Williams, Robert F. 1925—
Robert F. Williams 1925—
Civil rights and political activist
Almost ten years before the formation of the Black Panther Party (a militant group formed during the “Black Power” movement), National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) branch president Robert F. Williams’s 1959 press statement advocating “meeting [racist] violence with violence” sent a wave of reaction through white and conservative black circles. As an ex-serviceman disillusioned by legalist and pacifist civil rights tactics, Williams launched a local campaign of armed self-defense in his hometown of Monroe, North Carolina. Beginning in 1961, he lived in exile in Cuba and the People’s Republic of China for eight years because of his alleged kidnapping of a white Monroe couple. Meanwhile, he established-through radio, newsletters, and correspondence- revolutionary black liberation front in the United States.
Robert Franklin Williams was born on February 26, 1925, in Monroe--a once thriving antebellum railroad town located 14 miles from the border of South Carolina. The son of a railroad boilermaker’s helper, Williams grew up in a seven-room, two-story home on Boyte Street. He attended Winchester School and took interest in history, geography, and writing. Though his school books portrayed slavery as socially beneficial, he was awakened to the brutal aspects of racism at age ten, when a policeman dragged a black woman down Monroe’s main street. Williams was haunted by the laughter of white onlookers and the victim’s screams. He recalled in his autobiography Negroes With Guns how “the cop was grinning as he pulled her by the heels, her dress up over her hips and her back being scraped by the concrete pavement.”
World War II
In 1942, at age 17 Williams left high school to receive vocational training as a machinist with the National Youth Administration (NYA). After his education at an NYA camp near Rocky Mount, North Carolina, he continued his studies at Elizabeth City State Teachers College (now Elizabeth City State University), an all-black, teachers college in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. One year later, he arrived in Detroit to gain employment in the city’s thriving war industry. Living with his oldest brother, Edward, he worked at Ford Motor
At a Glance…
Born Robert Franklin Williams, February 26,1925, in Monroe, NC; son of John Lemuel (a boilermaker’s helper) and Emma (Carter) Wi II lams; married Mabel R. Williams, 1947; children: Robert F. (deceased), John Chalmers. Education: Attended Elizabeth City State Teachers College (now Elizabeth City State University), El izabeth City, NC,c 1942; West Virginia State College, 1949; North Carolina State College, 1951; Johnson C Smith University, 1953.
National Youth Administration, machinist4n~training, 1942; Ford Motor Company, Detroit, Ml, machinist, 1943; Mare Island Navy Yard, San Francisco, CA, 1944; Daily Worker, contributor, 1947-48; worked as a field laborer in upstate New York, 1952; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Monroe, NC, branch president, 1955; launched local civil rights and self defense campaign, 1955-61; Crusad- er magazine, founder and publisher, 1959-C.1965, 1966; exiled in Cuba, 1961-66, People’s Republic of China, 1966-68; Radio Free Dixie (radio show), creator, 1962-65; Republic of New Africa (RNA), Detroit, president in exile, 1968; returned to the United States, 1968; resigned as president of RNA, 1969; American Program Bureau, lecturer, 1969-73; University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, consultant, 1970-71; People’s Association for Human Rights, Ine, organizer, legal advisor, 1974-. Author, Negros With Guns, Marzani & Munsell, 1962, Third World Press, 1973. Military Service: VS.Army, c.1943-46; US. Marine Corps, 1954-55.
Selected awards Malcolm X Black Manhood Award, Malcolm X Society, 1989; JB Gold Medal Award, John Brown Society, 1991; Outstanding Contributions, Association of Black Social Workers, 1987; Black Image Award, Lake/Newaygo NAACP, 1992.
Member; National Rifle Association (NRA), 1950-.
Addresses: Home-P.O. Box 611, Baldwin, Ml 49304.
Company as a mill operator. Williams also attended Communist Party meetings and read the organization’s publication, Daily Worker.Though he did not become a party member, Williams was drawn to the party’s program of racial equality.
After 18 months of profitable employment in Detroit, Williams faced the destructiveness of racial tensions again--the outbreak of the 1943 race riot. In the days that followed, rioting spread across the city, resulting in 34 deaths. Shortly thereafter, Williams took a six-month job at the Mare Island Navy Yard near San Francisco. Unable to tolerate the outbreaks of racial violence that occurred in the employee dormitories there, he quit and returned home to Monroe.
