TheGrio Daily

Real Gangstas of Black History: Ellen Isabel Williams, Robert F Williams and the Black Armed Guard

Episode 177

Ellen Isabel Williams was a radical Black griot, teacher, writer, and advocate. And unlike the peaceful civil rights leaders we often hear about, she and her grandson, Robert F. Williams, were not afraid to meet violence with violence. Wypipologist Michael Harriot recalls these Real Gangstas of Black History that don’t get the same attention in public school education.

“We talk about the nonviolent civil rights movement, but we rarely talk about armed resistance.”

Music Courtesy of Transitions Music Corporation

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Michael Harriot: Sometimes we take for granted the impact that history can have on the present, especially when it comes to telling our stories in our voices. Simply by passing down our legacy and our history to our children can inspire change and bring forth an entirely new movement. And that’s why I want to tell you the story of Ellen Isabel Williams, the griot who inspired a whole town of Black gangstas.

I’m world-famous wypipologist Michael Harriot and this is theGrio Daily, welcome back to the Grio Daily. This month, of course, is Black History Month. And we’re telling the story of the real gangstas of Black History. And not gangstas in the current colloquial meaning, but people who were actually ostracized and became outlaws because they told the truth. And today we’re going to talk about Ellen Isabel Williams the grandmother of a real Black history hero, Robert F. Williams Now if you don’t know about Robert F. Williams, I commend you to read about him. His book “Negroes with Guns” inspired a movement that we don’t really talk about, uh, we talk about the nonviolent civil rights movement, but we rarely talk about armed resistance.

And this podcast is about a whole town who practiced armed resistance that was inspired and led by Robert F. Williams, but it really dates back to his grandmother, Ellen. She was born in 1858 and enslaved in Monroe, North Carolina. Like many people during that time, he was the child of a slave master and a person, the woman he enslaved.

But when she was emancipated, Ellen began to learn how to read and became a teacher. And she married Sykes Williams, an aspiring writer who was also enslaved in North Carolina and Monroe. Ellen and Sykes became school teachers and began educating their community. Not just in schools, but Ellen would sit on her front porch and read the newspapers to the people in their neighborhood in the area of town called Newtown, the Black section of Monroe.

And so she was like the Griot of the Black neighborhoods in Monroe, North Carolina. And then they began traveling around the state telling Black people to vote for what they called then the Fusion Party, this coalition of poor whites and Black people who could vote. And they advocated for really progressive ideas like laws that didn’t favor creditors and rich people. They advocated for white solidarity, free healthcare. food distribution during bad crop years, funding for hospitals, and this crazy idea that they got from South Carolina, free, integrated, universal public education. And that Fusion Coalition won so many elections that the white redeemers of North Carolina had to take control of politics using violence and force. And as soon as they did, they changed the state constitution to disenfranchise Black voters. 

Now, Ellen Williams was 67 when her grandson, Robert F. Williams, was born in 1925. But she instilled her political ideology into Robert F. Williams and told him that he didn’t have to be afraid of wypipo. She made him haul wood for the neighbors and take them food, and instead of getting a nickel every time he helped someone, Ellen made Robert take stories for payment. Seriously, he would have to sit down and listen to the stories of people who were enslaved and learn how to organize his community. Well, when Robert was a little kid, his grandfather had already died, Sykes had already died, and Robert witnessed a police officer beat a Black woman to death. And, when Ellen found out about this, she gave Robert a gift that he would always treasure until the day he died, his grandfather’s rifle. So when Robert joined the Great Migration and moved to Detroit to work for the auto industry, he took his grandfather’s rifle. At 18 years old, he witnessed the 1943 Detroit race riots.

Of course, nothing happened to him because he got his grandfather’s rifle. So, after Detroit, he went to college, joined the Marines, and fought in World War II. He wrote for a few Black newspapers and moved back to Monroe, North Carolina. And when he returned, of course, Ellen, she had passed away, but he met and married a woman who knew his grandmother and had been inspired by her stories.

And Robert wondered, and he asked him, like, ‘Why is everybody here so scared of the Klan? And that’s when he found out of Monroe’s 12,000 residents, about 7, 500 were members of the Ku Klux Klan. So they basically ruled the town. So Robert was like, ‘Mabel, why don’t we just, like, start a chapter of the NAACP?’

And Mabel was joking, she was like, ‘Yeah, if you’re gonna start a chapter of the NAACP, you’re going to need an army. Like, for real, like maybe you should contact the NRA.’ And Robert, like, you know, he didn’t take it as a joke. He actually contacted the NRA. And because he had a white-sounding name, they had no idea that Robert was Black. So they actually gave him a charter for a chapter of the NRA and he named the chapter the Black Armed Guard. It was made up of about 50 or 60 Black men who were mostly veterans. But unlike most NAACP chapters, Monroe’s chapter was not made up of the Black elite and it was mostly female. That’s because he remembered his grandmother’s teachings.

Instead of getting a bunch of bougie Black socialites to join the NAACP, he went from house to house and got domestics and maids and people in the pool halls so the ex-veterans in the Black Armed Guard began teaching the Black women how to use weapons to defend themselves. And the Black women created this intelligence network and strategy.

So many of the women worked in the homes of wypipo as domestics. They could essentially let everyone know what the Klansmen were planning. They called it the snowball strategy. Whenever they got intelligence that the Ku Klux Klan was about to do something, they would call one person and that person would call one person and create what they call the snowball effect to spread the news.

