In the nearly 250-year history of the United States, nothing has scared people more than the sight of “Negroes with Guns.” That was the title of the 1962 book by Robert F. Williams that chronicled his work as president of the Monroe, North Carolina chapter of the NAACP. Williams was a veteran of World War II, and like many other black men who returned from fighting the Nazis abroad, he was unwilling to be subject to racial discrimination at home. As racial tensions increased in Monroe, Williams decided to send a message to white citizens who were violently hostile to black demands for equality: he began walking around town with a pistol on his waist (or what we would now call “openly carrying”).
“Police in so many places across America continue to be as great a threat to black life as they are a protector of black life.”
The political fallout was predictable, as Williams was quickly denounced and portrayed as an enemy of Martin Luther King Jr’s efforts aimed at nonviolent social change. The NAACP bowed to political pressure and removed him as chapter president. As the situation in Monroe deteriorated, Williams eventually fled town with his family after an armed standoff between Williams’ supporters and local whites.
Williams would end up in Cuba for a time, where he would famously broadcast “Radio Free Dixie” from a local studio. Timothy Tyson has credited Williams with planting the “roots” of later militant efforts that would gather under the banner of Black Power. His ghost has returned to haunt America in recent weeks, as black activists have responded to acts of white aggression – from the militia takeover of the Michigan State Capitol (in protest of the governor’s policies targeting the coronavirus) to the killing of Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia – by showing up strapped and ready for battle.
In Michigan, this response took the form of an armed escort for Representative Sarah Anthony as she went to work in the state Capitol in the days following the aforementioned takeover. In Georgia, it took the form of armed black protestors who staged an action outside the home of Arbery’s alleged killers.
While these scenes have been unsettling to many, I am proud of each and every one of these young black men and women who have shown up in this way. I am proud of them because of the courage and conviction they have demonstrated, and how they have walked in the footsteps of Williams and others. But I am also proud to see them highlight one of the central issues in the two most recent high-profile killings of black people by police or vigilantes: Black people have the right to defend themselves by the same means that their white counterparts do.
These black men (and women!) were peaceful; they were restrained. They chose to walk in the spirit of Teddy Roosevelt, speaking softly but carrying a big stick (in this case, the same weaponry as their white militia counterparts). Those who did speak articulated a disturbing-to-hear but sobering truth: Vigilantes would not have hunted Arbery down if he had been escorted on his jog by armed black guards. They would not have hunted him down because they were cowards who were taking advantage of the fact that they were armed and he was unarmed, that they were three in number and he was one, and that they were part of a privileged class and he was not.
Robert F. Williams showed up the way that he did all those years ago because he was trying to level the playing field; he was trying to even the odds, at least in his local community; he was trying to match gun for gun, arms for arms. As he and other Black Power advocates made clear, these gestures were not meant to start a race war, because a race war was already going on! And, in the midst of that race war, black people could not turn to the police with any confidence that the police would do what they were supposed to do – protect them.
“Until then, look for more black activists to show up armed for battle in states with open carry laws.”
Little, it seems, has changed in this regard as police in so many places across America continue to be as great a threat to black life as they are a protector of black life. It was police in Louisville, Kentucky, who killed Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency medical technician, and then had the audacity to charge her boyfriend with attempted murder for defending his home from unannounced, no-knocking invaders in the middle of the night. It was police who killed 46-year-old George Floyd in Minneapolis, executing him on the street because of a suspected “forgery in progress.”
From Robert F. Williams to the young men and women who have courageously emerged in recent weeks, their actions were and are meant to make a very simple, very unsettling, but very necessary point: You cannot just kill black people indiscriminately, wantonly, whimsically and expect that they will – or better yet – that they should accept it as if their lives do not matter to themselves, their families and their communities. In the decades-long campaign to overthrow the apartheid regime in South Africa, even Nelson Mandela recognized when the struggle had reached a critical juncture that required armed resistance in order to supplement and support nonviolent efforts.
Leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. were rightfully concerned about the optics of armed black people standing up to armed white people. Leaders like King were right to point out that nonviolent resistance – even in the face of violent brutality – was most effective for asserting the moral high ground. (I continue to believe it is.) But, as a pastor, preacher and theologian, where I have always departed with King’s teachings is in his belief that nonviolence must be a lifestyle as well as a strategy. As a strategy, it has taken us through many valleys and up to great heights. As a strategy, it has emphasized the sacrificial mindset that is required to usher in lasting social change. It has imitated the Way of the Cross and the moves that our Savior Jesus Christ made as he healed the sick and raised the dead and willingly went to Calvary, chastising Peter for his impulsive violent aggression along the way.
And yet, our Savior also declared, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34, NRSV). Jesus said this because the peace that he came to bring was peace-with-justice. What history has shown us is that the world is unjust and that peace-with-justice only comes when our nonviolent appeals to the moral high ground are buttressed by the certain knowledge that if we do not heed those appeals and learn to “live together as brothers [and sisters],” we will “perish together as fools.” King said that too.
“Our Savior also declared, ‘I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.’”
When, at every level, the government of the United States of America finally learns how to defend all of its citizens in the same way that it has historically defended some of its citizens, then the rest of us will not have to defend ourselves by any means necessary. When police everywhere finally learn to protect all lives and not just some, then we can begin to look at them as the servants that they are supposed to be. Until then, look for more black activists to show up armed for battle in states with open carry laws.
And don’t be surprised if black preachers like me offer them a blessing as they step out to protect the unprotected and brandish the sword that may finally usher in peace-with-justice.
Recent BNG commentary related to this topic:
Paul Robeson Ford | Ahmaud Arbery and a pandemic of injustice