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Robert F. Williams

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, 10 January 2008

[ Robert Williams ] Robert Franklin Williams (February 26, 1925–October 15, 1996) was a civil rights leader, author, and the president of the Monroe, North Carolina NAACP chapter in the 1950s and early 1960s. At a time when racial tension was high and official abuses were rampant, Williams was a key figure in promoting both integration and armed Black self-defense in the United States.

Early life

Williams was born in Monroe. His grandmother, a former slave, gave Williams the rifle with which his grandfather, a Republican campaigner and publisher of the newspaper The People's Voice, had defended himself in an earlier era. At eleven, he witnessed the ruthless beating to the ground of a black woman by police officer Jesse Helms, Sr, father of US Senator Jesse Helms. He travelled north for work during World War II and witnessed brutal race riots in Detroit in 1943. Drafted in 1944, he served for a year and a half in the segregated services before returning home. In 1947, he married Mabel Robinson, who shared his dedication to the cause of African-American social justice.

Kissing Case

He first entered the national civil rights struggle working with the NAACP as a community organizer in Monroe. When he defended two young black boys who were jailed after being accused of kissing a white girl there in 1958, he became famous around the world. His publicity campaign, inviting a barrage of embarrassing headlines in the global press, was instrumental in shaming the officials involved into eventually releasing them. The controversy was known as the “Kissing Case”.

Black Armed Guard

One of the recurring activities of the local NAACP at the time had been the integration of swimming pools. Ongoing peaceful demonstrations drew gunfire with impunity in the presence of law enforcement officers.

Williams had already started the Black Armed Guard with the National Rifle Association's blessings, to defend the local black community from Ku Klux Klan activity. KKK membership numbered some 15,000 locally at a time when gun ownership was fairly common in the South. Black residents fortified their homes with sandbags and resorted to being trained with rifles on hand in the event of night raids by the Klan. Followers attested to Williams' advocacy of the use of advanced powerful weaponry instead of more traditional firearms. Williams insisted his position was defensive in the face of provocation as opposed to a declaration of war: “armed self-reliance” in the face of white terrorism. Threats against Williams' life and on his family would become more frequent.

A married white man attempted to rape a pregnant black woman, severely beating her. Though the black community was in an incendiary state, Williams was more inclined to oblige the state to fulfill its official obligations. When the outcome resulted in practical acquittal, he began to take a more strident position on armed defensive engagement. He debated the merits of nonviolence with Martin Luther King Jr at the NAACP convention of 1959. When he was threatened with suspension for six months from the local NAACP post over disagreements about his beliefs with the national leadership, he responded that his wife would take over his position and he would continue his leadership through her.

Freedom Riders

When King dispatched “freedom riders” from the North to Monroe to campaign there in 1961, the local NAACP chapter served as their base. Tensions grew to the point where there were armed standoffs in which the police openly took the side of the local population.

Around this time, a white couple unfamiliar with the area drove through the black section of Monroe on their way into town, but were stopped in the street by a temper-strained crowd. For their safety, they were taken to William's home. He initially told them that they were free to go, but Williams soon realized that the crowd would not grant safe passage; therefore, the white couple was lodged until later that night in a house nearby until they were able to safely leave the neighborhood.

Though some may have perceived the safekeeping and lodging arrangements as Southern hospitality, North Carolina law enforcement soon admonished Williams, and he was accused of kidnapping the unfortunate drivers of the past evening. With little hope for any understanding from the justice system, he and his family fled the state with local law enforcement in pursuit. His eventual interstate flight triggered persecution by the FBI.

On August 28, 1961, an FBI Most Wanted warrant was issued in Charlotte, North Carolina, charging Williams with unlawful interstate flight to avoid prosecution of kidnapping. The FBI document lists Williams as a “free lance writer and janitor” and states that (Williams)”…has previously been diagnosed as a schizophrenic and has advocated and threatened violence… considered armed and extremely dangerous.” With the issuance of this prejudicial warrant, signed by J. Edgar Hoover himself, Williams was forced to leave the country.

