- President of Monroe, NC NAACP 1955 – 1961
- Lead an armed take-over of public swimming pool 1957
- Secured two gubernatorial pardons for children in the 1958 Kissing Case
- Founded Monroe NRA Chapter known as Black Armed Guard
- Founded “Radio Free Dixie” while exiled in Cuba 1962 -1965
- Authored Negros with Guns which inspired the Black Panther Party
- Published the newspaper The Crusader
- Traveled to Hanoi, Vietnam to aid the North Vietnamese
Robert F Williams was born on February 26, 1925, in Monroe, NC. He was the fourth of five children. His family had always been active in black liberation. Williams’ grandfather stumped for the Republican Party and edited the newspaper The People’s Voice at the turn of the century.
If his grandfather gave him a love for journalism and information, his grandmother gave him his belief in self-defense. Williams received his first gun from her. The firearm had been used in his family to fight off white mobs in the past. Young Robert understood the necessity to use firearms in the freedom struggle.
Jesse Helms Sr. a police officer beat and drug a black woman by her hair as part of an arrest. An 11-year-old Robert had to witness this first hand. He saw the level of violence used as an ordinary course of business in the segregated south. The police officer from this incident became chief of police and father senator Jesse Helms Jr. Robert will grow to be a pioneer in Civil Rights and journalism.
Coming to adulthood, Williams understood he would have to find work. He moved to Detroit to work in a factory. A race riot broke out in the city in 1943. The experience solidified in Williams’ mind that the condition of black America is the same throughout the country. In 1944, A segregated army drafted Williams.
Williams joined the NAACP upon return to the states and revitalized a struggling Monroe, NC chapter. A massive and unrelenting Ku Klux Klan (KKK) constantly harassed this chapter. Monroe had 12,000 people, and 7,500 were Klansmen and Klanswomen. Williams becomes president of the chapter, in 1955. The Monroe NAACP was different from other branches because it was chiefly composed of working-class Black people. Most chapters had professional and business class Blacks.
Understanding that the current racial order was enforced through constant violence, it was only logical that blacks needed armed self-defense. Therefore, he applied for an NRA Charter to start a gun club. The initial membership numbered between 50 – 60 men, mostly World War and Korean War Veterans. They organized around protecting the black community by violence perpetrated by the Ku Klux Klan.
The first action of mass protest led by Robert Williams was the 1957 Monroe Pool protest. The goal was to get the Monroe government to integrate the current pool or construct another pool for Black residents. Black children were drowning in creeks and rivers because there were no safe swimming accommodations. The protester faced KKK violence from the beginning. The action ended when the KKK attempted to raid the President of the Monroe NAACP’s home, Dr. Albert Perry. Robert Williams led a successful defense of the home. Unfortunately, the KKK used the legal system to arrest Dr. Perry on false abortion charges. The Blacks of Monroe did not get access to a pool after the 1957 protests.
In 1958, two boys under the age of 10 were arrested for kissing a pre-teen White girl. Williams immediately began work to free the boys. He called on the national branch of the NAACP to make the case public, but they felt the case too controversial to intervene. Williams used the European press to leak the story and shame North Carolina’s government. Many protests broke out in Europe in support of the boys in Paris, Rome, and Vienna. The governor pardoned the children the next year due to international shame.
The attempted rape case of Mary Ruth Reed solidified Williams’s commitment to armed self-defense and put him in opposition to the NAACP. Louis Medlin attempted to assaulted Reed while she was pregnant. The tussle spilled into the backyard. Once out in the open, there were both Black and White witnesses. Reed was able to escape and press charges.
When Medlin went to trial, his lawyer’s defense was a respectable White man would never leave his White wife for a Black woman. The defendant was drunk and never had a real intention of raping Reed. The judge acquitted the attempted rapist of all charges.
The result of the trial whipped the Black residents of Monroe into a frenzy. Essentially, the judge declared open season on Black women. If a conviction could not be acquired even if there were White witnesses, then the law doesn’t include Black people.
