The Long March of A Rebel

— Bill Mullen

Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams & The Roots of Black Power
by Timothy B. Tyson
(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999)
$29.95 hardcover.

PRIOR TO THIS excellent book, the life of Robert F. Williams was the covert epic of African-American male radicalism. The grandson of slaves and a mentor to Mao; the gun-toting specter of Jesse Helms’ worst nightmares; the man who met them both and found Castro soft on American racism and Martin Luther King ideologically “emasculated;” the author of a book – Negroes with Guns – whose title and text carried the political punch of revolutionary pulp fiction – Williams had straddled by the time of his death in 1996 Africa and Asia, Socialism and Black Nationalism, the NAACP and the Detroit Republic of New Africa.

Timothy Tyson has done Williams, and scholars of 20th century world radicalisms, a great service with Radio Free Dixie.

Tyson’s biography is definitive in its coverage of Williams’ life between his birth in North Carolina in 1925 and his exile to Cuba in 1961. Tyson has accessed not only Williams’ extensive collection of private papers at the Bentley Library at the University of Michigan, where Williams returned as a fellow at the Center for Chinese Studies after five years in the People’s Republic of China, but virtually all of the newspapers, magazines and scholarly writings – slender as they are – relevant to Williams’ life.

The book is a significant advance in scholarship over Robert Cohen’s 1972 biography of Williams, Black Crusader, though it lacks that book’s acutely sympathetic exploration of ideological complexities in Williams’ thought. Indeed the strength and weakness of Tyson’s book are cut from the same cloth: He is so close to the life of Robert Williams that the narrative and narrative drive prevent fascinating detours into myriad unresolved questions and problems raised by his subject’s own life, thought and work.

At the same time, future scholarship on Williams and Black radicalism is unthinkable without reference to Tyson’s book.

Forming of a Revolutionary

The life began where the political work fermented, in Monroe, North Carolina. Williams’ father was a boiler washer in a textile town where young Blacks practiced resistance to white supremacy by smashing windows and organizing schoolboy cults.

In early pages Tyson overdetails the familiar abuses of Jim Crow to explain Williams’ decision to follow his brother up north to Detroit and a job at Ford. He worked at the River Rouge plant, the youngest worker on the assembly line, reading Langston Hughes and joining the militant Local 600 of the UAW.

Here the convergent and divergent political forces that would foster Williams’ ecumenical radicalism first took hold. Race rebels in the union and white communists in the city simultaneously exhorted liberation, especially after the April 1943 riots that left many Black workers dead.

“I wasn’t interested in politics,” Tyson quotes Williams in response to his occasional readings of the Daily Worker during this period and attendance at union demonstrations. “These things sounded quite good, the idea of equality, the denial of the power of one man to exploit another man, of equal justice, also the fact that men shouldn’t be allowed to hog the money, or some men to hog the property, that it should be collectively owned.” (39)

Despite this declaration, Williams by Tyson’s account was first drawn to socialism primarily for its anti-racism rather than for its emphasis on proletarian solidarity or revolution.

After brief work at Mare Island Naval Yard in Port Chicago, CA, a marriage to high school sweetheart – steadfast militant and lifelong partner Mabel – the birth of his first son, Robert Jr., and a return to Detroit, Williams moved towards fuller political engagement.

He submitted the short story “Someday, I’m Going Back South” to the Daily Worker and enrolled at the historically Black West Virginia State College presided over by longtime Black activist John W. Davis. In 1950 Williams enrolled at the North Carolina College for Negroes in Durham and met Communist Party organizer Junius Scales.

He published one article in Paul Robeson’s newspaper Freedom, and in 1953 published a poem in the Socialist Workers Party newspaper The Militant. “Go Awaken My People” was a significant prefiguration of Williams’ later political direction:

Go awaken my people from Texas to Virginia,
Tell them of our glorious brothers in the colony of Kenya.
Go tell my people that the dawn has come,
Sound the trumpet, beat the drum!

The Kissing Case Defense

In the early 1950s, Williams began reorganizing the Monroe NAACP. His size, vociferousness and public persona made him a marked man. He received death threats and began carrying a .45 automatic on errands in Monroe.

