A new, bolder, more hostile type of resistance to police brutality emerged at the end of the Civil Rights Movement and marked the beginning of the of the Black Power movement with some overlap during the mid 1960s. Prior resistance to police violence was primarily nonviolent activism, the type advocated by Martin Luther King Jr. However, a number of incidents of police brutality gained widespread public exposure, and with it, outrage. Media depicting eyebrow-raising methods of policing during otherwise peaceful protests generated controversy, such as the attacks against children during the Birmingham Campaign. Public exposure led to a militant stance against racist policing.
“…blasted by fire hoses, beaten with clubs, attacked by police dogs, and gassed.” (National Geographic Education)
Numerous other incidents of police brutality accumulated and spread into public consciousness through the media. In New York a police officer shot and killed black teenager James Powell in front of his friends and a dozen other witnesses (Shapiro 3). To some, horrific police actions warranted more than peaceful demonstrations, and violence must be met with an equal and opposite force.
The Case for Violence in Self-defense
What emerged was a call for more drastic resistance to police brutality. Three key players in this calling were Malcom X, the Black Panther Party, and Robert Franklin Williams.
Indeed, it was a controversial incident with police that helped Malcom X gain notoriety and advance his “by any means necessary” proposition. Malcom X was outraged by the police beating of Hinton Johnson in New York, demanding that the man be released and sent to an African American predominant hospital (Lomax 93). In contrast to previous peaceful attempts at justice, Malcom X fiercely rejected the notion of nonviolence as an effective countermeasure. He implored African-Americans to defend and advance themselves, a beckoning that inspired many oppressed blacks to greater action. His rhetoric during speeches was fiery and had a powerful effect on his audiences (179).
Black Panther Party
The original name for the Black Panther Party was the Black Panther Party for Self-defense. The party began largely in response to growing police brutality against African-Americans in Oakland, California. (Bloom 45) Members of the party would follow police patrol cars around Oakland neighborhoods carrying weapons afforded to them by the second amendment. It was a measure they deemed necessary to stop the oppression of police against African-American communities. In this case, policing the police was enabled by a deep-rooted constitutional right.
A young African-American man exercises his right to openly bear arms under California law in response to escalating police violence.
Robert Franklin Williams
One of the early cases of an African-American person calling for a stern response to violence against African-Americans was Robert Franklin Williams. He formed a Chapter of the National Rifle Association for which he belonged and called it the Black Armed guard in an effort to defend local black harassment from racist attacks from the Ku Klux Klan and others. He wrote a book in 1962 called “Negroes With Guns”, in which he urged African-Americans to raise arms and for black men in the military to kill their white superiors. He wrote, “…where the law is unable, or unwilling, to enforce order, the citizens can, and must act in self-defense against lawless violence” (Williams 16). In one case a black man was assaulted by a white perpetrator and failed to receive a proper trial. Robert F. Williams was asked what he recommends the cheated man should do in this situation, and this was his response:
“[The negroes] must be willing to fight, to die, to kill if necessary…to create the deterrent themselves” (Prelinger Collection)
His ideas became influential to other leaders in the black power movement , such as Rosa Parks and Huey Newton (Tyson 2).
Violent Resistance in Memory
Each of the three advocates for black revolt–Malcom X, Robert Williams, and the Black Panther Party–responded to violence by police and white supremacy organizations with an unprecedented call to meet violence with violence. The way in which this is remembered depends on who you ask. On one side, the violent approach to resist oppression by resorting to bearing arms against the police and other “extreme” measures is denounced and forgotten. Yet to others it was courageous to defy a racist government power with such boldness, courage, and sacrifice. Official memory praises and memorializes the nonviolent approach, as seen by the formation of the MLK monument and national holiday. However, certainly there are vernacular supporters of a violent resistance. In a forum during my research, a commenter extolled Robert F. Williams as the “Nat Turner” of his time.
AmericanHistoryRules. YouTube. National Geographic Education, 06 May 2011. Web. 24 Apr. 2017. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=joc3CRL6x4E>.
Bloom, Joshua, and Waldo E. Martin. Black against empire: the history and politics of the Black Panther Party. Berkeley: U of California Press, 2016. Print.
Lomax, Louis E. When the word is given: a report on Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, and the Black Muslim world. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1979. Print.
Negroes With Guns: Robert F. Williams on Self-Defense. Prelinger Collection, 22 Mar. 2009. Web. 20 Apr. 2017. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7U3spArjhUA>.
Shapiro, Fred C., and James W. Sullivan. Race riots: New York 1964. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1964. Print.
Timothy B. Tyson, “Robert Franklin Williams: A Warrior For Freedom, 1925-1996” Archived July 8, 2013, at the Wayback Machine. Investigating U.S. History (City University of New York); accessed April 20, 2017.
Williams, Robert F. Jr King, Martin Luther. Nelson, Truman. Negroes with Guns. S.l.: 2015. Print.