Drafted into the army, Williams was sent to Fort Bragg, North Carolina. After earning high scores on a radio aptitude test, he was transferred to a Signal Corps battalion at Camp Crowder, Missouri, to be trained as a radio operator. To his disappointment, however, he was assigned to a school for telephone linesmen. Before completing his telephone line training, he became ill and was re-assigned as a clerical typist. In the months following World War II, Williams experienced the effects of low morale that spread among Camp Crowder’s segregated black troops. Defiant of the harsh treatment by white officers, Williams was confined in the camp stockade for insubordination. As Robert Carl Cohen pointed out in Black Crusader, “Williams was proud of being in the stockade because he felt he was there for resisting an unjust system-not for committing a crime.” In 1946, after a six-month stay at Fort Lewis Washington, Williams received an honorable discharge without a good conduct medal.
Back in Monroe, Williams earned his high school diploma and wrote poetry and prose-works that appeared in Hearth Strings Journal and Westminster Magazine- as well as a weekly column in the Monroe Enquirer.Some months later, during another brief stint as an auto worker in Detroit, his short story, “Some Day I Am Going Back South,” was published in the Daily Worker.After leaving Detroit for Monroe, he attended college under the educational benefits of the G.I. Bill, which allowed members of U.S. armed forces to pay for their college education. He took courses in psychology and creative writing at West Virginia State College. During his year there, he joined the staff of the college newspaper, The Quill.He subsequently transferred to North Carolina College in Durham, where he studied literary classics and read the works of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin introduced to him by a group of college communists. In the fall of 1950, he continued his study of literature at Johnson C. Smith College in Charlotte.
When his G.I. benefits expired in 1952, Williams went to New York City to look for employment. Living with an aunt in Harlem, he took a job at the Curtis-Wright aircraft plant across the river in New Jersey. In New York he befriended a group of white left-wing intellectuals, some of whom were active in the American Labor Party. With the fall of war production, Williams lost his job and returned to Monroe. Desperate to support his family, he found employment as a laborer on a farm in upstate New York. In the Black Crusader, Robert Cohen wrote, “Sharing the lot with those migrant farm workers proved to Williams that exploitation isn’t limited to the cotton fields of Dixie or to blacks.”
Nearly destitute and only 29-years old, Williams raised bus fare and traveled to Los Angeles to work as a machinist in the city’s aircraft plants. By the time of his arrival, however, the post-Korean War recession had left few employment opportunities. Unable to find a job, he joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1954 to be trained as an information specialist. Instead of receiving training in communications, he underwent special combat training at Camp Pendleton, learning the use of rifles, machine guns, grenades, rocket launchers, and various infantry weapons. After refusing to salute the flag at a parade ceremony, he was sentenced to 180 days in the brig. After being released, he underwent special mountain warfare training in Nevada. Prior to embarking for a tour of duty in Korea, Williams was discharged.
Not long after his return to Monroe in October of 1955, Williams, joined the predominately white local Unitarian Fellowship and the Human Relations Group--a coalition of Unitarians, Catholics, and Protestants. Williams’s increasing civil rights activity prompted him to join the Monroe NAACP as well. One year later, the organization’s dwindling membership fell to six. Rather than dissolve the branch and risk the appearance of submitting to local racist pressure, members held an election and voted Williams in as president and Dr. Albert Perry as vice president. To build up the strength of the branch, Williams recruited members among black domestics, laborers in pool halls, and from the ranks of the unemployed. As opposed to the NAACP’s traditional membership of middle and upper-class professionals and intellectuals, Williams provided Monroe’s branch with a distinct working-class composition. Members ranged from white pacifists to African American war veterans who, as Williams described in Negroes With Guns, “were very militant and did not scare easy.”
A Call to Arms
Following the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decisionBrown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which called for an end to the “separate but equal” doctrine, Williams sought to desegregate Monroe’s Union County Library. Though he expected harsh opposition, the board chairman agreed, without protest, to desegregate the library. After Williams’s first victory, he moved to desegregate Monroe’s municipal swimming pool. Outraged over the deaths of several black children in backwoods swimming holes and the use of their tax dollars that went to support a segregated public facility, a large number of Monroe’s blacks supported the campaign. When city government officials ignored requests for obtaining equal swimming facilities, Williams suggested blacks could use the pool on a one-day-a-week basis. City officials argued that such an arrangement would prove too costly since the water would have to be drained each time black people used the facility. Determined to desegregate the pool, Williams led groups of black youths on sit-ins, organized protests by refusing to leave segregated establishments.
In retaliation against Williams’s civil rights activity, the Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist organization, held rallies. As the regional headquarters of the Klan, Monroe’s rallies attracted several thousand members from neighboring counties and South Carolina. After their evening gatherings, Klansmen rode by car cavalcade through Monroe’s black neighborhood of Newtown, honking horns, shouting obscenities, and firing pistols. Stepping up its campaign to quell the activities of Monroe’s NAACP, the Klan launched a petition campaign to drive Williams and Perry out of Union County.