For instance, when they heard that the Klan was going to frame the NAACP Vice President, Dr. Alfred Perry, for performing an abortion. All of the Black women ran up in the jailhouse and broke this man out of jail because he was the only Black doctor in town. And if he was in jail, then he couldn’t do stuff like deliver babies, deliver healthcare.

So the Ku Klux Klan, they heard about them breaking Dr. Perry out of jail and they plan to do a drive-by at Dr. Perry’s house to kill him. Cause you know, racists are kind of violent. Of course, the Black women, they got word of it. And when the Ku Klux Klan was ready for their drive-by and went by Dr. Perry’s house, the Black Armed Guard was waiting out there with sandbags. They had dug trenches and they had a big shootout right in the middle of the town in Monroe and the Klan stood down. They even passed the law that the Klan couldn’t have a parade or a motorcade without city permission.

But it wasn’t just shootouts and standoffs. They did a lot of good work. They desegregated the pools that of course the Black residents had actually paid for. They desegregated some of the businesses in town and the NAACP movement and the Black Armed Guard were really effective in equalizing race relations in Monroe. So much so that Robert F. Williams became a civil rights hero during his time. 

If you wonder who protected the Black people who were boycotting buses in Montgomery during the Montgomery bus boycott? Oh, Robert F. Williams was down there with his Black Armed Guard protecting protestors. Of course, this made wypipo mad and scared white women. Seriously. 

So on October 28th, 1958, a white woman in Monroe, North Carolina called the police and reported that her 7-year-old daughter, Sissy, had been raped by two Black boys. The police in Monroe went and arrested 9-year-old James Hanover Thompson and 7-year-old David Fuzzy Simpson in a case that became famously known as the “Kissing Case.”

The boys were jailed for a week with no legal representation. The Klan began terrorizing the boys parents. A judge eventually sentenced the boys to be incarcerated until they were 21-years-old. But the NAACP wouldn’t do anything about it because they had a strict policy of not getting involved in sex cases because they didn’t want people to think that they were promoting what they call back then “race mixing,” but Robert F. Williams and the Black armed guard and the Black women in Monroe, they wouldn’t have it. But what could they do? I mean, the Klan was in control. The South was racist. Well, remember Ellen had taught them that special gift of storytelling. So Williams went around the country telling the story of Monroe. The Black women began telling the story all across the country and people all around the country began helping.

Oh, they didn’t send money. They began sending something else. They started sending guns to the people in Monroe. There’s a story that a Black writer, James Baldwin, even bought machine guns for the Black armed guard. The story gained so much traction in the international press that Eleanor Roosevelt even began advocating for the boys.

And the movement became known as Operation Snowball. The U. S. Information Agency reported receiving 12,000 letters about the “Kissing Case.” Three months after they were incarcerated with no legal representation, 9-year-old James and 7-year-old Fuzzy were released after the governor pardoned them.

And when two white men were indicted for raping Black women who worked in a local hotel, They told Robert F. Williams, Hey, you know we’re going to have to grab them guns and do something about this. Of course, the NAACP policy was not to get involved, but when all of the Black women showed up in court to tell their story, Robert knew he had to do something.

He remembered what his grandmother had taught him. He remembered her radicalism. And so right there on the courthouse steps, he made a quote that would reverberate throughout history. He told the press quote, “Since the federal government will not bring a halt to lynching in the South, and since the so-called courts lynch our people legally, if it’s necessary to stop lynching with lynching, then we must be willing to resort to that method. We must meet violence with violence.” 

Well, this goes against what the NAACP stood for and they suspended Robert, but he became even more of a hero. As a matter of fact, when the Freedom Riders went through North Carolina, it was the Black Armed Guard who protected them, and that night after the protests, a white couple allegedly got lost in the Black section of Monroe and Robert F. Williams and the Black Armed Guard and the Black people in Monroe were like, these must be infiltrators, because you know, they were used to the Klan and acting violence against them. Well, even though Robert F. Williams protected the white couple, the police trumped up charges of kidnapping, and he had to leave the country.

For years, Robert and Mabel had to leave the country after the FBI put them on the most wanted list. For eight years, he lived outside of the country in Cuba, then China, but he created a radio station that broadcast these stories back into the U. S. In 1969, he returned to the U. S. And was immediately extradited to Monroe.

But in 1976, with no explanation, the state of North Carolina dropped all charges against Williams. Robert and Mabel eventually retired to a farm in Michigan where Robert died in 1996 from Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Yes, Ellen had made a real G. But he was whitewashed out of history because, as he explained it, 

Robert F. Williams: What is not commonly known is that the Deacons of Self Defense from, uh, Monroe, Louisiana and, uh, also that the, all of the radical groups, even, uh, SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Panthers, they all got their inspiration from Monroe, and that’s documented in my FBI files. But, uh, nobody wanted to say this. They didn’t want to give us credit. They didn’t want, uh, minorities to get the impression that that was a way of dealing with some of the problems. But they didn’t want us to get the idea, and they wanted us also to feel inferior. Less than men, because they know that men will stand up and fight, that men will fight for their rights, and for their families, and for their homes, in defense of their homes, but we were supposed to be less than men. 

Michael Harriot: And that’s why Robert F. Williams’ armed resistance and the real gangstas of Monroe were erased from history.

And that’s also why you got to listen to this podcast, why you got to tell a friend, why you got to subscribe and why you got to download that Grio app. And that’s also why we leave you with a saying that Ellen Williams told Robert F. Williams she’d heard while organizing in a Black pool hall and the saying was, “If you don’t start none, there won’t be none.”

We’ll see you next time on theGrio Daily.

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