In the revolutionary atmosphere of the 1960s, Robert Williams seemed to be everywhere.
The civil rights activist's 1962 book Negroes with Guns is credited with being part of the intellectual foundation for the founding of the Black Panther Party. After fleeing the US in the early 1960s, he ended up a guest of Fidel Castro in Cuba, where he met Che Guevara. He left Cuba for China, where he witnessed the beginning of Mao Zedong's (
But Williams' name isn't included in most present-day accounts of the civil rights movement. His argument that blacks should arm themselves against the threat of violence by segregationist whites earned him at the height of his notoriety the label "violent crusader."
Williams is a natural subject for study, said filmmaker Sandra Dickson, whose documentary Negroes with Guns: Rob Williams and Black Power premieres tomorrow as part of PBS' Independent Lens series.
The film explores the events in the small town of Monroe, North Carolina, that made Williams a leading advocate of deviating from the nonviolent methods of Martin Luther King Jr. and the mainstream civil-rights movement.
"It's a very dramatic story," said Dickson. "He's a controversial and, in my opinion, often misunderstood figure."
The son of a railway worker, Williams grew up in Depression-era Monroe, about 40km southeast of Charlotte.
He served in the military before returning home in the 1950s and getting involved in the fight to end Jim Crow laws.
He first came to prominence after a 1958 incident in which two black children, ages 8 and 10, were jailed on a rape charge after a white girl said she had kissed one of the boys. A local judge sentenced the boys to reform school.
Williams became what Timothy Tyson, his biographer, calls "a one-man press office for the kissing case," winning international media coverage that compelled Governor Luther Hodges to release the boys after four months.
But while Williams used nonviolent protest and boycotts, he was also arming local blacks and teaching them marksmanship and self-defense.
He and other activists lived in fear for their lives amid what the documentary describes as widespread and open Ku Klux Klan activity in Monroe and surrounding Union County, where Tyson said Klan rallies regularly attracted thousands of participants.
Williams' position conflicted with the beliefs of some civil-rights leaders and many of the white liberals who were beginning to support the movement.
The two approaches clashed openly in the summer of 1961, when Freedom Riders from King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference arrived in Monroe to try to integrate the town through nonviolent protest -- and prove to Williams that nonviolence was the best path.
The Freedom Riders clashed with the Klan and others in downtown Monroe, sparking what Tyson and the documentary describe as a race riot.
In the middle of the chaos, a white couple drove into the heart of Monroe's black community and were surrounded by a mob.
"Williams comes out of his house, saying, `You're not killing these people in my front yard,' and stops them from being killed," Tyson said.
He kept the couple in his home for a couple of hours, shielding them from the mob -- an action that led local police to charge him with kidnapping.
Negroes with Guns brings the events of that summer to life.