Robert F. Williams, Modern Abolitionist
— Charles Simmons
THE FIRST TIME I saw Robert and Mabel Williams, they were sitting on a couch chatting with a diplomat from Tanzania and a Mexican student in the lounge at Havana, Cuba's Riviera Hotel one July evening in 1964. "Rob," as everyone called him, was a robust ex-Marine. Beneath his campesino's straw hat, he wore a big smile which belied the FBI "Wanted" posters describing him as "armed and extremely dangerous."
Robert F. Williams had gained national attention in 1959 when, as president of the Union County, North Carolina NAACP, he advocated meeting "violence with violence," urging Blacks to arm themselves against the Ku Klux Klan. The NAACP leadership booted him out, but community supporters re-elected him. From there, his road to Cuba had been circuitous.
During the mid-1950s reign of the KKK and McCarthyism, Rob had returned to Monroe, North Carolina, after a stint in the Marines only to find that anti-Black violence had escalated. In reaction to desegregation, Klansmen were conducting drive-by shootings throughout the African-American community.
In addition, there had been the notorious "Kissing Case" in which a pre-teen white girl in the excitement of a chance reunion with a Black childhood playmate kissed him on the cheek. When the happy child ran home and told her mother what she had done, her outraged mom reported the Southern "rape." The boy and his buddy, both about 10 years old, were arrested, charged and convicted without trial, and placed in detention.
That probably would have been the end of the story had not Robert Williams got involved. He called the national NAACP leadership, which not only ducked the issue but shortly thereafter expelled Williams from the chapter leadership. So Williams called on the European press.
The case become an international cause celebre. Only after former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt sent a note to then-President Dwight Eisenhower urging him to "do something about this" was something done. The boys were released.
Williams later chronicled his experience in a book, Negroes With Guns, which received wide support from human rights activists abroad and received favorable attention from Third World governments.
In the meantime, Williams had reorganized the defunct local chapter of the NAACP. To respond to the drive-by shootings, he organized an armed self-defense unit which set a trap for the Klan. The resulting shootout made the front pages of North Carolina's papers and provoked a massive response by the state troopers and federal agents who claimed that Williams had kidnapped a white couple.
The pair, who had driven through the African-American community during the confrontation, testified that they had gone voluntarily to Williams' home seeking safety. They said they were not harmed. Shortly afterward, authorities dropped the charges against everyone involved except community activists Mac Malory and Robert Williams.
In his book, Williams was unapologetic. "I am held responsible for this action," he wrote, "that for the first time in history American Negroes have armed themselves as a group, to defend their homes, their wives, their children, in a situation where law and order had broken down, where the authorities could not, or rather would not, enforce their duty to protect Americans from a lawless mob. I accept this responsibility and am proud of it."
With state troopers, federal agents and bloodhounds hot on his trail, modern abolitionist Williams was placed on the underground railroad by Canadians living in Toronto. They smuggled him first to Mexico and then to Cuba, where he tested Fidel Castro's promise that anyone fleeing political injustice would find a home there. Williams was soon producing his own radio program in Havana, which was beamed by shortwave directly to the United States.
President John F. Kennedy ordered the Navy to disrupt the broadcast by "jamming" the frequency. Frequently, Williams' program would switch frequency only to be jammed again and so on. The program was composed of jazz and denunciations of American racism, very much in content like some of the Pacifica Network of radio programs on public radio stations in San Francisco, New York City, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.
It was during the "Kissing Case" that I first learned about Rob. Following an NAACP organizing and fundraising speech by Thurgood Marshall, then a fiery attorney, at Detroit's King Solomon Baptist Church, I joined the youth chapter. At my first meeting, it was discussed whether or not Williams should have been expelled from the chairmanship of his local NAACP chapter.
As a 16-year-old, the debate seemed over my head. The following year, I joined the Air Force, and the Cuban Revolution became a reality. I eventually left the Air Force as a conscientious objector because of my opposition to, among other things, the U.S. invasion of Cuba.
I knew little about Castro or the revolution, but I had a good feeling about Malcolm X. In 1963, I visited Malcolm X's Harlem Mosque No. 7 and for the first time saw copies of Williams' smoldering newsletter The Crusader, then being published in Havana, for Malcolm had been a staunch supporter of Williams.
When I saw Malcolm and Fidel leaning over the balcony of Harlem's Hotel Theresa waving at African-American and West Indian-Harlemites, my thoughts were simply this: If Malcolm likes Castro, I can't fight against Cuba. Besides, if Williams was welcome in Cuba and allowed to produce a radio program and publish his newsletter, there must be some truth in his message.
Was there really a choice between the version of the State Department on the one hand and that of Malcolm and Williams on the other? I decided to go to Cuba and see it for myself. "Don't write on your passport application that you're going to Cuba," I and other students were advised. "Say you're going somewhere like Paris and you won't have any trouble."
The planning had to be kept secret or the FBI, who I was told to my astonishment engaged in tapping telephones and reading citizens' mail, would run rough interference to prevent the trip. We went from Detroit to Chicago to Philadelphia, where we met up with a larger group of rebels and hooked a flight to Paris. There we chartered a plane to Prague, where the next day a Black Cuban ambassador directed us to a small Cuban plane which was to take us the rest of the way.
That flight couldn't go directly. Because of U.S. pressure on countries doing business with Castro we had to refuel in specified airports. We stopped in Ireland, then flew to Newfoundland and on to tropical Havana. All that to get ninety miles from the U.S. border.
While in Cuba, we spent many days and evenings with Rob discussing the relationship between the African-American struggle and those of other movements for liberation, particularly in Africa and Asia. He encouraged us to accept the numerous invitations from the international diplomatic corps in Havana, whose members were anxious to meet militant U.S. youth who openly supported movements for independence in the former colonies.
Williams never told us what to say, but advised us to simply and honestly tell the story of racism in America. He warned us, "don't get into socialist theory," a favorite pastime for many activists of the period. Instead, he added, a clear presentation about injustice was something that all people everywhere understood and sympathized with, particularly those who had directly experienced colonialism.
[Williams lived in Cuba and later China between 1961 and 1969. In this period, during which he continued his writing on U.S. racism, he also developed political differences with the Cuban government around Black Power issues. He returned to the United States at the end of the 1960s --ed.]
At 71, the abolitionist from Monroe, North Carolina, who founded the Revolutionary Action Movement, who chaired the Republic of New Africa and who inspired the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, the Freedom Riders, the Student National Coordinating Committee and the Black Panthers, died in Grand Rapids, Michigan, after a protracted battle with Hodgkins disease.
Williams called himself a pamphleteer along the lines of Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells, whose command to youth was to "Agitate,agitate, agitate." Can anyone deny that he kept his promise?
ATC 66, January-February 1997