In 1958 the gun figuratively went off. David Ezell “Fuzzy” Simpson, 8, and James Hanover Grissom Thompson, 10, were playing in the white section of Monroe when a white girl – imitating a TV show or movie – kissed Thompson on the jaw. The boys were taken into custody and held after the girl’s mother learned the news.

“The Kissing Case” was born straight into the world media, and Robert Williams’ life changed forever. Williams formed the Committee to Combat Racial Injustice in connection with the case. Conrad Lynn, the radical Black attorney, called Williams after reading about the case in the New York Post.

Lynn was a lawyer for the Emergency Civil Liberties Union and had already defended pacifists and CORE members who had ridden into the south on buses to test Supreme Court rulings on segregation laws and interstate travel.

In 1958 Lynn arrived in Monroe with George Weissman, a Socialist Workers Party activist. The SWP worked behind the scenes to support Williams’ brilliant – and ultimately successful – public defense of Thompson and Simpson.

Yet according to Tyson, the experience catalyzed Williams’ suspicions of what he perceived as white leftist opportunism, even as it smeared him with the “Communist subversion” label and made him a marked man for the FBI. Though he depended on SWP money and support during the kissing case defense, Williams claimed then and later that for the SWP race “was incidental to the main problem of the working class.” (114)

Here, as elsewhere in the book, Tyson downplays the important role of socialists and the Socialist Workers Party in particular in its assistance and defense of Williams throughout his long career.

For example, while Tyson notes that socialists and Fair Play for Cuba Committee connections constituted something like a “modern-day Underground Railroad” for Williams and his family as he later fled trumped-up kidnapping charges to Cuba, the book glosses over Williams’ deep connections to figures like Vernal and Anne Olsen, who provided both cover for Williams and distribution of the Crusader before and during his protracted exile.

[Williams was indicted for “kidnapping” a white couple in Monroe, who in fact had taken refuge in his home when they became caught in an armed standoff between Williams’ group and marauding Klansmen.—ed.]

Tyson perhaps doesn’t interrogate enough Williams’ Cold War disavowals of left influence that are, at the very least, complicated by published accounts of Williams’ political development by Conrad Lynn and Robert Cohen.

Toward Armed Self-Defense

In the late 1950s Williams took to lecturing on Black history at northern union halls while publicly challenging King’s anti-violence position with unminced condemnation of Cold War America’s freedom song:

We must be willing to kill if necessary ... Since the federal government will not bring a halt to lynching in the South and since the so-called courts lynch our people legally, if it’s necessary to stop lynching with lynching, then we must be willing to resort to that method.

Williams’ oratory earned him a suspension from the NAACP (the decision was backed by legal opinion from Thurgood Marshall) and provided the boilerplate for his first publishing venture, The Crusader Weekly Newsletter, which debuted July 26, 1959.

The magazine’s linkage of Black struggle with Asian and Latin American revolutions immediately earned Williams the support and attention of northern Black radicals like Julian Mayfield, John Hendrik Clarke, John Oliver Killens, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee and Shirley Graham Du Bois.

In 1958 Williams met Malcolm X, whose rhetoric would ferment from Williams’ seeds into his own vintage grapes of wrath. Meanwhile Williams fended off allegations of communism and Islamism: “We have been accused of being black racists ... this is not true. We have been accused of being agitators, to this charge WE PLEAD GUILTY!”

Williams went next to Cuba in the aftermath of his founding role in Fair Play for Cuba. His first trip there resulted in a special issue of the Cuban literary magazine Lunes de Revolution on “Los Negroes en USA,” featuring work by James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Harold Cruse, Alice Childress and then LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka). Of their second trip there together Baraka would later say, “You have to understand, Robert Williams changed my life.”

Why? As Tyson presents it, Williams became the wedge in the quest by Black and other radicals of color for a socialist internationalism that would expose the historical and racial limits of state communism (Williams: “The Russian line is to love the white yankee and kiss his ass”) and bridge the geographic and ideological divide of African, Latin American, Asian and American anticolonial struggle.

Revolutionist in Exile

In Cuban exile, Williams sent revolutionary soundwaves onto American shores in the form of Radio Free Dixie, a weekly broadcast mixing progressive jazz and red-hot raps against Kennedy and Civil Rights era liberalism and for revolution in Cuba, North Vietnam and China.

