Tuesday, 26 June 2007

SPECIAL ROBERT F WILLIAMS SERIES (part 2 - intro by T.B. Tyson)

In this Robert F Williams series, we present the second part in the form of Timothy B Tyson’s introduction to the 2002 edition of Robert F Williams’ Negroes with Guns which was first published in 1962.

Tyson has written the excellent and only biography of Williams in Radio Free Dixie: Robert F Williams & The Roots of Black Power. Through this book Tyson shows how much of a seismic impact Williams leadership, politics, strategies and tactics, and the experience of his struggle in his Monroe (North Carolina) NAACP chapter/branch, had on the Black Liberation Movement / Civil Rights Struggle.

It was through struggles such as Williams, Malcolm X / Malik El-Hajj Shabazz, Student Non-Violent Co-ordination Committee (SNCC) and others that contributed to the birth of the emerging mass militant phase of the struggle, in which the Black Panther Party formed in 1966, was the most powerful result. The US authorities managed to smash this struggle through a brutal campaign of black propaganda, assassination and imprisonment through the state program of COINTELPRO, a counter-insurgency program designed for dissent and urban rebellion in the US.

Negroes with Guns continues to be a seminal text for all those communities who struggle against racist and neo-colonialist oppression. Hopefully this Sons of Malcolm series will contribute in a small way to popularising Williams’ legacy.

Sons of Malcolm

26 June 2007


Robert F Williams, Black Power and the Roots of the African American Freedom Struggle

Timothy B. Tyson

Timothy B. Tyson is an assistant professor of Afro-American studies at the University of Michigan. He has written a biography of Robert F Williams ‘Radio Free Dixie’.

Negroes with Guns is one of the most telling and important documents of the African American freedom struggle. Hammered together by exile Robert F. Williams and editor Marc Schlieffer in Havana in 1962, this book influenced a generation of young black insurgents and helped to lay the groundwork for the Black Power movement. Negroes with Guns fascinated Huey P. Newton and became the most important intellectual influence on the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in Oakland, California.(1) Historians August Meier and Elliott Rudwick observe that Williams “had a profound effect” within the Congress of Racial Equality.(2) Williams also had a significant influence among members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the South and among residents of inner-city ghettos across the country.(3) A play based on Negroes with Guns, Frank Greenwood’s “If We Must Live,” ran in community theaters in the Watts section of Los Angeles for six months in 1965 to standing ovations from eager crowds.(4) For members of the Revolutionary Action Movement, the Republic of New Africa, and for many other young race rebels, Negroes with Guns became a kind of bible of black militance. It was not that Williams advocated violence against white people, Anne Braden, of the Southern Conference Educational Fund, noted in a review published in 1963.(5) Williams “merely articulated what many people feel and what many more people will express unless change comes rapidly.”

African Americans, however, were not waiting on the federal government to rescue them. “Armed self-defense is a fact of life in black communities-north and south,” one North Carolina activist wrote to Williams in 1965, “despite the pronouncements of the ‘leadership.’ “ (6) By the end of the decade, of course, many of the views that Williams expressed in the late 1950s would seem commonplace. But Negroes with Guns does more than introduce us to a prophetic figure, a harbinger of the violent upheavals to come. It captures for us a snapshot of the movement at what Martin Luther King, Jr. called “a stage of profound crisis.”(7) When Negroes with Guns appeared in 1962, the Montgomery Bus Boycott was six years in the distance and nonviolence had produced little in the way of tangible political results. The country’s response to the United States Supreme Court’s 1954 mandate to desegregate “with all deliberate speed” demonstrated no speed and little deliberation. As Negroes with Guns went to press, legal victories had produced only a wave of white terrorism, a smattering of token concessions, and a host of elaborate evasions of the law; nonviolent direct action had little to show for all the brutality it had unleashed in its opponents. On the side streets and back roads of the “civil rights”-era South, whatever dramas might play out in the public square by day, black activists slept lightly and kept their guns close at hand. Negroes with Guns gives us a remarkably vivid and accurate glimpse of the brutal and authentic political terrain that activists of the African American freedom movement sought to transform. It also affords us the best available view of a remarkable mind of the South, Robert F. Williams, one of the most dynamic race rebels of a generation that changed the world.

Robert Williams was born in 1925 to Emma C. and John L. Williams. His father was a railroad boiler washer in Monroe, North Carolina, a town of six thousand in the North Carolina piedmont .(8) Women born in slavery still tended vegetable gardens along the street where young “Rob” Williams grew up. His grandfather, Sikes Williams, born a slave in Union County, had attended Biddle Institute in nearby Charlotte after Emancipation and became one of Union County’s first black schoolteachers.(9) He enlisted as a Republican activist during the late 1800s and “traveled all over the county and the State making speeches and soliciting support for the Party.”(10) Sikes Williams also published a small newspaper called “The People’s Voice.” (11) The interracial “fusion” coalition of Republicans and Populists which he had labored to build won every statewide office in 1896. “THE CHAINS OF SERVITUDE ARE BROKEN,” Williams and his interracial allies proclaimed to their black constituents that year. “NOW NEVER LICK THE HAND THAT LASHED YOU.’(12) Two years later, however, white conservatives overthrew the democratic process. In a campaign of fraud and violence all across the state in 1898, the party of white supremacy seized what Democratic editor Josephus Daniels celebrated as “permanent good government by the party of the white man.”(13)