Exile and return

Williams found his way to Cuba, where he regularly made radio addresses to Southern blacks on “Radio Free Dixie”, a station he established with assistance from Cuban President Fidel Castro. Though the station's signal was aggressively blocked by the US Government, it was for a time widely known among Black Americans as a voice against oppression and supportive of armed revolution. During this stay, together with his wife, he published the newspaper, The Crusader. It was also here that he wrote Negroes With Guns, which had a significant influence on Black Panthers founder Huey P. Newton.

Some communist party members opposed his methods, suggesting they would divide the working class in the US along racial lines. In a May 18, 1964 letter from Havana to his U.S. lawyer, Civil Rights Attorney Conrad Lynn (which can be found in Lynn's papers at Boston University's Howard Gottlieb Archival Research Library), Williams, for instance wrote:

…the U.S.C.P. has openly come out against my position on the Negro struggle. In fact, the party has sent special representatives here to sabotage my work on behalf of U.S. Negro liberation. They are pestering the Cubans to remove me from the radio, ban THE CRUSADER and to take a number of other steps in what they call 'cutting Williams down to size.'…

The whole thing is due to the fact that I absolutley refuse to take direction from Gus Hall's idiots…I hope to depart from here, if possible, soon. I am writing you to stand by in case I am turned over to the FBI…

Sincerely, Rob.

In 1965, he and his wife left Cuba to settle in China where he was well received. He lived comfortably there and associated with higher functionaries of the Chinese government.

In a January 6, 1968 letter to Williams that can be found in Conrad Lynn's papers, Williams' lawyer wrote: “I have been requested by an ad hoc political committee to arrange for you to return to the U.S. immediately so that you may become a candidate for President…” From China, Williams then replied to Lynn's proposal in a January 17, 1968 letter to Lynn which stated:

The only thing that prevents my acceptance and willingness to make an immediate return is the present lack of adequate financial assurance for a fight against my being railroaded to jail and an effective organization to arouse the people.

I don't think it will be wise to announce my nomination and immediate return unless the kind of money is positively available…

William's lawyer then wrote Lynn in a January 24, 1968 letter that “You are wise in not making a decision to come back until the financial situation is assured.” Because no financial backing could be found, no 1968 “Williams for President” campaign was, therefore, launched by African-American and white leftist supporters of Williams in the United States. By November 1969, however, Williams apparently had become disillusioned with the U.S. Left. As his lawyer, Conrad Lynn, noted in a November 7, 1969 letter to Haywood Burns of the Legal Defense Foundation (that can be found in Lynn's papers at the BU library):

Williams now clearly takes the position that he has been deserted by the left. How and whether he fits black militant organizations into that category I don't know. Radio Free Europe offered him pay to broadcast for them. So far he has refused. But he has not foreclosed making a deal with the government or the far right. He takes the position that he is entitled to make any maneuvre to keep from going to jail for kidnapping…

Williams was viewed very apprehensively by the US federal government which assumed he aspired to fill the vacuum of influence left after the assassinations of his good friend Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. J. Edgar Hoover received reports that blacks looked to Williams as a figure similar to John Brown. Attempts to contact the US government in order to return from exile were rebuffed consistently until the approaching period of d├ętente augured a warming of relations with the People's Republic of China. Suddenly his familiarity with the country after a period of residence there during the tumult of the Cultural Revolution came to be viewed as an asset. He served in an advisory capacity to the US government and was allowed to return home. The state of North Carolina eventually dropped all charges against him.

Later years

Williams was given a grant by the Ford Foundation to work at the University of Michigan Center for Chinese Studies. He wrote While God Lay Sleeping: The Autobiography of Robert F. Williams while battling Hodgkin's disease. At his funeral, Rosa Parks recounted the high regard he was held in by those who marched peacefully with King in Alabama.

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