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Tag: Black Power

Robert F. Williams, Epideictic Rhetoric, and the African American Freedom Struggle

Late in the summer of 1961, an interracial group of Freedom Riders arrived in Monroe, North Carolina, a town long mired in intense racial conflict, to join civil rights activist Robert F. Williams’s campaign to integrate the town’s public facilities, including the schools and the municipal swimming pool. He also wanted to achieve nondiscriminatory hiring practices in local factories, to guarantee the appointment of African American citizens to positions within the city government, and to have all signs indicating white and non-white areas removed from public view. As president of the Union County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Williams had generated considerable controversy two years earlier when, in a moment of frustration over a series of racially-biased court decisions, he claimed that “the Negro in the South cannot expect justice in the courts. He must convict his attacker on the spot. He must meet violence with violence, lynching with lynching.”1 Although Williams tried to soften his rhetoric by explaining that he had meant only to say that the African American community must consider armed self-defense until such time as the criminal justice system guaranteed the constitutional right to equal protection under the law, the national leadership of the NAACP, led by Roy Wilkins, suspended Williams from his leadership post after a period of high-profile debate over the organization’s position on self-defense. It was in response to his being censured that Williams began to publish The Crusader, a widely-distributed monthly newsletter that served as a platform for his ideas and helped further elevate him as a militant voice within the largely nonviolent Civil Right Movement. The Freedom Riders who descended on Monroe that summer intended to help Williams integrate the town, but they also wanted to counter his position on armed self-defense by demonstrating the effectiveness of nonviolent resistance in a town that had become notorious for its racist violence.

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