Robert Williams was born on February 26, 1925, to John and Ellen Williams in Monroe, North Carolina. The town had around 6,100 people one-third of which were black. The town had a very rigid racial barrier and strong Ku Klux Klan presence. Robert would be shaped by his experiences there in Monroe and grow to challenge the racial order.
Robert’s future militancy was deeply rooted in the struggles of his family. His paternal grandfather Sikes Williams born in 1856, learned to read and write while still a slave. After Emancipation, he went to school at the Biddle Institute in Charlotte. The school was later renamed John C Smith University. Sikes Williams was active in forming the Republican Party of North Carolina, traveling all over the state. To inform locals of the new party, Sikes and Darling Thomas published a newspaper called The People’s Voice. Sikes’s activism caused many conflicts in his town. These conflicts led Sikes to arm himself and his wife. Sikes’s wife gives Robert Williams Sikes’s rifle after he passes.
Sikes’s son John did not carry on the political tradition but kept weapons handy for home defense. John provided a stable environment for Robert to mature into manhood. However, Robert always found ways to make political statements. As a youth, Robert gathered a group of other young boys to patrol their neighborhood. When Whites came to look for prostitutes, the boys would pelt the car with rocks and run into the woods. The young boys took protecting their neighborhood as a personal responsibility even in childhood.
Delivering newspapers was Robert Williams’s first job, and as a result, he became the un-official newscaster for Black Monroe. Many of Monroe’s Black residents could not read, and Robert would relay news stories to them. Impromptu newsman was a pivotal role in the early 1940s because the country was moving closer to World War II.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the government created many jobs programs to get the entire workforce to join the war effort. Robert Williams joined a jobs program called the National Youth Administration (NYA)at 16 years old. The jobs program was Williams’ first foray into Civil Disobedience.
The NYA was integrated. The Monroe chapter was to learn stone masonry. Even though the Blacks expected to be treated equally, they were only allowed to dig stone, while Whites learned masonry. The last straw was when the Black workers were forced to drink from dirty coca-cola bottles in a separate water bucket. Williams staged a walkout. The program sent the Blacks to Rocky Mount to learn to make machine tools to resolve the labor dispute.
The FBI began Williams’ subject file as a result of this action. For the rest of Williams’ life, he will be under FBI surveillance. For the rest of Williams’s career, he would be plagued by FBI agents telling employers and potential employers he was a security risk.
Once Williams becomes a certified machinist, he decided to move to Detroit to work for the Automobile plants. He landed a job at Ford’s River Rouge Plant and joined the Local 600 United Autoworkers Union. The job at Ford did not only provide income and expand Williams’s social circle. It also provided an exemption from the draft because he was a defense worker. That was the first place Williams found socialists and socialism. That same year a severe race riot broke out in Detroit. Robert thinks it best to leave Detroit for a place much more calm.
He went to San Francisco to work at the docks in 1943. Blacks could not join the machinist union in California. He eventually found work as a civilian in the Navy’s Mare Island Naval Yard at Port Chicago, California. There was even more racial tension on the small Naval base, and Williams returns home to Monroe after three months.
Monroe of 1944 was rife with racial conflict. Soldiers at the nearby military facility would often fight. Many of the Black soldiers would even fight the police. Robert’s parents thought it would be best for him to leave North Carolina to avoid racial conflict. Later that year, Robert moved to Harlem, NY. After working at the docks three months, the US Army drafted him.
The Army drafted Williams for the last 18 months of World War 2. His stint began a month after the Hiroshima bombing. Racial politics in the army were no different than the rest of America. As a result, Williams had a tumultuous time. He failed to obey orders, disrespect officers and was AWOL on several occasions. His service ended “for the convenience of the government” on November 27, 1946.
In Robert Williams’s first 21 years, he had become a machinist, striker, and soldier. Most people are lucky to have their first drink at that age. He began to build a network of socialist that will be vital to his escape from Monroe later in life. Also, the FBI surveillance that would haunt him began.For the rest of the series clickHERE