What was the history of the request for racial justice in Monroe, North Carolina, and Oakland, California?

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These two communities, on opposite sides of the United States, are very different, but both experienced racial turmoil at different points in their histories. What connects them most powerfully is that both Monroe and Oakland were places where African American leaders advocated armed self-defense as a means of resisting racial oppression.

In Monroe, a small town in southern North Carolina, these efforts centered around Robert Williams, the local chairman of the NAACP and the National Rifle Association. He encouraged others in his community to take up arms to protect themselves after witnessing white violence amid several civil rights protests, including the Freedom Rides, in Monroe. He openly challenged the nonviolent stance promoted by Martin Luther King, most explicitly in a book entitled Negroes With Guns.

This book, which also promoted black nationalism, was a seminal text in the Black Power movement. It inspired many young activists, including Huey Newton, a student in Oakland who founded the Black Panthers in 1968. The Panthers combined a stance of open militance, including bearing arms in public, with a program of self-sufficiency and cultural initiatives.

Where Williams faced down Klan violence, the Black Panthers confronted a series of police shootings of African American teens. They responded by patrolling their own neighborhoods with weapons prominently displayed, a practice not unlike those advocated by Williams. Also like Williams, who actually moved to Cuba as an exile and spent time in China, the Black Panthers embraced a Marxist-inspired ideology that stressed community uplift.

Like most other figures associated with the Black Power movement, including Stokely Carmichael, Black Panther leaders in Oakland and elsewhere were inspired by the efforts of Robert Williams to confront racism and racial violence more specifically in Monroe, North Carolina.

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