Negro leaders in this country have traditionally refrained from using the threat of violence as a means of achieving more rapid integration. The reasons for this are extremely complex, and probably have a great deal to do with the fear that Southern whites could overpower them while the North looked on with detachment, or disapproval. But it is an amazing fact that Negroes have usually answered the countless atrocities they have undergone in the South non-violently, even in counties where they possessed a great deal of strength and the knowledge of how to use it.
But in the past few years some militant Negro leaders have begun to thing of violence, or its threat, as a positive tactic for achieving equality. James Baldwin in The Fire Next Time warns his readers that if integration is none enforced soon, Harlem will explode. In New York City this month a group of moderate whites and Negroes have been trying to organize 100,000 Harlem residents to march peacefully through the city, as a protest, a threat, and a moral equivalent to war. Some student integrationist groups have recently been discussing violence in the North or South not an an abstract idea or a tactic open to debate; but as a probable occurrence over which no one will have much control.
They do define violence, however, as a measure to be used only in self defense, and justify it on the grounds that the only way to impress the majority of people in this country with the graveness of the Negroes' plight might be to threaten them. "The longer you work for Civil Rights, the more radical you become," a Negro leader mused recently. "You begin to realize that white people who are supposed to be on your side aren't even listening to what we say. They're content to let things remain as they are while they talk about progress, or say 'isn't it a shame' and then forget about the whole thing."
Ten years after the Supreme Court decision Southern schools are still almost entirely segregated. The average Negro makes only 52 per cent as much money as the average white man: about $3000 per year. These are facts. But most white people do not seem to see them in connection with their own lives. Militant Negro leaders are beginning to feel that perhaps the only way of making the connection is at gun point, by using violence in self-defense: by demonstrating that if things don't get better soon, the Negro community may well erupt.
The book that has most directly influenced people's opinions about violence is Robert F. Williams' Negroes With Guns. For it leads one to realize that the question is by no means an abstraction. Under certain conditions, racial violence in the South (and North) will certainly occur. In some Southern towns, and in parts of Northern cities, those conditions are probably developing right now. Some people have been rash enough to predict that if the situation does not change within the next year the first white men will be killed, in self-defense, by Negroes specifically seeking to gain fuller civil rights.
Williams is now an exile from the United States living in Cuba, and Negroes With Guns is written directly from the experiences that made him into an outlaw. He spent six years working to integrate his home town of Monroe, N.C. where he established for himself, and the rest of the Negro community, the principle of carrying weapons and using them in self defense. In August, 1961 he left the town at threat of death, and a warrant was distributed for his arrest. It is still in the Cambridge Post Office, showing a rather beefy, beard man with a narrow frowning mouth.
There is not space here to recount the entire history of William's work in Monroe. One episode will have to suggest the rest of a long and violent story.
In June, 1961 the Monroe NAACP, of which Williams was vice-resident, decided to picket the town's only public swimming pool. Previously, they had requested that it be desegregated, or at least opened to their children once a week. The town's officials refused: even if the Negro children were allowed to use the pool alone, it would cost too much money to refill it so that the white children could go swimming again.
At the time of the picketing Williams had already established the principle of violence for self-defense. "The Negro in the South cannot expect justice in the courts," he had said in a public statement after a white man had been acquitted of the charge of raping a Monroe Negro woman despite the testimony of first-hand witnesses. "He must convict his attackers on the spot. He must meet violence with violence, lynching with lynching." Monroe Negroes were prepared to shoot it out an the picket line, if the town's white people attacked them.
Two days after the picketing began a group of white people started firing rifles at the Negroes on the line. Williams asked the town's chief of police to stop the shooting. "I don't hear anything," the officer replied. The incident repeated itself a number of times; the officer's reply was always the same.
Several days later, when Williams was driving to the picket line, another car full of white men attempted to flip him off the road. Williams managed to work both cars into a ditch by the roadside. The crowd around the cars started screaming: "Kill the niggers! Pour gasoline on the niggers!" The driver of the other car approached with a baseball bat, saying "Nigger, what did you hit me for?"
Williams had two pistols and a rifles in his car. He pointed a .45 at the man with the bat, who started backing away. Some policemen, who had been watching the encounter, started to take action when they found the Negroes were armed. One grabbed Williams by the shoulder ordering him to surrender his weapon. "I struck him on the side of the face," Williams writes, "and knocked him back away from the car and put my carbine in his face and I told him we were not going to surrender to the mob. I told him that we didn't intend to be lynched. The other policeman, who had run around to the side of the car, started to draw his revolver out of the hostler. He was hoping to shoot me in the back. They didn't know we Negroes had more than one gun. [A boy who was 17 years old] put a .45 in the policeman's face and told him that if he pulled out his pistol he would kill him. The policeman started putting his gun back into his hostler and backing away from the car, and he fell into a ditch."
Finally the highway opened up, and Williams was given space to drive to the picket lines. Apart from the picketers, there were about 3,000 or 4,000 white people there. The crowd was noisy. This time the chief of police came up to Williams telling him to surrender his gun. "I told him I was not going to surrender any gun. That those guns were legal and [there] was a mob, and if he wanted my guns he could come to my house and get them after I got away form there. And he said, 'If you hurt any of these white people here, God damn it, I'm going to kill.' I don't know what made him think I was going to let him live long enough to shoot me."
It appeared that people might get hurt, but Williams refused to leave until the crowd cleared away and the picketer's safety was guaranteed. Twenty-one policemen were present, maintaining that they could not keep order der. When the town officials asked Williams what to do he recommended that they call the state police. Just two men came but the officials and state police "knew that if they allowed the mob to attack us a lot of people were going to be killed, and some of those people would be white." They managed to disperse the crowd, and two police cars escorted the picketers out. "This was the first time this has ever been done," Williams writes. "And some of the white people started screaming, Look how they are protecting our Negroes.'"
The conclusion Williams drew from the episode suggest the argument that has persuaded many integrationists that the tactic of violence in self-defense is the only way to combat the anarchic legal system in the South. "As a result of our stand, and our willingness to fight, the state of North Carolina had enforced law and order. Just two state troppers did the job and no one got hurt in a situation where normally (in the South) a lot of Negro blood would have flowed. The city closed the pool for the rest of the year and we withdrew the picket line."