In his essay “Robert F. Williams and ‘Black Power’ ” Timothy Tyson emphasizes the fact that although many Americans, when asked to consider the Civil Rights Movement, automatically envision Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. eloquently pleading for increased social rights and maintaining his commitment to nonviolence, there was a dominant belief among the African-American community that armed self-defense was the best way to protect themselves and their families.
Although Tyson does not deny the poise and the self-control that Dr. King and his followers exhibited, he argues that men such as Robert Williams led a different, more abrasive approach to acquiring civil rights. Many Americans, however, have no clue about who Williams is and what he did for African-Americans in the post-World War II era. In fact, Tyson beautifully hones in on his central thesis by stating that “Long before Stokely Carmichael and Willie Ricks led the chants of ‘Black Power’ that riveted national media attention in the summer of 1966, most elements invoked by that ambiguous slogan were already in place,” (Tyson 120).
Tyson describes that Black Power and the civil rights movement were deeply rooted in the New Deal-era South. Families in the pre-World War II era obviously struggled in the face of white supremacy. The only difference between the pre- and post-war eras was the fact that African-American men had been well trained in the realm of firing weapons. Williams recalled that, “The Army indoctrination instilled in us what a virtue it was to fight for democracy and that we were fighting for democracy and upholding the Constitution,” (Tyson 114). Thus, with a history of battling white supremacy and formal instruction on the use of firearms, men were not coming home from the war simply to revert to their former lives. Now they were prepared to fight by any means necessary, whether on terms of nonviolence or violence.
While Robert Williams and Martin Luther King were working towards the same goal, they both had different methods which they implored as a means to an end. The real commotion occurred, however, in 1961 when followers of Dr. King came to Monroe, North Carolina, the home of Robert Williams. It was the intent of the Freedom Riders to show Williams via their nonviolent campaigns that civil rights were attainable through peace and negotiation. As one participant stated, “If the fight for civil rights is to remain nonviolent, we must be successful in Monroe,” (Tyson 118).
Williams recalled about the situation, “First, I saw it as a challenge, but I also saw it as an opportunity to show that what King and them were preaching was bullshit,” (Tyson 118). As it turns out, Williams was right. What was supposed to be the continuation of a nonviolent campaign turned into pure chaos and hostility. As these events simply added conviction and validity to what Williams had been promoting all along.
Tyson raises a great point at the conclusion of his essay when he states that “Our vision of the African-American freedom movement between 1945 and 1965 as characterized solely and inevitably by nonviolent civil rights protest obscures the full complexity of racial politics,” (Tyson 120). Personally, I could not agree more. I feel like the nonviolent stance is better in theory than it is in practice.
While the intentions of the nonviolent campaign were completely respectable, I feel like, in terms of reality, the violent approach is more likely to cause change. My reasoning is simple. If someone asserts themselves over another, expressing their dominance, it is going to take a rather abrasive approach to prove to that individual that bullying others is wrong and that it will not be tolerated. If African-Americans had neglected to exhibit their capability to use violence as a means to obtain more civil rights, I believe that the overall progress of the movement would have been greatly slowed.
Tyson, Timothy B. “Robert F. Williams and “Black Power”” The United States Since 1945: Historical Interpretation ed. Doug Rossinow and Rebecca Lowen. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education, 2007. 114-21.