Because the Monroe police department refused to intervene against the Klan, Williams urged Monroe’s black community to undertake a program of armed self-defense. Within a year of obtaining a gun club charter from the National Rifle Association (NRA), he recruited 60 members who armed themselves with military surplus weapons and mail-order firearms. As quoted in White Violence Black Response, Williams recalled how his self-defense unit “spent the summer in foxholes behind sandbags. We had steel helmets. We had gas masks. And we had a better communication system than they have now.”
As a result of death threats against Perry, Williams posted a 24-hour vigil outside the doctor’s home. On October 5, 1959, while the Klan made a routine night ride through Newtown, they unexpectedly met the fire of Williams’s defense guard. In Making of Black Revolutionaries, writer Julian Mayfield described the scene: “It was just another good time for the Klan… . Near Dr. Perry’s home their revelry was suddenly shattered by the sustained fire of scores of men who had been instructed not to kill anyone if it were not necessary. The firing was blistering, disciplined, and frightening. The motorcade, of about 80 cars, which had begun in a spirit of good fellowship, disintegrated into chaos, with panicky, robed men fleeing in every direction. Some abandoned their automobiles and had to continue on foot.”
The Double Standard
Following the incarceration of Dr. Perry on charges of performing an illegal abortion, Williams became increasingly involved in the defense of blacks wrongly accused of crimes. In October of 1958, two black Monroe youngsters, James Hanover Thompson age seven, and David “Fuzzy” Simpson age nine, were arrested on a charge of rape for kissing a white girl on the cheek. Though Williams contacted U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower and the national NAACP in regard to the matter, both parties failed to come the boys’ defense. Williams then brought in New York defense lawyer Conrad Lynn whose involvement in the case, along with photographs of the convicted youths in the New York Post and the London News Chronicle, prompted the NAACP to intervene. The boys were released on February 13, 1959. Despite the victory, Williams was disappointed with the national NAACP office. During the case, as Robert Shapiro pointed out in White Violence and Black Response, “Williams and the NAACP leadership saw each other as opponents rather than collaborators in a common cause.”
In the spring of 1959, a local white man was charged with the attempted rape of a pregnant young black woman, Mrs. Ruth Reed. In keeping with the old South’s double racial standard concerning attacks upon women, the white man was acquitted. Embittered by the court’s decision, Williams turned to the crowd of black men and women on the steps of the courthouse, and, as he was quoted in The Making of Black Revolutionaries, delivered his legendary statement: “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. We must meet violence with violence.“
Early the next day, NAACP executive director Roy Wilkins called Williams to confirm the statement. Williams informed Wilkins that he had not spoken on behalf of the NAACP and refused to retract the statement. A few hours later the national office suspended Williams for six months. “I first heard that I was suspended,” related Williams in Negroes With Guns, “when Southern radio stations announced and kept repeating every 30 minutes that the NAACP suspended me for advocating violence. “Though he appealed his suspension to the NAACP Committee on Branches and before the NAACP’s 50th anniversary convention in New York City, his suspension was upheld both times.
From Protest to Exile
In the weeks before appearing at the NAACP convention in New York City, Williams launched his newsletter, The Crusader.As Williams later explained in Negroes With Guns, “Through my newsletter… I started appealing to readers everywhere to protest the U.S. government, to protest the Justice Department; to protest the fact that the 14th Amendment [providing all U.S. citizens with equal protection under the law] did not exist in Monroe.” Williams gained reelection as president of Monroe’s NAACP chapter in 1960, the same year that lunch counter sit-ins occurred throughout the South, including Monroe. At this time Williams chose to reinstate picket lines at the town’s municipal swimming pool, a decision that nearly resulted in his death when an unidentified automobile ran his car off the road. Williams was not daunted, however. He retaliated by setting up an integrated picket line around Monroe’s courthouse.
In August of 1959 several Freedom Riders-members of the civil rights movement who rode buses to effect the desegregation of public transportation facilities-arrived in Monroe to assist in the Williams-led protest. Among them were Martin Luther King, Jr.’s representative Reverend Paul Brooks and James Forman. In his work The Making of Black Revolutionaries, Forman described Williams as a “determined man” who “wanted the world to know that law and order had broken down here, and that he was going to protect his home and family by any means necessary. “Under the supervision of Williams, Brooks and Forman drafted a ten-point petition and presented it to Monroe’s City Aldermen. The document even included demands for equal employment opportunities for Monroe’s black citizens. The petition, like Williams’s appeal to the U.S. Justice Department, proved unsuccessful.
