Years before anyone chanted "Black Power!" or armed Black Panthers struck aggressive poses on the evening news, a small-town NAACP leader in North Carolina named Robert F. Williams said it was time for black Americans to "meet violence with violence."
It was 1959. Eisenhower and Khrushchev waged the Cold War. A black man was lynched in Mississippi. Black leaders normally kept any thoughts of armed resistance to themselves.
Williams was a burly, goateed former Marine who wrote poetry. The day after he made his fiery declaration to reporters on the steps of the Monroe, N.C., courthouse, word came down from NAACP headquarters: Williams was suspended.
Over the next three years, Williams led the armed defense of Monroe's black neighborhood against Ku Klux Klan incursions; published the radical Crusader newsletter; debated nonviolence with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.; was charged with kidnapping a white couple during a Monroe race riot; fled to Cuba and broadcast anti-U.S. tirades on "Radio Free Dixie"; and wrote a book, "Negroes With Guns," that inspired future Black Panthers.
Despite -- or because of -- his radicalism, Williams is a footnote to civil rights history. After self-imposed exile in Cuba and China, he lived quietly for a quarter-century in the little town of Baldwin, Mich. His death in October at 71 received little notice.
But the spotlight was trained briefly on Williams again recently with the disclosure that in 1959, Thurgood Marshall, then an NAACP lawyer eager to placate J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, passed the bureau information about Williams.
Fear vs. hope
A look at Williams' life brings into focus the brutal racial realities of his era, and it raises anew the nonviolence debate: King's fear that advocacy of violence would lead the black minority to slaughter vs. Williams' assertion that "when our people become fighters, our leaders will be able to sit at the conference table as equals."
Williams was born in 1925 in Monroe, a town of 11,000 where almost all blacks worked as sharecroppers, laborers or domestics. Williams' family was one that whites considered "respectable." Williams' father was a railroad boiler washer, his mother a housewife and devout Baptist.
Yet he came by his militancy honestly. His grandfather, born a slave, campaigned for Republicans during Reconstruction, published a Populist newspaper and carried a rifle that was handed down to Williams. His grandmother often reminded Williams that she was conceived in the rape of her mother by a slave owner, according to Timothy B. Tyson, a University of Wisconsin historian who is writing a Williams biography.
At 16, Robert led blacks in a walkout at a National Youth Administration camp where white youths learned to lay masonry and black youths "learned" to carry things for whites. That teen-age act of rebellion was the first chapter in Williams' voluminous FBI file, Tyson says.
After working in Detroit auto plants, being an insubordinate Army draftee, running for mayor of Monroe in 1950 and being dishonorably discharged from the Marines, Williams returned to Monroe in 1955. He recruited working-class veterans to rebuild the moribund local NAACP.
In 1957, during a tense, unsuccessful campaign to desegregate Monroe's swimming pool, a Klan motorcade attacked an NAACP member's house. Williams' troops "greeted the nightriders with sandbag fortifications and a hail of disciplined gunfire," Tyson has written.
The next year, two black boys in Monroe, ages 8 and 10, were sent to reform school after one kissed a white girl while playing. Williams mobilized international outrage over the "kissing case," and the boys were released.
The Monroe leader was becoming a cult figure in black America. He spoke at Malcolm X's temple in Harlem and "raised money to buy rifles, machine guns, helmets, gas masks and dynamite for the Monroe NAACP," Tyson writes.
In 1959, when Monroe juries acquitted two white men of assaulting black women, Williams made his courthouse declaration:
"Since the federal government will not stop lynching, and since the so-called courts lynch our people legally, if it's necessary to stop lynching with lynching, then we must resort to that method. We must meet violence with violence."
The next day, Williams tried to clarify: He advocated armed self-defense, not vigilantism. But the 1959 NAACP convention upheld Williams' suspension, rejecting his plea "not to come crawling to these whites on your hands and knees and make me a sacrificial lamb."
"Robert Williams stuck out like a sore thumb," Gloster B. Current, then NAACP director of branches, says now. "He would have made it difficult for the NAACP to carry forward its program without undue suspicion on the part of whites, who viewed the militant efforts of the NAACP as anathema."
In August 1961, Monroe erupted in rioting after angry whites attacked nonviolent Freedom Riders picketing the courthouse. Fearing for his life, Williams fled with his family.
'Ahead of his time'
When Williams left Monroe, says Virginia Kendrick, a local historian, "I think whatever influence he had left, too. I think he set our civil rights back locally by his attitude. When all is said and done, he was simply ahead of his time."
Later in 1961, Williams surfaced in Cuba. He considered himself a black nationalist, not a communist, but he admired Fidel Castro. He eventually split with Cuban officials over their class analysis of the black struggle in the United States.
Moving to China in 1966, Williams spent three years there during the Cultural Revolution, which he later conceded "sometimes just got out of hand." Homesick, he bartered his inside knowledge of China for safe passage home. Williams, his lawyer and a security guard were the only passengers on a TWA flight from London to Detroit in September 1969.
Williams appeared "at the exit of the plane with a gray Mao uniform that he had made expressly for the trip home," says Alfonso L. Tarabochia, who investigated him for the Senate Judiciary Committee. "I am sure that although the exterior was Chinese, inside he was longing for soul food in the United States. In the end, I felt sorry for him."
Williams had been president in exile of the Republic of New Africa, a black separatist group, but time had passed him by. His Afro was shorter and his rhetoric milder than the radicals he had inspired.
"Many of us in the Republic of New Africa were very disappointed" and felt used, says Milton R. Henry, Williams' lawyer in 1969. "He just sort of withdrew, went up north and lived in the woods."
John C. Williams, Robert's son, says his father's withdrawal was a survival strategy.
"The black leaders our youth know most about -- Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers -- died young. The message is like if you choose to follow these people's path, this is what happens to you in America," Williams' son says. "My dad chose to live."
Williams fought extradition to North Carolina on the kidnapping charges, which ultimately were dropped. He lectured and was a local activist. Before cancer weakened him, he hoped to move back to Monroe.
Williams never lived in Monroe again, but he was buried there. His funeral was held at a white Methodist church. Rosa Parks, hero of the nonviolent Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott, was a mourner.
Tyson, the historian, says Williams should be more than a footnote: "He challenged not only white supremacy but the civil rights establishment. He was the godfather of Black Power."
He noted: "One of the enduring ironies of the civil rights movement is that violence and nonviolence are interdependent.
"If King was the carrot, people like Robert were the stick. It is not clear how much either would have done without the other."
Pub Date: 3/02/97