Alfred “Skip” Robinson is one of the most dynamic and charismatic individuals I have ever met. I first heard of Skip after a national demonstration in Tupelo, Mississippi in November of 1978. Several of my comrades in the Black Liberation Movement attended a demonstration and rally organized by Skip and the United League of Mississippi (UL) to support their boycott of the commercial district in Tupelo to challenge police misconduct and economic inequality in Tupelo. At that time the UL under Skip’s leadership had organized a series of boycotts in Mississippi to challenge white supremacy and institutionalized racism.
The UL was probably the most dynamic movement in the Black freedom struggle during the late 1970s. The Black Panthers, SNCC, Republic of New Africa, Us Organization, and other Black Power organizations had been severely crippled by the U.S. government’s COINTEPRO program and other repressive campaigns, as well as by the movement’s own internal conflicts and challenges. Several key activists of the movement had been incarcerated, exiled, even assassinated due to government repression. The oldest Black Civil Rights group, the NAACP, also suffered a decline after being defeated in a U.S. Supreme Court lawsuit. The Reagan Administration began to dismantle some of the gains of the Civil Rights Movement. The late 1970s also witnessed a resurgence of the KKK.
Skip, the UL, and their efforts in Mississippi represented a beacon of hope to the Black freedom struggle of the 1970s. Their boycotts in northern Mississippi towns of Byhalia, Holly Springs, Tupelo, and Okolona stood as effective resistance in a time when social justice fights were in survival mode. The UL’s armed presence and the bold oratory of Skip Robinson, and its other spokespersons Dr. Howard Gunn and Attorney Lewis Myers, was a statement that Mississippi Blacks were not defeated and intimidated by the Klan and other white terrorists. The fact that Robinson and Gunn were still standing unscathed after gun battles with Klansmen was not lost on observers of the UL movement.The UL was probably the most dynamic movement in the Black freedom struggle during the late 1970s. The Black Panthers, SNCC, Republic of New Africa, Us Organization, and other Black Power organizations had been severely crippled by the U.S. government’s COINTEPRO program and other repressive campaigns, as well as by the movement’s own internal conflicts and challenges. Several key activists of the movement had been incarcerated, exiled, even assassinated due to government repression. The oldest Black Civil Rights group, the NAACP, also suffered a decline after being defeated in a U.S. Supreme Court lawsuit. The Reagan Administration began to dismantle some of the gains of the Civil Rights Movement. The late 1970s also witnessed a resurgence of the KKK.
I decided to visit Northern Mississippi to witness the UL for myself in August of 1979. Skip had been appointed the Chairman of the Democratic Party in Marshall County, Mississippi. Marshall County was a Black majority county, Skip’s birthplace and home, and the headquarters of the UL. There was a primary election going on the day I arrived in Holly Springs, the seat of Marshall County. I was told this would be the first election in the county’s history that Black people participated as officials at the polls. Prior to the late 1970s, the white minority stole elections by white folks voting multiple times and the ballots of dead people being counted. Intimidation was also used to keep the Black majority from the polls. This would be the county’s first, free and fair election. My host was UL organizer Jim Agnew. Brother Agnew and I arrived in Holly Springs early that morning before the polls opened. We approached Skip on the street arguing with a police officer. The officer arrested Skip for disorderly conduct. Everyone figured Skip was arrested to disrupt Black voter mobilization and scare Black people from coming to the polls. I also witnessed groups of white men standing in a belligerent and menacing manner near the polling place to intimidate Blacks.
Skip was released from jail right before the polls closed. I escorted Skip to the UL office, which was near the Northern Mississippi Legal Services located right in the main county square. While I stood next to Skip, his primary security guard, a young man probably in his late 20s, came down the stairs of the Legal Services office. The bodyguard said he needed to go home and check on his family. He wanted Skip to come upstairs, outside of public view, so he could give him back the .357 magnum handgun the bodyguard carried concealed for the UL leader’s protection. It was probably the same gun Skip wore stuck in his pants during California speaking engagements. Standing on the street of the north side of the main square of Holly Springs, Skip boldly said “Give it to me right here (on the street). I want them (the White supremacists) to know I have a gun!” The young man hesitantly passed Skip the handgun right there on the street. I was humbled when Skip later asked me to draft his press statement detailing his arrest. I was honored to be of the assistance of this impressive leader.
I had the pleasure and opportunity to write about Skip and the UL in the book We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement (NYU Press, 2013). In fact, had I not met Skip Robinson, the book may have not been written. I grew up during the Civil Rights and Black Power movement in Los Angeles, California. Most of my generation in northern urban centers had no idea that armed Black men, women, and youth defended the community and themselves in human rights battles in the South. Our only image of Black resistance in the South was the nonviolent movement, which many of us could not relate to. Other than the nonviolent movement, the major response we saw of southern Black folks was being in fear and intimidation to white terror. Skip Robinson and the UL provided me a living example and played a major role in destroying the stereotype of an exclusively “nonviolent” southern Black freedom movement in my mind. Skip Robinson and the UL provided an inspiration to write and tell our story. More must be done to reconstruct and illuminate the story of Skip Robinson and the United League. More must be done to recognize and remember his contribution to challenge injustice and improve the lives of his people. It is an inspiring, uplifting saga and a story of courage and commitment to social justice that changed Mississippi and inspired others like me to keep on pushing.
Akinyele Omowale Umoja is Professor and Chair of the Department of African-American studies at Georgia State University, where he teaches courses on the history of the civil rights and Black Power movements and other social movements. He has been a community activist for over 40 years. He is the author of We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement (NYU Press, 2013).
[This piece originally appeared on wpconvo.com, the website of the play Byhalia, Mississippi.]