NEGROES WITH GUNS: Rob Williams and Black Power

Radio Free Dixie


The Film

A young clean-shaven Rob Williams sits at a table in front of a microphone wearing a suit and tie, at a press conference. He looks straight ahead with a serious expression. The Cuban flag hands on the wall behind him. 

A group of five men in suits, including Rob Williams, stand at a table in an official setting and look at Fidel Castro, who stands in the center of the group, speaking and pointing his finger. 

Four African American men wearing suits stand to the right of a fireplace in a family living room. Three stand and one kneels, all but one, are holding shotguns.

I wasn’t going to allow white men to have that much authority over me.
—Rob Williams

NEGROES WITH GUNS: Rob Williams and Black Power tells the dramatic story of the often-forgotten civil rights leader who urged African Americans to arm themselves against violent racists. In doing so, Williams not only challenged the Klan-dominated establishment of his hometown of Monroe, North Carolina, he alienated the mainstream Civil Rights Movement, which advocated peaceful resistance.

For Williams and other African Americans who had witnessed countless acts of brutality against their communities, armed self-defense was a practical matter of survival, particularly in the violent, racist heart of the Deep South. As the leader of the Monroe chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Williams led protests against the illegal segregation of Monroe’s public swimming pool. He also drew international attention to the harsh realities of life in the Jim Crow South. All the while, Williams and other protestors met the constant threat of violence and death with their guns close at hand.

In August 1961, the Freedom Riders, civil rights activists trained by Martin Luther King, Jr. to lead non-violent resistance, came to Monroe to demonstrate the superiority of passive resistance. An angry mob turned on the protestors and, by the end of the day, the Freedom Riders had been bloodied, beaten and jailed, and Rob Williams was on the run from the FBI.

Backed by a jazz score by Terence Blanchard (Barbershop and the films of Spike Lee), NEGROES WITH GUNS uses interviews, rare archival footage and searing photographs to chronicle Williams’ rise to notoriety, his eight-year exile in Cuba and Mao Zedong’s China and his much-publicized return home in 1969. Voices include historians, members of Williams’ Black Guard—armed men committed to the protection of Monroe’s black community—and Williams’ widow, Mabel.

For eight years, Williams and his family lived in exile, first in Cuba and then in China. In Havana, Williams began to broadcast a 50,000-watt radio program called "Radio Free Dixie." Selected recordings are featured in NEGROES WITH GUNS. The radio show fused cutting-edge music with news of the black freedom movement and Williams’ editorials, which, among other things, urged blacks not to fight in Vietnam.

In exile from 1961 to 1969, at the height of the American Civil Rights Movement, Rob Williams and his accomplishments have been largely erased from the public consciousness. According to the filmmakers, NEGROES WITH GUNS helps to “restore Rob and Mabel Williams to their rightful place as important civil rights figures who defied the white power structure without the protection of large numbers or the attention of television cameras.”

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