In Memoriam--Robert F. Williams
Black freedom movement loses giant
Reprinted from JUSTICE SPEAKS, newspaper of Black Workers for Justice, November 1996.
Rob Williams, one of the most important leaders of the African American people during this century, died of Hodgkin's disease in Baldwin, Michigan, on October 16. His health ended several years of struggle with the debilitating effects of cancer. The Monroe, North Carolina, native was world renowned for his leadership of the Black community of Monroe in their resistance to Klan terror and the advocacy of the right of Black people to defend themselves against violent attacks. As a result of his leadership role in 1961, the Southern ruling class, using the Klan and local law enforcement authorities, decided to move against Rob, under the guise of trumped up kidnapping charges. In evading certain assassination by the Klan, Rob, his wife Mabel, and their two children were forced to flee into exile for 8 years, first in Cuba and then in China.
While in exile, Rob lent his voice and leadership to the young Black liberation movement. He continued to publish The Crusader, which he started in Monroe in the late 1950s. He also produced a radio broadcast called "Radio Free Dixie," encouraging the African American people to organize against racist tyranny. During this time Rob was named President in exile of the Republic of New Africa.
From 1957 when he returned home from the Marine Corps, Rob became a staunch fighter against oppression. It is said that when he got off the bus in Monroe, he witnessed Jesse Helms, Sr., father of the North Carolina Senator, and then Police Chief of Monroe, beat a Black woman. He described this as a defining moment for him and the point at which he made a commitment to take the battlefield against white supremacy and injustice.
Many around the world learned about his leadership when the NAACP suspended him from the presidency of the chapter he had saved from going out of existence because they formed a rifle club (with a National Rifle Association charter) to protect the Black community of Newton from armed attacks by whites. He was also known for his defense of two Black youth, ages 7 and 9, who were charged with rape and jailed after the 9-year-old allowed a 6-year-old white girl to kiss him on the cheek. In what became known as the "kissing case," worldwide attention was focused on North Carolina. [Another departed freedom fighter, Conrad Lynn, assisted the NAACP.]
The "swimming pool" case also led to notoriety and the increased anger of the racists in the region. The Black community engaged in a struggle to use the local swimming pool that had been constructed with federal funds. Local white authorities would not allow integrated use, nor would they consent to separate use. When the Black community refused to give up and did not accept promises of construction of a pool at some undefined date in the future, the Town government filled the pool with concrete rather than let the Black community use it.
The final confrontation came when the Black community came to the aid of non#violent Freedom Riders who were demonstrating in front of City Hall. The demonstrators had been attacked by a vicious mob who had beaten SNCC (Student Non#Violent Coordinating Committee) activist James Forman with a shotgun, splitting his head open. Unsuccessful efforts were made to rescue them and get them back to the Black community. Armed Black people set up defenses at the border between the white section of town and the Black community of Newton.
A white couple "wandered" into the Black community and was surrounded by angry people who had prepared themselves for an assault by a caravan of gun-wielding racists. Rob protected the couple in his home. [In spite of this], word came back to Rob that he was going to be held accountable for all of the violence that was taking place. Knowing that they would soon come to kill him, he left town. At Rob's funeral, N.C. State Representative Pete Cunningham said that "There is no doubt that if Rob had not left town he would have been killed."
Pursued by 500 FBI agents, Rob and his family were forced out of the country into exile, spending 5 years in Cuba and 3 years in the People's Republic of China.
Robert Williams presented the Black Movement to other national movements in the world. While in exile, Rob and his wife Mabel published The Crusader and broadcast "Radio Free Dixie." In 1963, at Williams' request, Mao Tse-Tung issued his historic statement in support of the African American struggle.
Rob returned to the U.S. in 1969 and fought extradition until 1974 when the charges were dropped. He lived in Baldwin, Michigan, where he continued his work against racism in dealing with the criminal justice system, education, and housing, among other things. He wrote his autobiography. Historian Tim Tyson is about to publish a biography of Rob entitled "Radio Free Dixie."
Robert Williams was an important link between the southern based Civil Rights movement and its challenges to Jim Crow and unlawful discrimination, and the Black Liberation Movement with its perspectives on the right of self-determination, human rights, and international ties. He also highlighted the leadership of ordinary working folks, who were factory workers and farmers, and showed that they not only had a stake in fighting against the stifling daily oppression in the South, but had the ability to organize themselves and participate in their own liberation.
The link in the movements was in evidence at the funeral as Rosa Parks sat in the front row. Sister Parks indicated that while they were struggling in Montgomery, Rob was struggling in Monroe. They both lived in Michigan in recent years and were friends.
Ironically honored by southern custom
In contrast to the tense and warlike atmosphere of Monroe on August 27, 1961, the town of Monroe provided a police escort for the funeral and the police that blocked traffic put their hands over their hearts (both Southern small town customs) as the procession passed. Equally ironic was the fact that Rob's "Homecoming" was held at one of the largest white churches in town.
None of this suggests that the white ruling class and racists have forgiven Rob. What it does reflect, however, is that Rob was and continues to be a giant among human beings, who cannot be ignored and must be respected. His legacy is so important to our youth at a time when our churches are being burned and our youth are engaged in fratricide.
Memorials for Rob were held November 1, 1996, in Detroit and New York.
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