Robert’s grandmother, Ellen Isabel Williams, lived through all of these struggles and was “my greatest friend,” he wrote later.(14) “She read everything,” he recalled, and “specialized in history.” Ellen Williams would point to the iron printing press rusting in the shed and tell the young boy stories of Sikes Williams and the crusading editor’s political exploits. She reminded her grandson that she had been conceived in the union of her mother with their master, Daniel Tomblin. Before she died, Ellen Williams handed young Robert a gift that symbolized much that slavery and the struggle for liberty had taught her: she gave him the ancient rifle that his grandfather had wielded against white terrorists at the turn of the century.(15)

In 1946, 2 I-year-old Robert Williams stepped down from a segregated Greyhound in the uniform of his country. Military training had given black veterans “some feeling of security and self-assurance,” he recalled. “But most of all they taught us to use arms.”(16) Like thousands of other black veterans, Robert Williams did not come home to pick cotton.(17)

Another returning black veteran, a friend of Williams’s named Bennie Montgomery, did come home to raise cotton on the farm that his father operated as a sharecropper for W. W. Mangum, a large-scale white landowner near Monroe. Saturday, June 1, 1946, was a regular workday on the Mangum place, but Montgomery asked Mangum for his wages at noon, explaining that he needed to go to Monroe and have his father’s car repaired. Mangum apparently kicked and slapped the young veteran, and Montgomery pulled out a pocketknife and cut his employer’s throat. The Ku Klux Klan wanted to lynch the black sharecropper, but instead the state police whisked Montgomery out of town, tried and convicted him of murder, and ten months later executed him in the gas chamber at Central Prison in Raleigh.(18)

State authorities shipped the sharecropper’s remains back to Monroe. Robbed of their lynching, however, the local chapter of “the invisible empire” let it be known that Bennie Montgomery’s body belonged not to his family, but to the Ku Klux Klan. “They was gonna come and take Bennie’s body out and drag it up and down the streets,” J. W. McDow, another African American veteran, recalled. “I rather die and go to hell before I see that happen.”(19) A group of former soldiers met at Booker T. Perry’s barbershop and made a battle plan. When the Klan motorcade pulled up in front of Harris Funeral Home, 40 black men leveled their rifles, taking aim at the line of cars. Not a shot was fired; the Klansmen simply weighed their chances and drove away. Former U.S. Army PFC Robert F. Williams carried a carbine that night. So did three of the men who would become key lieutenants in the “black militia” that Williams organized ten years later.(20) “That was one of the first incidents,” Williams recalled, “that really started us to understanding that we had to resist, and that resistance could be effective if we resisted in groups, and if we resisted with guns.”(21)

Williams was in the Marine Corps in 1954 when he heard that the United States Supreme Court had struck down school segregation. “At last I felt that I was a part of America and that I belonged,” he wrote.(22) I was sure that this was the beginning of a new era of American democracy.” (23) When he came back to Monroe, however, he discovered that the Brown decision and the 1956 triumph of the Montgomery Bus Boycott provoked Ku Klux Klan rallies near Monroe with crowds as big as 15,000.(24) “The echo of shots and dynamite blasts,” the Southern Patriot reported in 1957, “has been almost continuous throughout the South.”(25) The Monroe NAACP dwindled to six members who then contemplated disbanding. When the newest member objected to dissolution, the departing membership chose him to lead the chapter. “They elected me president,” Robert Williams recalled, “and then they all left.” (26). Finding himself virtually a one-man NAACP chapter, Williams turned first to the black veterans with whom he had stood against the Klan that night back in 1946. Another veteran, Dr. Albert E. Perry, became vice president. Recruiting from the beauty parlors, pool halls, and street corners, Williams built a cadre of almost two hundred members within a year. (27) The Monroe branch of the NAACP became “the only one of its kind in existence,” Julian Mayfield wrote in Commentary in 1961. “Its members, and supporters, who are mostly workers and displaced farmers, constitute a well-armed and disciplined fighting unit.”(28)

Under the leadership of Williams and Perry, the Monroe NAACP soon launched a campaign in 1957 to desegregate the local tax-supported Monroe Country Club, where white children enjoyed free swimming lessons while black children swam in farm ponds and drainage ditches. Harry Golden, a prominent Jewish liberal from nearby Charlotte, called the Monroe swimming pool crusade “unwise and unrealistic.” Golden thought it “naive” of Williams to “experiment with the crude emotions of a small Southern agricultural community.”(29) But the decision to target the swimming pool was not a matter of ideology or tactics; several local African American children had drowned in these isolated and unsafe “swimming holes.” Golden was right, however, about what “crude emotions” could incite. The Ku Klux Klan blamed Dr. Perry for the resurgent black activism and a large, heavily armed Klan motorcade attacked the physician’s home one night that summer. Black veterans greeted the nightriders with sandbag fortifications and a hail of disciplined gunfire. The Monroe Board of Aldermen immediately passed an ordinance banning Ku Klux Klan motorcades, a measure they had refused to consider prior to the gun battle .(30)

