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Self-Defense and the Roots of Black Power


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A presentation by Ansel of on the roots of Black Power radicalism, particularly in the South with a focus on the late Robert Williams.

Published in: News & Politics
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Self-Defense and the Roots of Black Power

  1. 1. The Roots of Black Power and the Tradition of Self-Defense Ansel Herz Sept. 16, 2008
  2. 2. A Militant Tradition <ul><li>Black Power's “essential spirit was the product of generations of black people dealing with powerlessness” (119). </li></ul><ul><li>Tradition of armed self-defense dates back to slave resistance and Reconstruction militancy </li></ul><ul><li>Explicit calls for militancy originate with Ida B. Wells and DuBois at turn of the century </li></ul>
  3. 3. Shotguns, pistols, and rifles <ul><li>President of the Tuskegee Institute </li></ul><ul><li>Sharecroppers Union in Alabama </li></ul><ul><li>Medgar Evers </li></ul><ul><li>Martin Luther King Jr. </li></ul><ul><li>Daisy Bates </li></ul>“ Armed self-reliance” was “ typical of the generation of southern blacks that launched the civil rights movement” (121).
  4. 4. The Youth of Robert F. Williams <ul><li>Born in 1925 </li></ul><ul><li>Family history of activism </li></ul><ul><li>Saw race riots in Detroit </li></ul><ul><li>Drafted into WWII's segregated army </li></ul><ul><li>21-year-old returns to Monroe in 1946 </li></ul><ul><li>Black veterans organize to block KKK from disturbing compatriot's grave </li></ul>
  5. 5. Gathering the Troops <ul><li>1955: Reunites with black veterans to re-animate local NAACP chapter </li></ul><ul><li>200 members by 1959 </li></ul><ul><li>Unique in its membership among lower- and middle-class </li></ul><ul><li>Majority of members are women, domestic workers </li></ul>
  6. 6. “ The Kissing Case” <ul><li>1958: Hanover Thompson, ten-year-old black boy, kisses white girl in game </li></ul><ul><li>White mobs threaten families; police detain and beat them, boys convicted in absurd trial </li></ul><ul><li>Williams and NAACP launch intensive media campaign, causing flood of letters </li></ul><ul><li>“ If the government is so concerned about its image... let it create a society that will stand up under world scrutiny” (129). </li></ul>
  7. 7. “ Meet violence with violence” <ul><li>Lynchings, rapes, and anti-black terror continue in South </li></ul><ul><li>Two racist trials in Monroe prompt black outrage </li></ul><ul><li>Williams speaks openly of need for self-defense (and revenge?)‏ </li></ul><ul><li>NAACP, to immunize itself against red-baiting, condemns Williams in public show-trial </li></ul><ul><li>“ I WILL NOT CRAWL” (133). </li></ul>
  8. 8. Philosophy of armed self-reliance <ul><li>Holistic black nationalism: cultural, economic, political, and conscious self-advancement </li></ul><ul><li>Self-defense under the rubric of the Constitution, but in solidarity with Third World struggles </li></ul><ul><li>Did not object to integration or nonviolent tactics, winning grassroots support for flexibility </li></ul><ul><li>Embraced growing sit-in movement in early on in 1960 </li></ul><ul><li>Published The Crusader , a national newsletter </li></ul>
  9. 9. Exile and radicalization <ul><li>1961: Forced into exile in Cuba by FBI </li></ul><ul><li>Meets Fidel, Mao, communist leaders </li></ul><ul><li>Intensely radicalized, continues publishing newsletter </li></ul><ul><li>Returns in late 1960s, dies in 1996 </li></ul>
  10. 10. Southern self-defense coalitions <ul><li>Deacons for Defense and Justice in Louisiana </li></ul><ul><li>Protective force for Tuscaloosa Citizens for Action Committee in Alabama </li></ul><ul><li>“ Haven communities” in Mississippi </li></ul><ul><li>By 1968, decreasing necessity of armed groups </li></ul><ul><li>Shared characteristics: out-of-view, paramilitary, working in concert or on behalf of nonviolent activists </li></ul>
  11. 11. Williams' black nationalist successors <ul><li>Black Panther Party </li></ul><ul><li>Revolutionary Action Mov. </li></ul><ul><li>Republic of New Africa </li></ul><ul><li>Rejected nonviolence </li></ul><ul><li>Drew heavily on Williams' legacy </li></ul><ul><li>More aggressive, violent rhetoric symbolized the importance of black manhood more than it served pragmatic ends </li></ul>
  12. 12. Discussion Question #1 <ul><li>What brand of militant black power in your opinion was more successful? The Deacon-style security apparatus for movement activists or the revolutionary paramilitarism of the Black Panthers? </li></ul><ul><li>Why? Is there a place for armed self-reliance by marginalized communities today? </li></ul>
  13. 13. Discussion Question #2 <ul><li>How might Robert Williams' legacy be different had the (nonviolent) civil rights movement leadership of the day fully supported him? Why didn't they? What if he hadn't been forced into exile? </li></ul><ul><li>Might there have been more cooperation and less division between the armed and non-violent wings of the movement? </li></ul>