As black and white Freedom Riders picketed outside the courthouse, local whites began to attack the demonstrators. The Klan sent out a call inviting whites to Monroe to help counter the Freedom Riders’ campaign. In late August, with threats on his life and the expectation of a Klan invasion of Newtown, Williams posted guards around his Boyte Street home. Around six o’clock in the evening, a white couple, the Steagalls, drove into Newtown. Entering Boyte Street, the Steagalls encountered several hundred blacks. Drawn outside his home from the sounds of shouting voices, Williams came upon the Steagalls surrounded by a crowd of blacks who sent up a cry of “Kill them, kill them!” Fearing for their lives, Williams led the Steagalls into his house. On the way to the front door, Mrs. Steagall repeatedly shouted, “We have been kidnapped!” Williams attempted to calm the couple, assuring them his motive was to protect them from the angry crowd. Alerted that the police had blockaded both ends of Boyte Street, Williams decided to flee rather than face arrest by state troopers.
Around nine o’clock that evening, Williams left Monroe with his wife and two sons and traveled to Harlem in New York City, where he learned of his indictment for kidnapping by the Union County Grand Jury. Though his indictment came after he crossed the North Carolina state line, Williams remained a fugitive wanted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). From Harlem he fled to the Canadian cities of Toronto and Montreal. Aware that Canadian authorities were also seeking his arrest, Williams sought refuge in Cuba-a country he had twice visited in 1960. In Negroes With Guns, Williams explained that he “could think of no other place in the Western Hemisphere than Cuba where a Negro would be treated as a human being; where the race problem would be understood. “From Vancouver, British Columbia, he crossed into the state of Washington, headed south into Mexico, and entered Cuba.
Through his Havana-based revolutionary radio program, Radio Free Dixie, and his Cuban edition of the Crusader, Williams called for blacks to take up arms against their white oppressors. In the pages of the Crusader he told how to launch a guerilla self-defense campaign with the use of Molotov cocktails and other homemade weapons. In a 1964 issue, reprinted in Black Protest Thought in the Twentieth Century, he wrote: “The hour is fast approaching when our people must make a decision to meekly submit to fascist forces of terror and extermination or surge forth to the battle to liberate ourselves, save America and liquidate its domestic enemies.”
In 1966 Williams left Cuba and sought refuge in the People’s Republic of China. He resumed publication of the Crusader and in 1968 published the pamphlet, “Listen Brother!,” which informed African American combat troops in Vietnam to stop fighting against their Asiatic “dark-skinned brothers.” In March of 1968, a group of African Americans gathered at the Shrine of the Black Madonna in Detroit to found the Republic of New Africa (RNA)--a revolutionary Marxist-Leninist organization dedicated to establishing a separate blacknation within five of the southern states in the United States. The RNA elected Williams as its president in exile.
Between 1968 and 1969, Williams twice visited Tanzania in east Africa. In the cosmopolitan Tanzanian city of Dar es Salaam, he met revolutionaries from Mozambique, Angola, Rhodesia, and South Africa. Not long before his return to the United States, Williams was quoted inThe New Racism, “I am not guilty of the crime. I am not a criminal, and I refuse to be intimidated on the grounds that I am. Those white people who are trying to frighten and oppress us cannot be allowed to get away with this…. I am going home to do whatever my people want me to and with the intention of leading.” While in Dar es Salaam, the U.S. embassy granted Williams a passport to re-enter the United States. In mid-September of 1969, he left London on a near-empty Trans World Airlines (TWA) jet and arrived in Detroit. After being taken to the federal building in downtown Detroit for a seven-minute hearing before Judge W. Kaess, Williams was released on $11,000 bond.
To celebrate Williams’s return, Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton, as quoted in The Black Panthers Speak, wrote, “Greetings to the Republic of New Africa and President Robert Williams. I am very happy to welcome you back home. I must add that it is perfect timing. And we need you very much, the people need you very much.” Despite the optimism of Newton and other leaders, Williams was disillusioned about the RNA due to the organization’s prevalent internal struggles. He resigned as its president in early December of 1969.
Since his resignation from RNA, Williams has been interviewed in scholarly publications and newspapers and appeared as a guest speaker before student groups, especially in Michigan, where he still lives. His work toward bettering the lives of African Americans continued with the formation of the People’s Association for Human Rights, yet another effort that garnered praise and gratitude. And even though his relationship with the NAACP has not always been a positive one, Williams has worked for the organization as a member and vice president of the Lake/Newaygo (Michigan) branch. This work earned him the chapter’s Black Image Award in 1992.
