Robert Williams 1925-1996. "A couple of years ahead of his time" --Malcolm X
By Stephen Millies, 21 November 1996
"In thirty minutes you'll be hanging in the courthouse square." So spoke A. A. Mauney, the Monroe, N.C., police chief, to Robert F. Williams on Aug. 27, 1961.
Williams--the president of the local NAACP chapter--wasn't lynched that day. He was hounded into exile by the FBI.
Robert F. Williams died Oct. 15 in Grand Rapids, Mich., at age 71. His story is a remarkable chapter in the history of Black liberation.
Monroe, N.C.--Williams' birthplace-- was in 1925 like hundreds of other Southern communities. Black people lived under lynch law. "Whites Only" signs littered the town, including its library and swimming pool.
The local white aristocracy--including the Helms family-- ran the town. Old Man Helms was sheriff of Union County, whose seat is Monroe. His son Jesse became the Ku Klux Klan senator from North Carolina.
Helms and the other local racist ruling families kept Monroe "safe" for Duke Power and the tobacco companies that really ran North Carolina. And for the Southern Railroad-- now the Norfolk Southern--controlled by the J.P. Morgan banking house in New York.
Keeping Monroe "safe" meant keeping Black people down and keeping unions out. North Carolina still ranks lowest among the states in the percentage of unionized workers.
In 1955 the NAACP chapter in Monroe had dwindled down to six members. Williams, who had worked as a machinist in New Jersey and did a hitch in the Marines, took over its leadership. He started a membership drive among workers and the unemployed.
On too many Saturday nights, KKKers would drive through the Black community, shooting it up. Many of these Klansmen came from South Carolina, whose border was only 14 miles away.
When North Carolina Gov. Luther Hodges did nothing to stop the attacks, Williams and the local NAACP chapter formed a National Rifle Association chapter and trained its members in using firearms.
In the summer of 1957 a Klan motorcade attacked the home of NAACP member Dr. Albert E. Perry. An armed defense squad drove them off. Klan night riding came to a sudden stop in Monroe.
This famous incident--which electrified so many Black people--was completely suppressed in the big-business media. Only Black publications such as Jet Magazine, the Afro- American and the Norfolk Journal and Guide reported the event.
In October 1958, two Black boys aged 7 and 9 were arrested for rape in Monroe after a 7-year-old white girl kissed one of them on the cheek. These two children--who could have been given the death penalty--were sentenced to 14 years in the reformatory.
Only after Williams fought on and protests occurred throughout Europe did the state release the two.
The national NAACP suspended Williams for six months, but the Monroe NAACP chapter became famous for its militancy and for advocating self-defense against racist attacks. To spread his views, Williams started a newspaper called the Crusader.
North Carolina authorities were determined to get rid of Williams. They offered him bribes. When that didn't work, they tried to kill him.
On June 23, 1961, Bynum Griffin, the owner of a local car dealership, tried to run Williams off the road.
On Aug. 27, 1961, a full-scale assault was launched upon Monroe's Black community. The racists assaulted and jailed "Freedom Riders"--demonstrators who had come from the North to overturn segregation.
During this assault the Stegalls, a white couple known for their Klan sympathies, drove through the Black community. Only Williams' personal intervention prevented any violence against them. Yet this action then became the basis of a phony kidnapping charge that was used to hound Williams out of the country.
This charge was also used to jail one of Williams' closest supporters, Mae Mallory.
Williams escaped the FBI dragnet and went to Cuba, where with the assistance of the Cuban revolutionary government he started the anti-racist "Radio Free Dixie." Later, Williams would live in China, where he urged Mao Zedong to issue his famous message of support to African Americans.
Deirdre Griswold, now editor of Workers World newspaper, went to Monroe in 1961 with the Monroe Defense Committee to assist the struggle there.
Youth Against War and Fascism, Workers World Party's youth arm, distrib uted 10,000 copies of Mao's statement to the August 1963 freedom march.
WWP also printed and distributed Williams' "Listen Brother," an impassioned appeal to Black GI's not to shoot their Vietnamese brothers and sisters.
Huey P. Newton--the founder of the Black Panther Party-- wrote how Williams' book "Negroes With Guns" influenced him.
Malcolm X had this to say: "Robert Williams was just a couple years ahead of his time."