An even more vivid local drama dragged Monroe onto the stage of international politics on October 28, 1958. Two African American boys, ‘Tuzzy” Simpson and Hanover Thompson, ages eight and ten, met some white children in a vacant lot. A kissing game ensued in which the ten-year-old Thompson and an eight-year-old white girl named Sissy Sutton kissed one another.(31) Rarely in history does an incident so small open a window so large into the life of a place and a people, a window that revealed both the visceral power of sexual questions in racial matters and the complex dynamics of Cold War politics for the African American freedom struggle .(32)

After the kissing incident, Sissy Sutton’s mother reported that she “would have killed Hanover myself if I had the chance.” (33) The girl’s father took a shotgun and went looking for the two boys. Neighbors reported that a white mob had roared up to the Thompson home and threatened not only to kill the boys but to lynch their mothers. (34) Later that afternoon, police officers spotted Hanover Thompson and Fuzzy Simpson pulling a wagon loaded with soft drink bottles. “Both cops jumped out with their guns drawn,” Thompson recalled. “They snatched us up and handcuffed us and threw us in the car. When we got to the jail, they drug us out of the car and started beating us.” The local juvenile court judge reported to Governor Hodges that the police had detained the boys “for their own good, due to local feeling in the case.”(35)

Authorities held the two boys for six days without permitting them to see parents, friends, or attorneys. Passing gunmen fired dozens of shots into the Thompson home. Klan terrorists torched crosses on the lawn.,”(36) For many white citizens, the case seemed to confirm the sexual fears that accompanied their vision of where school desegregation would lead. “If [black children] get into our rural schools and ride the buses with our white children,” one local woman wrote, “the Monroe ‘kissing’ incident is only a start of what we will have.’ (37). On November 4, Judge J. Hampton Price convened what he termed “separate but equal” hearings for the white parents and the black boys .(38) Denied the right to engage counsel or to confront their accusers, Hanover Thompson and Fuzzy Simpson were sentenced to Morrison Training School For Negroes. If they behaved well, Judge Price told the boys, it might be that they could be released before they were twenty-one. (39)

Robert Williams saw in the ‘Kissing Case” not only the irritational sexual lynch-pin of white supremacy but a unique political opportunity. The Monroe NAACP set in motion what Time magazine called “a rolling snowball” of worldwide publiCity.(40) In front of audiences across the country, Williams told stories of the two incarcerated boys and the freedom struggle in the South. Soon the ‘Kissing Case” emblazoned front pages around the globe, forcing Governor Hodges to hire a team of professors from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to translate the tens of thousands of letters that poured into his office.(41) John Shure, head of the United States Information Agency at the Hague, reported that he himself had received over 12,000 letters “even though the response does not appear to have been organized.” (42) While the White House and the State Department expressed alarm at the damage to U.S. foreign relations, Williams had a ready answer: “If the U.S. government is so concerned about its image abroad, then let it create a society that will stand up under world scrutiny.” (43)

Governor Hodges soon launched a public relations campaign of his own to, as an aide urged the governor, “give the NAACP a taste of its own medicine ... [and] place the whole Confederacy in your debt.” The aide suggested to the governor that “by hitting directly at the communist connection, we might be able to convince people of the insincerity of these protests.” (44) The Federal Bureau of Investigation wrote to Governor Hodges that “Robert Williams has been under investigation for a considerable period of time” and that “you would have access to this information if you desire.” (45) The governor’s office then announced that the entire affair had been “a Communist-directed front,” that the families of both boys were “shiftless and irresponsible,” and that Hanover Thompson’s mother had “a reputation for using her daughters in prostitution.’ (46) The USIA and the U.S. State Department broadcast these charges around the world, apparently without convincing anyone. Three and a half months after Hanover and Sissy had kissed each other, Governor Hodges announced under enormous political pressure that “the home conditions have improved to the extent that the boys can be given conditional release.” (47)

The dynamics of racial conflict in Monroe not only undercut U.S. foreign policy but undermined the strategy of the national NAACP. The ‘Kissing Case” gained Robert Williams national attention. What was not well known was that some of the friends and allies he made during this period including Malcolin X, who invited him to speak at Harlem’s Temple Number 7 - raised money to buy military weapons for the Monroe NAACP.(48) The national office could not come to grips with either the urgent realities of racial politics in Monroe or the insurgent style of Robert F. Williams. The NAACP generally shunned so-called “sex cases” and any alliances that might leave the organization open to redbaiting.(49) Should the NAACP “ever get identified with communism,” Kelly Alexander, head of the North Carolina Conference of Branches, told a reporter, “the Ku Klux Klan and the White Councils will pick up the charge that we are ‘reds’ and use it as a club to beat us to death.”(50) Differences over strategy became bitter; Alexander complained to the national office that Williams “has completely turned his back on the one organization that is responsible for him being in the spotlight today,” while Williams griped that Alexander “sounds more like a Tom than ever.”(51) Roy Wilkins, the executive secretary of the national organization, began to refer to Williams in private as “Lancelot of Monroe.” (52)