Black Protest Thought in the Twentieth Century, edited by August Meier, Elliot Rudwick, and Francis L. Broderick, Bobbs-Merrill, 1971.
Cohen, Robert Carl, Black Crusader: A Biography of Robert Franklin Williams, Stuart, 1972.
Foner, Phillip S.,The Black Panthers Speak, Da Capo, 1995.
Forman, James, The Making of Black Revolutionaries, Open Hand, 1985.
Geschwender, James A., The Black Revolt: The Civil Rights Movement, Ghetto Uprisings, and Separatism, Prentice Hall, 1971.
Lokos, Lionel, The New Racism: Reverse Discrimination in America, Arlington House, 1971.
Shapiro, Herbert, White Violence and Black Response, University of Massachusetts, 1988.
Williams, Robert F., Negroes With Guns, Marzani & Munsell, 1962 (reprinted by Third World Press, 1973).
Williams, Robert Franklin
Williams, Robert Franklin
February 26, 1925
October 15, 1996
Revolutionary nationalist Robert Franklin Williams, founder of the Revolutionary Action Movement and former head of a local NAACP branch in North Carolina, was born in Monroe, North Carolina, where he attended segregated public schools. He graduated from Winchester Street High School in 1944, was drafted into the army, and after his discharge worked briefly for the Ford Motor Company in Michigan before attending West Virginia State College in 1949. Williams enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1954 but was released when he protested being denied a position for which he was well qualified. In 1955 he returned to Monroe, and one year later he was elected president of the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), an ineffective branch with only six members. Williams recruited working-class and poor people of Monroe—domestic workers and sharecroppers—to the NAACP and wrote numerous articles to local newspapers denouncing racism and segregation. Under Williams's leadership, the Monroe NAACP developed into a forthright and militant organization of over 250 members.
The group pursued several cases in the late 1950s that demonstrate Williams's growing effectiveness. In 1958 Williams worked on behalf of two young black boys, aged seven and nine, who were found guilty and sent to reform school for playing a kissing game with white children. As a result of his efforts, they were eventually released after widespread publicity and international pressure. Williams and other NAACP members also mounted protests when Louis Medlin, a white Monroe resident charged in 1959 with assault with intent to rape a black woman who was eight months pregnant, was acquitted, despite an independent eyewitness.
White vigilante violence and legal setbacks that Williams and his allies encountered in their quest for racial justice made them increasingly skeptical of the impartiality of the legal system, the ability of the federal government to protect black citizens, and the nonviolent reform agenda of mainstream civil rights groups. Williams expressed this new militant consciousness in 1959, shortly after the Medlin case was decided, when he said, "If it's necessary to stop lynching with lynching, then we must be willing to resort to that method. We must meet violence with violence." As a result of this statement, national leaders immediately expelled Williams from the NAACP.
Despite his expulsion by the national board of the NAACP, Williams was reelected president of the local branch the next year. He then continued to lead protests and pickets in Monroe, and with his wife, Mabel, started a newsletter, Crusader. On August 27, 1961, Williams and other Monroe residents organized a demonstration in downtown Monroe to protest the segregated white swimming pool. As a white mob gathered to challenge the protesters, tension rose and violence erupted. Later that night a white couple driving past Williams's house met a group of angry black protesters. The couple claimed Williams had kidnapped them, and a county grand jury later indicted him on two counts of kidnapping. Williams, however, asserted that he was trying to protect the couple from the angry protesters outside his house.
Fearing for their safety, Williams, his wife, and their two children escaped that night and eventually went to Cuba, where they stayed until 1966. In 1962 he published an account of his experiences in Monroe, Negroes with Guns. While in Cuba, Williams helped form the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM), a Marxist organization that sought to achieve black liberation through the fundamental restructuring of the U.S. economic and political system. In 1966, the Williamses went to China for three years, finally returning to the United States in 1969. Williams lived in Michigan, where he found a job in 1971 at the Center for Chinese Studies at the University of Michigan. He fought extradition to North Carolina until the charges against him were dropped in 1976. Williams has since become a symbol of resistance for subsequent proponents of black self-defense and revolutionary nationalism.
See also National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Revolutionary Action Movement
Barksdale, Marcellus C. "Robert F. Williams and the Indigenous Civil Rights Movement in Monroe, North Carolina, 1961." Journal of Negro History 69 (Spring 1984): 73–89.
Forman, James. The Making of Black Revolutionaries. New York: Macmillan, 1972.
Tyson, Timothy B. Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.
Williams, Robert Franklin. Negroes with Guns. New York: Marzani and Munsell, 1962.
premilla nadasen (1996)