Robert Charles was a Black freedom warrior during a period when newly empowered white racists believed they could treat Black people any way they pleased, and had to learn the hard way that it took some ass to get some ass.
Charles, who was born in 1865 in Copiah County, Mississippi, most likely witnessed his father and older male relatives gain their right to vote when the 15th Amendment was passed, only to lose their right to vote after the 1877 withdrawal of federal troops from the United States south, where they had protected recently emancipated Africans from former slaveholders.
White supremacist mobs, gangs, and paramilitary groups, as well as the police, harassed Blacks into not voting, killing Print Matthews, a white Copiah County sheriff who united Black and white people together, and forcing several of Matthews’ Black companions and sympathizers to escape. Charles was alive when and where all of this was going on.
Charles became an outspoken advocate for Black people to escape racist America and return to Africa despite growing up during the height of racist tyranny. He distributed Reverend Henry McNeal Turner’s early Pan-Africanist writings.
In 1892, Charles and his brother entered Rolling Fork, Mississippi, fully armed, engaged in a firefight with a white man, and recovered a revolver that he had taken from them.
Charles was likely familiar with the gruesome 1899 lynching and dismemberment of Sam Hose, a Black laborer in Georgia who stood up to his employer.
On July 23, 1900, while visiting his girlfriend in New Orleans, some white police officers stopped and harassed him. Charles fired and injured one police officer with his weapon during the ensuing confrontation, and he was shot in the leg.
He made his way back to his apartment and dressed his leg wound before retrieving a Winchester rifle and a small metal gadget he used to create his own ammunition.
Over the next three days, he shot 27 white people who were attempting to kill him, first in his room and then at a friend’s house. Before he was assassinated and his body torn apart by white mobs, he killed seven people, including four police officers. White mobs murdered and injured several African American inhabitants of New Orleans during the riots that followed.
In his essay “Black Fighting Formations,” Russell Shoats describes Robert Charles as an example of the “free shooter” model of resistance, in which a small group of well-armed individuals terrorizes and immobilizes the more powerful oppressor population and flees into a small network of safe houses, even if she or he does not have access to a larger fighting formation (like a cell or a guerrilla army).
- Ida B. Wells-Barnett, “Mob Rule in New Orleans: Robert Charles and His Fight to Death, the Story of His Life, Burning Human Beings Alive, Other Lynching Statistics”, 1900 [2005 online] https://www.gutenberg.org/files/14976/14976-h/14976-h.htm
- William Ivy Hair, “Carnival of Fury: Robert Charles and the New Orleans Race Riot of 1900”. Baton Rouge, Louisiana: LSU Press, 2008. (also available at https://archive.org/details/carnivaloffury00will)
- For more info on Black traditions of resistance in the 20th century, read:
- Akinyele Umoja, We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement, 2013.
- Charles E. Cobb Jr., This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible, 2015.
- Lance Hill, Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement, 2006
- Charles M. Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle, 2007
- Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, (Richard Philcox translation) 1963
- Frank B. Wilderson III, Incognegro: A Memoir of Exile and Apartheid, 2008