Robert Charles was a Black freedom fighter in a time when recently emboldened white supremacists thought they could treat Black people any kind of way and had to find out the hard way that it was gonna take some ass to get some ass.
Born in 1865 in Copiah County, Mississippi, Charles most likely watched his father and older male relatives gain their rights to vote when the 15th Amendment was passed, and then lose their rights to vote after the 1877 withdrawal of federal troops from the u.s. south, where they had protected recently emancipated Africans from their former slaveholders. Before federal troops ever left, but increasingly after they left, white supremacist mobs, gangs, and paramilitary forces, and of course the police, terrorized Blacks out of voting, murdering Print Matthews, a white Copiah County sheriff who organized Black and white people together, and several of Matthews’ Black associates and supporters were killed or forced to flee. Charles was alive when and where all of this was going on.
Despite growing up at the height of racist repression, Charles became an outspoken advocate of Black people to abandon racist America and return to Africa. He handed out the literature of Reverend Henry McNeal Turner, an early Pan-Africanist.
In 1892, Charles and his brother walked fully armed into Rolling Fork, Mississippi, got into a gunfight with a white man, and took back a pistol 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.
In New Orleans on July 23, 1900, as Charles was visiting his girlfriend, some white policemen stopped him. In the resulting confrontation, Charles shot and injured one policeman with his pistol and was shot in the leg. Escaping to his room, he treated his leg wound and retrieved a Winchester rifle and a small metal device he used to make his own bullets. Over the next few days, as he took shelter first in his room and then in a friend’s house, he shot 27 white people who were coming to kill him. He killed 7, including 4 police, before he was killed and his body torn apart by white mobs. In the riots that followed, white mobs murdered and injured many African American residents of New Orleans.
Robert Charles is considered an example of what Russell Shoats, in his essay “Black Fighting Formations,” calls the “free shooter” model of resistance, in which a small number of well-armed individuals terrorizes and immobilizes the more powerful oppressor population and escapes into a small network of safe houses, even when 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