When Rosa Parks spoke at Robert Williams’ funeral in Monroe, North Carolina on October 22, 1996, she said those who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Alabama admired Williams “for his courage and his commitment to freedom. The work that he did should go down in history and never be forgotten.” But the words of this champion of nonviolent protest may surprise those who know Williams believed in “armed self-reliance” and was “a very good friend” of Malcolm X.
Born in the small town of Monroe in 1925, Robert Williams was raised on stories from his former-slave grandmother Ellen and tales of his grandfather Sikes, who stumped North Carolina for the Republican Party during Reconstruction and published a newspaper called The People’s Voice . Before she died, Ellen Williams gave young Robert the rifle which his grandfather had wielded against white terrorists at the turn of the century.
Williams came face-to-face with racism early on. As an 11-year-old in 1936, he saw a white policeman, Jesse Helms, Sr. beat an African-American woman to the ground. Williams watched in terror as North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms’ father hit the woman and “dragged her off to the nearby jailhouse, her dress up over her head, the same way that a cave man would club and drag his sexual prey.”
During World War II, Williams went North to find work. He fought in the Detroit Riot of 1943, when white mobs killed dozens of black citizens. Drafted in 1944, Robert served for 18 months, fighting for freedom in a segregated Army. He returned to Monroe and in 1947 married Mabel Robinson, who shared his commitment to social justice and African-American freedom.
As president of the Monroe NAACP in the late 1950s, Williams watched as members of his community were denied basic rights, tormented by the KKK, and ignored in the courts. Seeing no other recourse, he began to advocate “armed self-reliance” in the face of the white terrorism. Members of his NAACP chapter protected their homes against the Klan with rifles and sandbag fortifications.
Williams’ advocacy of violence made him into an example at the 1959 NAACP convention. He had been removed from his post as Monroe NAACP president, and he listened at the convention as 40 speakers denounced him. He responded that he had called for self-defense, not acts of war: “We as men should stand up as men and protect our women and children. I am a man, and I will walk upright as a man should. I WILL NOT CRAWL.” His logic compelled Martin Luther King, Jr. to acknowledge that, “when the Negro uses force in self-defense he does not forfeit support — he may even win it, by the courage and self-respect it reflects.”
As the debate over violence and nonviolence raged in 1961, King dispatched “Freedom Riders” to organize a nonviolent campaign in Williams’ hometown. But white mobs caused the nonviolent crusade in Monroe to disintegrate into violence, and Robert and Mabel were forced to flee to Cuba to escape the hundreds of FBI agents who combed the countryside for them. One of the agents reported his frustrations to J. Edgar Hoover: “Subject has become something of a ‘John Brown’ to Negroes around Monroe, and they will do anything for him.”
In Cuba, Williams wrote Negroes With Guns , which was a pivotal influence on Huey P. Newton, founder of the Black Panther Party. He and Mabel aired a radio show and continued to publish their newspaper, The Crusader , for thousands of subscribers. In 1965, Williams moved his family to the People’s Republic of China, where they lived among the upper circles of the Chinese government during the Cultural Revolution.
When President Richard Nixon’s administration launched secret contacts with China in the late 1960s, Williams bartered his knowledge of the Chinese government for safe passage home and a Ford Foundation grant to work at the Center for Chinese Studies at the University of Michigan. He played a significant role in the historic opening of diplomatic relations between the United States and China.
In his battle against Hodgkin’s disease, Williams was as brave as he had ever been. His memoirs, While God Lay Sleeping: The Autobiography of Robert F. Williams , tell the compelling story of a man who risked his life for democracy and a humanitarian vision that was rooted in the finest traditions of African-American striving. Above the desk where he wrote hangs the ancient rifle that was a gift from his grandmother.
“1957: Swimming Pool Showdown” by Robert F. Williams appeared in Southern Exposure, summer 1980 in an issue on the Ku Klux Klan.
Timothy B. Tyson is a North Carolina native and an assistant professor of Afro-American Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison. His forthcoming book, Radio free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power, will be published by University of North Carolina Press.