In the late spring of 1959, two news stories from other parts of the South gripped black America. One was the lynching of Mack Charles Parker, accused of raping a white woman in Mississippi. Parker had been dragged from his cell and murdered by a mob that happened to have the jailer’s keys.(53) When Mississippi NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers heard the news of the Parker lynching, he told his wife, 1’d like to get a gun and start shooting.” (54) The other was the terrifying ordeal of four young black college students at Florida A&M Their double date after the college dance was interrupted by four white men with guns and knives. The drunken assailants forced the two 18-year-old black men to kneel at gunpoint while they undressed the two women and decided aloud which one they would kidnap and then gangrape.” In the wake of these notorious outrages, NAACP executive secretary Roy Wilkins conceded in a letter marked “NOT FOR PUBLICATION” that “I know the thought of violence has been much in the minds of Negroes.”(56) By early May, Wilkins admitted, the NAACP found it “harder and harder to keep feelings from boiling over in some of our branches.” (57)

Right on the heels of the Parker lynching and the terrors in Tallahassee, two pressing local matters brought Robert Williams and a crowd of black women to the Union County courthouse. B. F. Shaw, a white railroad engineer, was charged with attacking an African American maid at the Hotel Monroe. Georgia White, her attacker explained to the magistrate, had disturbed his sleep. Stepping into the hallway in his underwear, Shaw had struck the woman with his fist and kicked her down a flight of stairs. Slated for trial the same day, Lewis Medlin, a white mechanic, was accused of having beaten and sexually assaulted Mary Ruth Reid, a pregnant black woman, in the presence of her five children. (58) According to Williams, the black women of the Monroe NAACP had urged that two new machine guns that Julian Mayfield had smuggled into Monroe be tried out on Medlin before his trial.(59) “I told them that this matter would be handled through the law and the NAACP would help,” Williams recalled, “that we would be as bad as the white people if we resorted to violence.” (60)

The proceedings against the two white men compelled Williams to reconsider. The judge dropped the charges against Shaw in spite of the fact that he failed even to appear for court.(61) During the brief trial of Medlin, his attorney argued that he had been “drunk and having a little fun” at the time of the assault. Further, Medlin was married, his lawyer told the jury, “to a lovely white woman ... the pure flower of life ... do you think he would have left this pure flower for that?” He gestured toward Mary Ruth Reid, who began to cry uncontrollably.(62) Lewis Medlin was acquitted in minutes. Robert Williams recalled that “the [black] women in the courtroom made such an outcry, the judge had to send Medlin out the rear door.” The women then turned on Williams and bitterly shamed him for failing to see to their protection. (63)

At this burning moment of anger and humiliation, Robert Williams turned to wire service reporters and declared that it was time to “meet violence with violence.” Black citizens unable to enlist legal support must defend themselves. “Since the federal government will not stop lynching, and since the so-called courts lynch our people legally,” Williams declared, “if it’s necessary to stop lynching with lynching, then we must resort to that method.” (64) The next day Williams revised his remarks and specifically disavowed the reference to lynching. “I do not mean that Negroes should go out and attempt to get revenge for mistreatments or injustice,” he added, “but it is clear that there is no ... court protection of Negroes’ rights here, and Negroes have to defend themselves on the spot when they are attacked by whites.” (65)

Banner headlines flagged these words as symbols of “a new militancy among young Negroes of the South.”(66) Enemies of the NAACP blamed this “bloodthirsty remark squarely on the national office. “Hatred is the stock in trade of the NAACP,” Thomas Waring of the Charleston News and Courier charged. “High officials of the organization may speak in cultivated accents and dress like Wall Street lawyers, but they are engaged in a revolutionary enterprise.” (67) That very morning, when he read the words “meet violence with violence” on the UPI wire, Roy Wilkins telephoned Robert Williarns to inform him that he had been removed from his post as president of the Monroe NAACP. (68)

The 50th anniversary convention of the NAACP that summer of 1959 became a highly public show trial whose central issue was whether or not Robert Williarns would remain suspended. The national office printed up a pamphlet, “The Single Issue In The Robert Williams Case,” and distributed it to all delegates.(69) “The national office not only controlled the platform,” Louis Lomax wrote, but “they subjected the Williams forces to a heavy bombardment from the NAACPs big guns.” Thurgood Marshall visited the New York offices of the FBI on June 4, 1959 and urged agents to investigate Williams “in connection with [Marshall’s] efforts to combat communist attempts to infiltrate the NAACP,” an FBI memorandum stated.(70) Roy Wilkins twisted every available arm. Martin Luther King deployed his eloquence. Daisy Bates, the heroine of Little Rock, agreed to denounce Williams for advocating armed self-defense after the national office consented to buy $700 a month in “advertising” from her newspaper so that she could pay armed guards at her home.(71) Forty speakers, including King, Bates, and dozens of distinguished lawyers, rose one after the other to denounce Williams. But when the burly ex-Marine from Monroe finally strode down the aisle to speak, he was neither intimidated nor penitent.(72)

