Robert F. Williams: The Black Power Leader from Afar

Background of Robert F. Williams

In 1936, an eleven-year-old Robert F. Williams witnessed a white policeman, Jesse Helms, Sr. (father of North Carolina Senator, Jesse Helms), physically beating a black female. Williams recalled, “[Helms] 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,” and “her tortured screams as her flesh was ground away from the friction of the concrete.”[1] This violent account from his childhood, which influenced his pro-violent protesting, was his first memory he could recall experiencing or observing racism.

As head of the Monroe, NC chapter of the NAACP, Robert F. Williams’ approach to protesting inequality included a violence-driven action plan called, “armed self-reliance,” which included guns and sandbag defense walls around homes from the terrorization of the Ku Klux Klan. After being denounced at the 1959 NAACP Convention for his violent protesting approach, he responded saying, “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.”[2]

In 1961 Williams sheltered a white couple in his home as a riot broke out. The media labelled him as a kidnapper. The women who Williams sheltered said, “at the time, I wasn’t even thinking about being kidnapped . . . the papers, the publicity and all that stuff was what brought in that kidnapping mess.”[3] Because the justice system worked against the black community, Robert F. Williams and his wife were charged with kidnapping despite innocence. In fear of wrongful conviction, Robert and his family escaped prosecution to Cuba.

Robert F. Williams’ Influence in the Black Power Movement

The start of Robert F. Williams’ many sites of memory in the Black Power Movement began with his escape to Cuba. This sent a message of rebellion to the United States justice system and a message of hope to the oppressed black community in America as well. J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI at the time, said, “[Robert F. Williams] has become something of a ‘John Brown’ to Negroes around Monroe and they will do anything for him.”[4] As Williams’ departure to Cuba frustrated law enforcement, he became idolized to his community for his ability to cheat the unbeatable system against African-American.

Even though Williams’ left the United States, his story and his voice never stopped fighting against the racial injustices imposed upon black Americans. From Cuba he communicated through his radio show “Radio Free Dixie”. He preached about the racial inequalities and wrong doings in America. He reignited hope in them to continue to fight back against injustices. This site of memory created a public forum of communication and expression to a community that needed an outlet to drive hope in order to protest against racial oppression and injustice. “Radio Free Dixie” gives the first-hand, primary source experience of how the African-American community felt during this time period and how they were mistreated. In the following “Radio Free Dixie” snippet below, Robert F. Williams preaches, “[A] puppet show is staged in Washington. Yes, one negro goes to the White House as a member of the president’s cabinet; while another is gunned down like a wild dog for using a white folk’s toilet at a public service station.”[5]

These radio episodes are used as a site of memory today. Because of the international broadcasting “Radio Free Dixie,” the truth behind oppression, injustice, and mistreatment of the black community cannot be erased and forgotten. These episodes aren’t a white man’s poor attempt to commemorate the Black Power Movement. These are the first-hand perceptions and experiences of a black man who lost his home through gross mistreatment by the judicial system during the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements. By furthering the memory of the Black Power Movement, “Radio Free Dixie” episodes have become available through online platforms (i.e. YouTube). This conversion to modern preservation serves as a site of memory for “Radio Free Dixie” in the 21st century, which benefits the black community and their effort to learn from and not forget their oppression and mistreatment.  These digitalized radio episodes allow the words of Robert F. Williams to continually impact generations as a memorializing the efforts of the Black Power Movement and the truths of injustice against the black community in America.

In 1962 from Cuba, Robert F. Williams also penned his book “Negroes with Guns”. Williams discusses his experiences with racism, his stance on pro-violent protesting, and the dangers of non-violent protesting. This book was the single-most influential piece of writing on Huey P. Newton, the founder of the Black Panther Party.[6] Because of the immense impact “Negroes with Guns” had on the Black Panther Party, it heavily contributed to the ideals, perspectives, and strategies set in the Black Power Movement. Even though we are looking at Robert F. Williams as a non-Panther key male figure in the Black Power Movement, his ideals of pro-violent protesting and influence over the Black Panther Party founders leads me to believe that if he were not exiled to Cuba, he would have been a key Panther member.

