The biography of Robert F. Williams by Timothy B. Tyson provides a picture of the odyssey that the African American freedom movement took through the lens of Williams’ life: survival during the overwhelming hegemony of white supremacist groups prior to World War II, the significance of the War for inspiring black consciousness, the development of nonviolent resistance to Jim Crow, the struggles of the Black Power movement, and the sometimes tenuous but improved accommodation of the races after the turbulent Sixties.
Williams’ journey began with a seminal event in his life: as an eleven-year-old boy in 1936, he witnessed Jesse Helms, Sr., a policeman in Monroe, North Carolina, accost a black woman on the street, beat her, and drag her off to be raped. He never forgot the violence and the abuse, nor the laughter of white spectators. This, more than any other event, informed the future politics of Robert Williams.
Williams joined the army during World War II, but felt bitter over both the racism in the service, and the irony of blacks risking their lives abroad for “democracy” when they had no freedom at home. His unwillingness to be pushed around by white men in the army resulted in a stockade sentence, but at his hearing he said:
“I told them that I was black, and that prison did not scare me because black men are born in prison. All they could do was put me in a smaller prison.”
In the prison he felt proud, he later wrote, because “they would have preferred to have me as a nigger than locked up, but I preferred to be locked up than to be what they considered a nigger.”
Returning black veterans faced racial violence because whites were outraged at the idea that fighting alongside them in the war somehow gave blacks equal rights, or that they could now presume to be “as good as any white people.” Further, as Tyson avers, “behind the virulent opposition to racial equality was the ever-present shadow of miscegenation that undergirded white determination to preserve segregation.” What was good for the white goose was never good for the black gander. Thus, as Tyson reports, “the violence across the South immediately after the war produced dozens of dead, hundreds of injured, and thousands of terrified citizens for whom the protection of the law meant little or nothing.”
After 1945, the Cold War ironically marked a sea change for the struggle for equality, as America desired to prove the moral superiority of “democracy for all” to the Communist world. On the one hand, agitating against racial discrimination was now seen as aiding and abetting the Communist cause. On the other, the U.S. was interested in countering negative publicity vis-à-vis the Communists.
Egregious behavior by southern white supremacists still characterized the South, however, and Robert Williams strove to do something about it. He organized other black veterans in an attempt to protect the black citizens of Monroe from the very active Ku Klux Klan. He clashed with the NAACP about his use of defensive tactics; “nonviolence,” he contended, “depended on the conscience of the adversary; “rattlesnakes,” he observed, “were immune to such appeals, as were many Southern white supremacists.” What Williams advocated, then, was the principle of “armed self-reliance.” He did not agree with Black Power groups that violence was an end, or even a means, to racial justice. Rather, he saw it as just a necessary component of self-defense because protection by the law was not available to blacks in the South.
He constantly tweaked the leadership of the country on its hypocrisy. When Adlai Stevenson defended the Bay of Pigs incident to the U.N. on the grounds of Cuba’s oppressive regime, Williams sent him a telegram:
“Please convey to Mr. Adlai Stevenson: Now that the United States has proclaimed support for people willing to rebel against oppression, oppressed negroes of the South urgently request tanks, artillery, bombs, money and the use of American airfields and white mercenaries to crush the racist tyrants who have betrayed the American Revolution and Civil War. We also request prayers for this undertaking.”
Williams was forced to flee to Cuba and later China after a race riot in Monroe during which he organized an armed defense. As in many instances in the South, the victims were blamed for the outbreak and perpetuation of violence. While abroad, Williams began broadcasting “Radio Free Dixie” every Friday night, to provide encouragement and support to Southern blacks. He was finally allowed back in the U.S. after the Nixon Administration made its rapprochement with China, and was able to live out his life quietly in Michigan until his death from Hodgkin’s disease in 1996.
Throughout his life, Robert Williams fought FBI harassment (which included threatening potential employers not to hire him because he advocated the “Communist” idea of “equality”); he fought white supremacists in his community who tried to kill him and his family; he fought the national black leadership for trying to ostracize him for what they considered to be inflammatory tactics; and he fought the national white leadership for not taking a moral stand to help their own citizens live peaceful lives.
Tyson argues that Williams’ life and influence among other black leaders in the Civil Rights Movement demonstrates that the relationship between the nonviolent and aggressive philosophies of resistance are more complex than commonly believed. The current version of history served up to America that stresses the centrality of the nonviolent protest, as Tyson writes:
“. . . idealizes black history, downplays the oppression of Jim Crow society, and even understates the achievements of African American resistance. Worse still, our cinematic civil rights movement blurs the racial dilemmas that follow us into the twenty-first century.”
Tyson wants us to know that the toppling of Jim Crow was a complicated matter, and that nonviolence alone probably could not have accomplished it. He wants us to know that “there existed among African Americans an indigenous current of militancy, a current that included the willingness to defend home and community by force.” He wants us to be aware that blacks, whenever possible, did in fact strive to protect their homes and their families even when it could mean serious injury or death.
Robert Williams would have been amazed and elated over the results of the 2008 presidential election. His courage and inspiration were surely pivotal in making this day happen. We can only hope he was watching somewhere, and rejoicing.
Published by The University of North Carolina Press, 1999
You can hear some excerpts from Radio Free Dixie here.