“There is no Fourteenth Amendment in this social jungle called Dixie,” Williams declared. “There is no equal protection under the law.” He had been angry, they all knew, trials had beset him, but never had he intended to advocate acts of war. Surely no one believed that. But if the black men of Poplarville, Mississippi had banded together to guard the jail the night that Mack Parker was lynched, he said, that would not have hurt the cause of justice. If the young black men who escorted the co-ed who was raped in Tallahassee had been able to defend her, Williams reminded them, such action would have been legal and justified “even if it meant that they themselves or the white rapists were killed.” “Please,” he beseeched the assembly, “I ask you not to come crawling to these whites on your hands and knees and make me a sacrificial lamb.” And there the pleading stopped. “We as men should stand up as men and protect our women and children,” Williams declared. “I am a man and I will walk upright as a man should. I WILL NOT CRAWL”. (73) In a controversy that the Carolina Times called “the biggest civil rights story of the year,” however, the NAACP convention upheld the suspension of Robert Williams.(74) The next day, Daisy Bates wrote to the Attorney General of the United States to complain about dynamite attacks on her home in Little Rock: ‘We have been compelled to employ private guards,” she wrote.(75)

Two weeks after the 1959 NAACP convention, FBI agents reported to J. Edgar Hoover that Williams “had recently begun selling a newsletter known as The Crusader on the streets of Monroe.” (76). The Crusader’s self-proclaimed mission was “ADVANCING THE CAUSE OF RACE PRIDE AND FREEDOM.” Sample mailings yielded several thousand subscribers across the country for The Crusader. Within weeks, the first published biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. appeared, hastily assembled by a member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s board of directors. It was called Crusader Without Violence. (77)

These developments reflected the fact that, as Anne Braden of the Southern Conference Educational Fund wrote in late 1959, “the great debate in the integration movement in recent months has been the question of violence vs. nonviolence as instruments of change.” (78). In a series of public debates, Williams faced King, A. J. Muste, Bayard Rustin, David Dellinger, and others. He “drew a large audience to his debate with the pacifists,” George Weissman of the Socialist Workers Party wrote to Carl Braden in Loulsville, “and handled himself quite well.” (79) Among white Southerners, Williams argued, “there is open defiance to law and order throughout the South today.” Where law and order have broken down, he said, only self-defense can prevent murder by armed zealots who ‘ either believe they are killing for God or have abandoned conscience altogether. Always careful to endorse the methods espoused by King, Williams made the case for flexibility: “nonviolence is a very potent weapon when the opponent is civilized, but nonviolence is no repellent for a sadist.” Furthermore, he pointed out, “nowhere in the annals of history does the record show a people delivered from bondage by patience alone.” (80)

In a response to Williams published in Liberation and widely reprinted, Martin Luther King, Jr. conceded that white violence had brought the movement to “a stage of profound crisis.” The Supreme Court’s 1954 mandate and even the triumph at Montgomery had yielded small tokens, elaborate evasions, and widespread terror. Only three responses presented themselves. One could practice “pure nonviolence,” King said, but this path “could not readily attract large masses, for it requires extraordinary discipline and courage.” A position that encompassed legitimate self-defense was more practical. King pointed out that “all societies, from the most primitive to the most cultured and civilized, accept [self-defense] as moral and legal. The principle of self-defense, even involving weapons and bloodshed, has never been condemned, even by Gandhi. Here was where King the politician sensed his constituency. “When the Negro uses force in self-defense,” King continued, “he does not forfeit support-he may even win it, by the courage and self-respect it reflects.” This widely accepted position was, of course, precisely Williams’s view-which was King’s problem.

The third and most unacceptable position, King argued, was “the advocacy of violence as a tool of advancement, organized as in warfare, deliberately and consciously.” Here, then, was the pale beyond which King sought to cast his adversary. “Mr. Robert Williams would have us believe that there is no collective or practical alternative,” King insisted. “He argues that we must be cringing and submissive or take up arms.” Essentially, Dr. King had invented his own Williams, a kind of black Geronimo plotting military strikes against the white man, and then responded to that Robert Williarns instead of the calm but defiant man who had spoken. Lacking theological training and combative in his manner, Williams was vulnerable to this caricature. But the philosophical position from which King centered his own argument-preferring nonviolence, but endorsing “the principle of self-defense, even involving weapons and bloodshed” - was ‘precisely the position that Williams had taken. (81)

In 1961, Reverend Paul Brooks, employed by King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and James Forman, soon to become president of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, came to Monroe in the company of 17 Freedom Riders fresh out of jail in Jackson, Mississippi. The young insurgents arrived in Monroe to launch a nonviolent campaign in Robert Williams’s backyard, though Forman later denied any intention to undermine Williams. One of the Freedom Riders announced that he had come to Monroe because he considered “Mr. Robert F. Williams to be the most dangerous person in America.” Another proclaimed: If the fight for civil rights is to remain nonviolent, we must be successful in Monroe. What happens here will determine the course taken in many other communities throughout the South.” (82)

Williams had a similar understanding of the stakes. I saw it first as a challenge,” he recalled, “but I also saw it as an opportunity to show that what King and them were preaching was bullshit.” (83) Two weeks of picketing at the Union County Courthouse grew progressively more perilous for the Freedom Riders. Crowds of hostile white onlookers grew larger and larger. Finally, on Sunday afternoon, August 28, a mob of more than 5,000 furious white people attacked the 30 demonstrators, badly injuring many. The nonviolent crusade swiftly deteriorated into mob gun battles. After a long night of terror, Williams and his family fled first to Canada, then on to Cuba, to escape the hordes of FBI agents who combed the countryside in search of them. One of the agents assigned to search for Williams reported his frustrations to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover: “Subject has become something of a ‘John Brown’ to Negroes around Monroe and they will do anything for him.” (84)

