvious to the feeblest intelligence that this act is broken every day; every moment in the South. Every racist law, every act of exclusion because of color is a violation of it. It is also obvious that it is revolutionary, that it has the quality of continuous revolutionary principle in it. The South knows this and has resisted it with every counter-revolutionary tactic at its disposal. The men who drew this law made it revolutionary. The thrust of its enforcement is constantly in head-on collision with the de facto political structure of the South. One or the other must go down. It is a law which symbolized at the time of its passage, and will still more symbolize at the moment of its full consummation, the working together of the Negro and the white to make this a government of the people. The abolitionists set it up, the defeat of the Confederacy made it imperative. It was freely admitted that it "confers on Congress the power to invade any state to enforce the freedom of the African in war or peace."
It is the root of our national tragedy and shame that this program to nationalize the inalienable rights of our citizens, a program adopted twice by constitutional amendment, once by legislative enactment over a Presidential veto, and in 1954, confirmed in its essence by the full Supreme Court, has been ruthlessly violated by a whole section of the country without, as Whitman put it, "Its own punishment following duly after in exact proportion against the smallest chance of escape."
It was the consciousness that they were citizens and men that Williams tried to implant in his community. If the Government would not protect their rights by due process, then they must do it themselves. He simply would not recognize that he, as a Negro, was barred from any of the privileges and immunities of the whites ... particularly if those privileges were part and parcel of a governmental structure, paid for by Government funds. This conferred upon him, so he thought, a legality which superseded the racist legality of Southern municipal law. It made a virtue, an act of patriotism and faith, out of resistance.
What he did is told in the following pages ... it was by acting out, by being a personal example of, by extolling, by poeticizing, by putting his life on the line for the day-by-day regeneration of the resistant spirit. He is not up to the Sermon on the Mount, but he has made it to Lexington Green.
If there is a real resistance movement anywhere in the Negro community, it was, and perhaps still may be, in Monroe, North Carolina. Sadly, if it was also a turning point in the liberation movement as a whole, it is not enough known by the masses, by the millions, to transform them. That it should be known, that the people of the United States should have the chance to transform themselves, to drive the slave and the racist out of their deepest consciousness, go without saying.
Thoreau said about John Brown, the hardiest phophetical element the American people ever had to swallow, "Our thoughts could not revert to any great or wiser or better man with whom to contrast him, for he, then and there, was above them all. The man this country was about to hang appeared the greatest and the best in ' it. Years are not required for a revolution of public opinion; days, nay hours, produced marked changes in this case."
But John Brown was fully written of, was widely examined in the noonday glare of an aroused press. Williams and the brave Negro people of Monroe are either lied about, or must carry on their resistance in silence, in obscurity, in poverty and attrition; the rest of the world hardly knows what they are doing, does not even know their names. It was a little band of extremists, working quietly for many years, then brought into a state of dazzling clarity and climax by John Brown, that made viable the concepts that appear in the Fourteenth Amendment, that continuity-keeper and regenerator of our revolutionary principles. It may be that Williams and the Negroes of Monroe will finally be the means of making citizens out of all persons born or naturalized in the United States.
Williams and his wife, Mabel, at the Plaza Ci, Habana, Cuba, March 1962 (photo
by LeRoy McLucas).