After this verdict, Williams made his infamous speech advocating for Blacks to defend themselves against racist Whites. Blacks should enforce rights through vigilante justice. It was time for Black men to defend their women and children if no one else would. The NAACP denounced Williams and removed him as president of the Monroe NAACP for six months.
In June of 1961, a second picket of the local swimming pool began. Again the picketers are met with violence, verbal and physical. One member of the crowd of White counter-protesters shot into the picket line. The picketers asked the police that witnessed the event if he would do anything. The policeman said he didn’t hear or see anything.
Williams decided to bring in the Freedom Riders led by James Farmer to amplify what was happening in Monroe. He also wanted to bring in Dr. King to expand awareness of the unique problems of Monroe. King did not want to go back to North Carolina because of pending legal troubles due to a traffic arrest. Williams said it was cowardly for King to send Freedom Riders without coming himself. Many of the Freedom Riders had been in legal trouble. Williams called King a “phony” for not taking the risk.
The Freedom Riders protested in front of the Monroe Courthouse. After several days a large mob of counter-protesters arrived to intimidate the Freedom Riders. James Farmer protected a White woman that was protesting from an attack. The counter-protesters respond by attempting to apprehend and lynch James Farmer. The police came to arrest the Freedom Riders to prevent an immediate lynching. The Riders were apprehended put in Monroe county jail. Police, counter-protesters, and other jail inmates injured many of the protesters. They sat in jail a full 24 hours with no medical attention.
The Stegalls, a white couple, were traveling through Monroe to visit family. They claimed to be unaware of the riot. However, many Blacks recognized them and their car because they drove around Monroe with a banner with a racist slogan. Many believed the couple came to spy on the defenses being built by the Blacks of Monroe. A mob of angry Black people confronted them and brought the couple to Williams’s house to be lynched.
At this point, the story diverts into two narratives. One given by Robert Williams said the Stegalls followed Williams into his house to avoid a lynching. The other given by the chief of police said Williams took the Stegalls hostage and used them as leverage to get the police to give the Freedom Riders medical treatment. Either way, the Stegall’s left Williams home in a few hours, and the Freedom Riders got medical treatment. Williams got word that the police are coming to lynch him and flees in the middle of the night.
A network of left-wing activists smuggled Williams and his family to Cuba. Fidel Castro welcomed him. He stayed in Cuba for years as a refugee. With Castro’s support, Williams created Radio Free Dixie.
The goal of Radio Free Dixie was to encourage and inform the socialist struggle in the United States. The station played the best Jazz and Blues of the time to grow the audience. Then there would be news segments from a socialist perspective, information on guerrilla warfare, and education of proletarian solidarity. During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, Williams encouraged Black service members to insurrection through this platform.
While in Cuba, Williams wrote Mao Zedong asking him to support the black freedom struggle formally. Mao agreed and issued a statement in support of the freedom struggle in 1963. Building a bridge with Mao was helpful. Williams had a falling out with Castro in 1966. He was able to flee to China on the personal invitation of Mao in 1966.
In China, Williams and his wife became spokesmen for the African American struggle. They toured all of China speaking on black liberation. He also made a radio broadcast from Hanoi in the Vietnam War. The transmission encouraged blacks to rebel in the Vietnam War.
When Nixon wanted to build relations with China, he called on Williams for insider information. Williams agreed to return to the US if Nixon aided in fighting the kidnapping case. In 1969, Williams returned to Michigan to avoid arrest in North Carolina. Nixon assisted in getting the charges dropped in 1975. Williams became a scholar in residence at the University of Michigan Center for Chinese Studies.
Toward the end of his life, Williams became involved with the People’s Association for Human Rights. He lectured on Civil Rights and wrote an autobiography. According to his son, Williams was pessimistic about American society. He felt the gains of the Civil Rights movement had been eroded.
The entire world mourned Williams’s death from Hodgkin’s disease in 1996. Rosa Parks gave the eulogy at his funeral.For the rest of the series clickHERE