The FBI dragnet never snared Williams, but it did not take Hoover long to hear from him. Every Friday night from 11:00 to midnight on Radio Havana, Williams hosted “Radio Free Dixie,” a program that from 1961 to 1964 could be heard as far away as New York and Los Angeles. Taped copies of the program circulated in Watts and Harlem. (85) From Cuba, Williams continued to edit The Crusader for about 40,000 subscribers .(86) Copies of The Crusader traveled down the Mississippi backroads with Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee organizers; in 1964, when SNCC began to veer away from nonviolence, members cited Williams approvingly in the fierce internal debates. (87)

Though he became friends with Che Guevara and Castro himself, Williams yearned to return home and resisted the pressure to make his own politics conform to the Soviet line. Williams persuaded Castro to let him travel to North Vietnam in 1964, where he swapped Harlem stories with Ho Chi Minh and wrote propaganda aimed at African American soldiers. (88) In 1965, the Williams family relocated to Beijing, where they became friends with Mao Tse Tung and moved in the highest circles of the Chinese government for three years. When the Nixon administration moved toward opening diplomatic relations with China in the late 1960s, Williams bartered his almost exclusive knowledge of the Chinese government for safe passage home and a Ford Foundation-sponsored post at the Center For Chinese Studies at the University of Michigan. (89) Robert Williams spent the last 27 years of his life as a writer and activist in the small, troutfishing village of Baldwin, Michigan. At his funeral in Monroe, North Carolina on November 22, 1996, Mrs. Rosa Parks told the congregation that she and those who marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. in Alabama had always admired Robert Williams “for his courage and his commitment to freedom. The work that he did should go down in history and never be forgotten.” (90) Above the desk where Williams completed his memoirs just before his death, there still hangs an ancient rifle-a gift, he said, from his grandmother.


1. In late September of 1966, Hugh Pearson reports, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale sat in the library of the North Oakland Center and constructed the theoretical basis for the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, relying heavily on Negroes with Guns. See Hugh Pearson, The Shadow of the Panther. Huey Newton and the Price of Black Power in America (Reading, Mass: Addison-Wesley, 1994), 28, 109. David Horowitz, who worked closely with the Black Panthers for a time, calls Negroes with Guns the most important intellectual influence on Newton. See Peter Collier and David Horowitz, Destructive Generation: Second Thoughts about the Sixties (New York: Summit, 1989), 146. Clayborne Carson names Williams as one of two central influences-the other being Malcolm X-on the formation of the Black Panthers. See Clayborne Carson, “The Black Panther Party,” in Encyclopedia of the American Left, ed. Mari Jo Buhle et al. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992), 96.

2. August Meier and Elliott Rudwick, CORE. A Study in the Civil Rights Movement, 1942-1968 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1975), 202-4.

3. Danny Lyons, Memories of the Civil Rights Movement (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992), 147.

4. Anne Leslie, “Exciting in Form, Ugly in Content,” (Los Angeles) People’s World, July 3, 1965, p. 3. “LIVE is only running out of bookings now,” Frank Greenwood wrote to Williams six months after the play opened. “We appeared in Watts and really shook up and inspired the brothers out there.... My folks are ready, man! And particularly the young ones.... We did a free show for Watts and Venice teenagers at the center and afterwards they got up en masse and applauded.” See Frank Greenwood to Robert F. Williams, December 1, 1965, box 1, Robert F Williams Papers, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, hereafter cited as Williams Papers.

5. Anne Braden, Southern Patriot 21, no. 2 (February 1963): 2.

6. Clyde Appleton to Robert F. Williams, September 20, 1965, box 1, Williams Papers.

7. Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Social Organization of Nonviolence,” in A Testament of Hope: The Essentials Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. James M. Washington (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1991), 31.

8. Marcellus Barksdale, “Robert F. Williams and the Indigenous Civil Rights Movement in Monroe, North Carolina,” Journal of Negro History 69, no. 2 (spring 1984): 75; H. Nelson Walden, History of Monroe and Union County (Monroe, 1963), 15.

9. S. E. Williams, “Application Blank No. 15,” John Herman Williams Collection. I am grateful to Mr. Williams for sharing this and other family documents.

10. Crusader 1, no. 4 (July 18, 1959): 2; “The History of Our Family Reunion,” Robert and Mabel Williams Family Collection. 1 am grateful to Mrs. Mabel R. Williams for sharing family documents.

11. Robert F. Williams interview transcript, Robert C. Cohen Papers, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, hereafter cited as Cohen Papers, 53; Monroe Enquirer-Journal, “Monroe Historical Edition,” September 1974, 4-13,

12. “To the Colored Voters of Union County,” campaign flyer from Black History file, The Heritage Room, Union County Courthouse, Monroe, North Carolina.

13. See J. Morgan Kousser, The Shaping of Southern Politics: Suffrage Restriction and the Establishment of the One-Party South (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974), 76.

14. Robert Williams, “Someday I’m Going Back South,” Daily Worker, Detroit edition, April 9, 1949.

15. Crusader 1, no. 4 (July 18, 1959): 2; “The History Of Our Family Reunion,” Robert and Mabel Williams Family Collection; Tyson interview with Robert F. Williams, September 2, 1996.