In 1963 Williams began sending letters to Mao urging a statement on race relations in the U.S. In the aftermath of the Birmingham 16th Street Baptist church bombing Mao assented, declaring: “support for the American Negroes in their struggle against racial discrimination and for freedom and equal rights.”

At the same time Williams’ book Negroes With Guns, an account of the confrontation in Monroe as well as a manifesto in defense of Black self-defense, began slow circulation in the United States. Together, Tyson shows, these activities began the gradual fusion of Maoism, guerilla warfare and cultural revolution by 1960s Black radicals from Baraka to Huey Newton to the Panthers to Malcolm X. Tyson demonstrates persuasively that none of these figures or events would look remotely the same without Williams’ precursive influence.

By 1964 Williams was accusing Cuban communists of go-slow bureaucratic reactionaryism. He followed a 1963 visit to the Peoples Republic and North Vietnam with a brilliant scheme to live there as well. He arrived in China in 1965.

Here, Tyson (or his publisher) simply run out of room. The book, which had been the author’s doctoral dissertation at Duke, doesn’t delve into the fairly extensive records Williams kept of his China years.

Tyson summarizes meetings with Mao and Zhou Enlai, while noting the use Chinese leaders made of Williams in their efforts both to blacken U.S. eyes and blacken up the Cultural Revolution. This is on display, for example, in the Bentley Library copy of Robert Williams in China, a full-length film produced by the Chinese government showcasing Mabel and Robert’s choreographed tours of factories and ceremonial viewings of Cultural Revolution opera.

Tyson is flatly skeptical about Williams’ political efficacy and posture in these years. “A hard truth for all who admire Williams’ courage and leadership in the freedom movement” he writes, “is that, snared in exile, he became less a player than a pawn in the Cold War.”

This seems unfair. Williams’ China letters and Crusader issues reveal at best a hermetic and na<139>ve relationship between Williams and virtually everything Chinese (he didn’t speak the language, for starters). Yet Williams clearly understood Cold War China as his one true free Black space, his “home in dat rock” and launching pad for continued bombs against Western racism and Soviet misfeasance, although badly and oddly conflated at times, devil take the hindmost.

Indeed Williams was as alien to the variously limited Cold War discourses of his time as he was a fugitive from a racist and repressive American judicial system. What is thus perhaps most interesting about Williams in China is his real and symbolic role up through the late 1960s in the cultural politics of Black diasporic revolutionary quest.

In China, Robert Williams became “Robert Williams” just as the native and exiled Richard Wright became for Black radicals of the 1940s and 1950s “Richard Wright,” that is, a metonym and symbol for virtually any revolutionary meaning that could be foisted upon him. This was the import of his adoption by the Revolutionary Action Movement and Republic of New Africa movements in the United States, both of which named him president-in-exile.

Working primarily out of Detroit, RAM and RNA proposed different variations on Black nationalist themes, including southern state secession of slave descendants. Meanwhile, Williams reports that Stokely Carmichael, Bobby Seale and Kathleen Cleaver wrote to him in China to ask that he be “Foreign Minster of the Panthers.”

Williams in China, in other words, became the one-man capitol on a utopian Black revolutionary map of the world. It was a map both necessary and impossible to overlay onto world politics as practiced globally circa 1966, despite the honorific efforts of Williams’ armies of disciples in Los Angeles, Oakland, Detroit and Newark.

Coming Home

Tyson also writes that it is possible that Williams cut a deal with the State Department in order to return to the United States in 1970, exploiting Nixon’s diplomatic opening and fulfilling a homeboy’s desire for terra cognita. His Ford fellowship at Michigan resulted in little of note, save an unfinished autobiography. The State of North Carolina did drop its kidnapping charges in 1976.

A maturing Williams, frustrated by what he considered the impetuous and impulsive nature of Black nationalist politics, in effect dropped out, retreating to the north Michigan woods with Mabel. Occasional letters to the press, critical commentaries and invited lectures kept him visible as a touchstone especially for young Black radicals in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Perhaps reflective of the period, Williams grew politically muted and adrift, rejoining the NAACP, disconnecting from militant organizations, even finding room to praise Deng Xiaoping reformism in China. His own prodigious output of radical words and ideas, sadly, was also put on ice. Williams died, of Hodgkins disease, October 15, 1996.

ATC 86, May-June 2000