Robert F. Williams, as a historical contributor to racial equality, is a monumental influencer to the beginnings of the Black Power Movement. Often times Black Power Movement commemorations can be seen more in northern states than in southern states where most of the protesting took place. However, Williams’ vocal and outspoken legacy leaves him as a sight of memory in Monroe, NC, where the state of North Carolina continues its dynamic political history on the issue of racial equality. He contributed hope to the black community through his sites of memory, including his rebellious escape to Cuba, his documented vocal expression against oppression in “Radio Free Dixie”, and his immense influence over the Black Panther Party with his ideals of pro-violent protesting in “Negroes with Guns”. Even though Robert F. Williams passed in 1996, he created physical sites of memory to continue his efforts of “Radio Free Dixie” and “Negroes with Guns” racial equality. Robert F. Williams rebelled against his oppression and being silenced by creating highly polarizing and influential works of memory that spoke volumes in America, even though he lived in Cuba. Because this sight of memory doesn’t incorporate Robert F. William’s return to America, viewers wouldn’t be properly informed on his lasting impact and presence in the African American community to the extent that Rosa Parks spoke at his funeral. Through the digitalization of “Radio Free Dixie” specifically, Robert F. Williams’ works are able to not be erased or forgotten and continue to educate future generations on the true conditions of the black community during the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements.

Quintin Schwartz

Sources

[1] Tyson, Timothy B. “Robert F. Williams, ‘Black Power,” and the Roots of the African American Freedom Struggle.” The Journal of American History, vol. 85, no. 2, 1998, pp. 540., www.jstor.org/stable/2567750.

[2] Tyson, Timothy B. “Robert F. Williams, ‘Black Power,” and the Roots of the African American Freedom Struggle.” The Journal of American History, vol. 85, no. 2, 1998, pp. 541 – 558., www.jstor.org/stable/2567750.

[3] Tyson, Timothy B. “Robert F. Williams, ‘Black Power,” and the Roots of the African American Freedom Struggle.” The Journal of American History, vol. 85, no. 2, 1998, pp. 564., www.jstor.org/stable/2567750.

[4] Tyson, Timothy B. “Robert F. Williams, ‘Black Power,” and the Roots of the African American Freedom Struggle.” The Journal of American History, vol. 85, no. 2, 1998, pp. 564., www.jstor.org/stable/2567750.

[5] Emmthreejonny. “Radio Free Dixie.” YouTube, 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ojwtUMZGB4c.

[6] “Negroes with Guns.” Wayne State University Press. http://www.wsupress.wayne.edu/books/detail/negroes-guns.

Photo Sources

Robert F. Williams. N.d. Wikipedia. Web. 28 Apr. 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_F._Williams.

 

One thought on “Robert F. Williams: The Black Power Leader from Afar”

  1. Hi, Quintin! I wrote my post on the role of radio in the Black Power Movement and I found your essay on Robert F Williams to be a great example of the radio’s power in this movement. I think it is particularly powerful how radio broadcasts transcend physical boundaries- seen in how Williams was able to share his thoughts and experiences with blacks in the US even while, if not even more so because, he was in Cuba. Radio quite literally amplifies voices which I think is especially symbolic in the case of the Black Power Movement as the voices being amplified typically had even less power than would be expected normally. Some differences I recognize in how radio was utilized during the 1970s lie in the fact that Williams’ messages were powerful because of the hope that lay in his individual narrative, while many other microcosms of radio used in the movement were successful because they identified common cultural and historical narratives shared amongst many, obtaining power through imagined community. I would be interested to see what impacts these different approaches had on the reception of these broadcasts and how people responded accordingly.

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