16. Transcript of the Robert F. Williams interview with James Mosby, 18, Ralph Bunche Oral History Collection, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University, hereafter cited as Williams interview with Mosby.

17. John Dittmer, Local People.. The Struggle For Civil Rights In Mississippi (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 1-9.

18. Monroe Enquirer, June 31, 1946, 1, and March 31, 1947, 1.

19. J. W. McDow interview with Timothy B. Tyson, September 17,1993, hereafter cited as MeDow interview.

20. McDow interview; Woodrow Wilson interview with Marcellus Chandler Barksdale, Duke Oral History Collection, hereafter cited as Wilson interview with Barksdale; B. J. Winfield interview with Marcellus Chandler Barksdale, Duke Oral History Collection, hereafter cited as Winfield interview with Barksdale.

21. Williams interview with Mosby.

22. Southern Patriot 18, no. 11 (January 1960): 3.

23. Clayborne Carson et al., eds., The Eyes on the Prize Reader (New York: Penguin, 1991), 36.

24. (Charleston) News and Courier, September 21, 1956, 1-13, reports attendance at a Union, South Carolina rally at 12,000 to 15,000. Monroe Enquirer, March 17, 1958, 1, estimates that 1ast year ... cross-burnings and meetings here attracted thousands.”

25. Southern Patriot 15, no. 1 (January 1957): 1.

26. Williams interview with Mosby.

27. Williams, Negroes with Guns (New York: Marzani & Munsell, Inc., 1962), 50-51; McDow interview; Winfield interview with Barksdale; Wilson interview with Barksdale; Williams interview with the author; Williams interview with Mosby.

28. Julian Mayfield, “Challenge to Negro Leadership: The Case of Robert Williams,” Commentary, April 1961, 298.

29. Harry Golden, “Monroe, North Carolina and the ‘Kissing Case, Carolina Israelite, January 1955, 9 and January-February, 1959, 2.

30. “Article 111 Parades, Cavalcades, and Caravans,” in Code of The City of Monroe, 473-475, North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

31. Kelly Alexander to Roy Wilkins, “A Report of Activities of the North Carolina State Conference of Branches in Reference to the Case of David Simpson and James H. Thompson of Monroe, North Carolina,” December 26, 1958, NAACP Papers.

32. See Patrick Jones, “ ‘Communist Front Shouts Kissing Case to the World: “The Committee to Combat Racial Injustice and the Politics of Race and Gender During the Cold War,” M.A. thesis, University of Wisconsin, 1996.

33. George Weissman, “The Kissing Case,” Nation, January 17, 1959, 47.

34. Gloster B. Current to Roy Wilkins, December 23, 1958, NAACP Papers. See also Charlotte Observer, January 12, 1959, 2-A; Carolina Times, January 10, 1959, 1; Monroe Enquirer, November 20, 1958, 1.

35. James Hanover Thompson interview with Timothy B. Tyson, May 13, 1993, hereafter cited as Thompson interview; J. Hampton Price to Luther H. Hodges, November 26, 1958, Box 423, “Segregation” folder, Governor Luther H. Hodges Papers, North Carolina Department of Archives and History, hereafter cited as Hodges Papers.

36. Thompson interview; Chicago Defender, January 17, 1959, 3.

37. Charlotte Observer, February 2, 1959, 2-B.

38. Chester Davis, “Press in North Gives Distorted Versions,” (Winston-Salem) Journal and Sentinel, February 8, 1958, 1.

39. “Transcript of Statements Made by Attorney Conrad Lynn During Interview on the Frank Ford Show,’ Radio Station WPEN, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on June 20, 1959, from 12:40 until 1:35 AM,” NAACP Papers.

40. The Time story, which appeared in the international edition of the magazine, was reprinted in full in the Monroe Enquirer, February 9, 1959,1.

41. Robert E. Giles to University of North Carolina President William C. Friday, February 6, 1959, Hodges Papers.

42. Basil L. Whitener to Luther H. Hodges, March 2, 1959, Hodges Papers.

43. Williams recounted these remarks in Crusader 4, no. 2 (August 1962): 4.

44. John Briggs to Bill Sharpe, cc to Luther H. Hodges, February 23, 1959; Bill Sharpe to Luther H. Hodges, February 12, 1959; Luther H. Hodges to Bill Sharpe, February 19, 1959, all in Hodges Papers.

45. 0. L. Richardson to Luther H. Flodges, n.d., Hodges Papers.

46. Chester Davis, “Communist Front Shouts Kissing Case to the World,” (Winston-Salem) Journal and Sentinel, February 8, 1958, 1.

47. Monroe Enquirer, February 16, 1959, 1.

48. Cohen Papers, 382. Malcolm referred to Williams as “my very good friend.” See David Gallen, ed., Malcolm X as They Knew Him (New York: Carrois’ Graf, 1992), 164.

49. Dan T. Carter, Scottsboro: A Tragedy of the American South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969).

50. Chester Davis, “Communist Front Shouts Kissing Case to the World,” 1.

51. Kelly M. Alexander to Roy Wilkins, “A Report of Activities of the N.C. Conference of Branches in Reference to the Case of David Simpson and James Thompson of Monroe, N.C.,” NAACP Papers; Robert F. Williams to George Weissman, December 17, 1958, Committee to Combat Racial Injustice Papers, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, University of Wisconsin, hereafter cited as CCRI Papers.

