Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Robert Williams: The Original Malcolm X

For several years now I have understood the importance of knowing who I am. A major part of that has been to be learned, truly learned on the character, struggles and achievements of my people. I am currently reading the autobiography of our very own Kwame Ture "Ready for Revolution" and though I have made only a small dent (on pg 245 of some 795 pgs) I have been moved to laughter and invaribaly tears and learnt much about the civil rights movement from its very beginning and all the major players on the frontline as well as behind the scenes. I have gone on to read about Diana Nash, Ella Baker, Paul Robeson, Bayard Rustin, Mike Thelwell, Courtland Cox (another Trinidadian brother), Sterling Brown and Robert Williams. Stokeley played particular attention to the details of his struggle and I understand now, why. Stokely struggled with the dominant non violent position of the elders in the movement from just about the onset of his serious participation, as a warm blooded youth (nineteen) who was no longer moved by the Christian sentiment which informed the overarching moral code.And this leads me to the title the Original Malcolm X. Robert Williams was the first and one of the most dynamic leaders in the struggle who advocated for force, or as he called it armed self defense. I think it is important to share his story, particularly because of the household name of Malcom X. Too often the struggle is branded by a face, usually a man's, a single narrative that never tells the full story or gives credit to those who deserve it. 

Paraphrased from "Ready for Revolution":

Robert Williams was the local NAACP leader in Monroe, Carolina. He would become a great inspiration to the SNCC as a symbolic and ideological leader to a number of radical groups across the spectrum of the black struggle. His reach was very broad ... here's how he converted two (devout) white pacifists. The Freedom Riders along with a small group of local youth had run a picket line in the center of Monroe in support of a range of community issues. It was a Saturday and downtown and a crowd started to gather which eventually turned into a mob. Verbal abuse turned into occasional blows as aggitators whipped up the crowd. What police were present did nothing to control or disperse the mob. In fact, the police were verbally hostile to the picketers.

Bill Mahoney (pacifist) recounts the scene, "I just knew we were dead. Man, we were completely surrounded by angry white folk. People started jumping out of the crowd to take a swing at us. Next to me, Paul was knocked dizzy by a vicious blow to his ear. While I was supporting Paul, someone slugged me over my eye. People on the line were bleeding. The threats got louder. It was clear that it was only a matter of time before they would swarm over us. I had been watching this old, old toothless man in overalls getting hysterical. His face was all red and convulsed. He kept screaming, 'Kill the niggahs. Goddamn, kill 'em. Go on, kill the niggahs.' Then I saw the old man's face suddenly change. He started pointing over my head. 'Gawddammit,' he cried. 'Them niggahs got guns. Them goddamn niggahs got guns.' 

[enter Robert Williamns' book title: Negroes with Guns ]

A number of black cars showed up on the scene, the doors swung open and the picketers taken to safety.

The next occasion I will share with you made me LOL because it reminded me of the unaplogetic delivery of public speeches by the late, great Che Guevara in International forums, which always left me with my mouth gaping open.

It was during the UN debate on the Bay of Pigs debacle where the US were engaged in a desperate exercise in diplomatic damage control. US Ambassador Adlai Stevenson piously announced that he deplored the betrayal of the Cuban revolution and reserved his government's right and affirmed its will to send assistance - military when necessary- to any people struggling anywhere for human rights and democratic freedoms.

At the end of this speech, Cuban Ambassador Raul Roa rose and read a letter he's just received and was asked to convey.

It read:

"Mr. Ambassador

Please convey the following appeal to Mr. Adlai Stevenson: Now that the United States has proclaimed military support for people willing to rebel against oppression, oppressed Negroes in the South urgently request tanks, artillery, bombs, money and the use of American airfields and white mercenaries to crush the racist tyrants who have betrayed the American Revolution and the Civil War.

We request the world's prayers for this noble undertaking."

Robert Williams, President, NAACP

Union County, Monroe, North Carolina

A similar tactic was used when the authorities began threatening Williams' community with 'urban renewal' plans. Shortly thereafter the President visited India and made pronouncements to the Prime Minister there that Asian people had the right to decent housing and adequate food. Immediately a telegram was sent out and the message was relayed to President Eisenhower by Prime Minister Nehru.

An African American man working in Housing was later given assurances that there would be no urban renewal in Monroe until the law was fully complied with.


"The only way into truth is through one's own annihilation; through dwelling a long time in a state of extreme and total humiliation." Simone Weil

What bravery, foresight and as Stokley said, audacity of Robert Williams to hold political leaders to their lofty pronouncemts made abroad. I myself have been using this tactic to create picture messages documenting Kamla Persad Bissessar's utterings with regard to gender equality and women's rights. It can prove to be very effective and should be used more often.

                      T&T PM Kamla Persad-Bissessar at the United Nation's 66th General Assembly,
 "Women's Political Participation: Making Gender Equality in Politics a Reality".

The last story I will share in fact leads me back to the first.

NAACP leadership was shared between Williams and a black physician Albert Perry, with whom the KKK took a special interest and was determined to kill. Because of this, the community rallied around their leader and 50 armed men stood watch outside his house every night on rotation. The Klan then adopted the habit of a nightly and noisy motorcade lead by a police cruiser with about eighty cars. On October 8 as the lead car passed the Perry home, the night erupted with a sudden and sustained rapid fire from over fifty guns. Some of the Klansmen had to escape on foot, while another carload turned into a dead-end street where they were cut off by Robert Williams and a detachment of armed men. They beg "Mr. Williams" for their lives and promised never to come into the black community again. His men were instructed not to kill unless absolutely unavoidable. 

The Klan suddenly became scrupulously law abiding after the city council belatedly passed an ordinance prohibiting late-night motorcades. Henceforth, travel within city limits after nightfall in groups more than three cars would require a permit.

(sounds similar to the permit they enforced during the Montgomery bus boycott of three persons per car which prevented the black community from efficiently carpooling)

News of the mob had spread - refer to paragraph 1 - which was well attended by rumour ... one of the Freedom Riders had been killed. There a large crowd around the Williams home and according to his account he took a white family into his home who had stumbled onto the scene for their safety. After about an hour they drove away. Later the couple claimed to have been detained by gunpoint. The government charged Williams for holding 'hostages" and he became a fugitive of the state.

Robert Williams and his wife Mabel were able to successfully seek asylum in Cuba (1961) and later in China. He returned to the US in 1970. 

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