52. Roy Wilkins to P. L. Prattis, “Personal, Not For Publication,” May 28, 1959, NAACP Papers.

53. Howard Smead, Blood Justice: The Lynching of Mack Charles Parker (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).

54. Mrs. Medgar Evers with William Peters, For Us, the Living (New York: Ace, 1970), 194.

55. Roy Wilkins, “Report of the Secretary to the Board of Directors for the Month of April 1.959,” NAACI‘ Papers. See also Washington Post, May 3, 1959, 4; (Baltimore) Afro-American, May 9, 1959; (Durham) Carolina Times, May 23, 1959, 1; New York Times, May 7, 1959, 22.

56. Roy Wilkins to P. L. Prattis, “Personal, Not for Publication,” May 28, 1959, NAACP Papers.

57. Afro-American, May 30, 1959, 4; Roy Wilkins, Standing Fast: The Autobiography of Roy Wilkins (New York: Penguin, 1982), 265.

58. Monroe Enquirer, January 26, 1959, 1, and March 9, 1959, 1; New York Post, January 27, 1959, 4, May 7, 1959, 1, November 11, 1959, 1; Crusader 4, no. 7 (April 1963): 4; Carolina Times, February 7, 1959, 2, and January 31, 1959, 1.

59. Julian Mayfield, in his unpublished autobiography, claims that “a famous black writer made touch with gangsters in New Jersey and bought me two sub-machine guns which 1 took to Monroe.” See Julian Mayfield, “Tale From The Lido,” Julian Mayfield Papers, The Schomberg Center for the Study of Black Culture, New York Public Library. I am grateful to Kevin Gaines for sharing these materials.

60. Williams interview with Mosby.

61. Referral From May 11 Board Meeting,” I; Southern Patriot, vol. 18, no. 11 (January 1960): 3.

62. New York Post, May 7, 1959; Monroe Enquirer, May 7, 1959, 1; see also Jones, “ ‘Communist Front Shouts Kissing Case to the World,- 127.

63. Williams interview with Mosby.

64. “Rec’d via phone from UPI-May 6, 1959,” NAACP Papers; New York Times, May 7, 1959, 22.

65. “Roy Wilkins, Executive Secretary, Complainant, against Robert F. Williams, Respondent, Brief for Respondent,” 1-2, NAACP Papers.

66. New York Times, May 7, 1959, 22; (Jackson, Mississippi) StateTimes, 1.

67. News and Courier, May 7, 1959.

68. Text of telegram from Roy Wilkins to Robert Williams, May 6, 1959, NAACP Papers.

69. “The Single Issue in the Robert Williams Case,” CCRI Papers.

70. Federal Bureau of Investigation Subject File, Thurgood Marshall, telegram from SAC, New York to Director, FBI, June 5, 1959. My thanks to Alex Charns for sharing these documents.

71. Daisy Bates to Roy Wilkins, July 23, 1959, Daisy Bates Papers, State Historical Society of Wisconsin.

72. Louis Lomax, The Negro Revolt (New York: Signet, 1962), 112-114.

73. Pittsburgh Courier, July 25, 1959, 1; Crusader, July 25, 1959, 1.

74. Carolina Times, January 5, 1960, 1.

75. Daisy Bates, The Long Shadow of Little Rock (New York: David McKay Co., 1962), 162.

76. Robert Franklin Williams Federal Bureau of Investigation subject file, in possession of the author, hereafter cited as RFW/F131.

77. L. D. Reddick, The Crusader without Violence: A Biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1959).

78. Southern Patriot 18, no. 11 (January 1960): 3.

79. George Weissman to Carl Braden, October 20, 1959, Carl and Anne Braden Papers, State Historical Society of Wisconsin. See also Crusader 1, no. 14 (September 26, 1959): 6.

80. Liberation, September 1959. See also Carson et al., Eyes on the Prize Reader, 110-13.

81. Carson et al., Eyes on the Prize Reader, 110-113.

82. Crusader 3, no. 6 (August 21, 1961): 3; James Forman interview with Timothy B. Tyson, January 17, 1997.

83. Williams interview with Mosby.

84. RFW/F131.

85. Robert Perkins to Robert F. Williams, Robert F. Williams Papers, University of Michigan.

86. United States Senate, Ninety-first Congress, Second Session, Part 1, Hearings Before the Subcommittee to Investigate the Administration of the Internal Security Act and Other Internal Security Laws of the Committee on the Judiciary, Testimony of Robert F. Williams, February 16, 1970, 90.

87. Danny Lyons, Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992), 147.

88. Sidney Rittenberg, “Recollections of Robert Williams,” May 4, 1997, unpublished essay in possession of the author. See also Cohen Papers, 312; “Listen, Brother,” Williams Papers.

89. Rittenberg, “Recollection of Robert Williams,” 3. See also Williams, “While God Lay Sleeping: The Autobiography of Robert F. Williams,” typescript in the possession of Timothy B. Tyson, 237-319. My thanks to Robert Williams and the Williams family for sharing this manuscript.

90. Mrs. Rosa Parks, eulogy for Robert Williams, November 22, 1996, Central Methodist Church, Monroe, North Carolina.


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