Book Review by Mary E. King
Originally published on pages 1127-28 of the December 2000 Journal of American History
Radio Free Dixie
Robert F. Williams & the Roots of Black Power
by Timothy B. Tyson
Published by The University of North Carolina Press
Chapel Hill & London 1999
Through the person of Robert Williams, Timothy B. Tyson’s meticulously researched book documents the attitude of armed self defense found among segments of African American communities in the South of the mid-twentieth century. While growing up in Union County, North Carolina, the young Williams in 1936 at age eleven observed an incident of bestiality toward a black woman carried out by father of Senator Jesse Helms. This spectacle seared into his being a yearning for confrontation, much as did the submission of on-looking blacks who felt powerless to act against the senior Helm’s thuggery. Drafted into the U.S. Army at the end of World War II, Williams returned to his home in Monroe, North Carolina in 1946.
After resettling, Williams began to articulate an uncomplicated view of returning fire with fire – a tendency that has always had its place in the history of African Americans in the United States. As head of the Monroe NAACP, Williams nurtured a fiery vocabulary then eventually led him into direct conflict with the national organization and the totemic black leadership of the era. He was suspended by the national NAACP convention in 1959, but remained fervently active in a local movement that he led. In 1961, Williams fled to Cuba to avoid a bloody conflagration with white mobs. William’s view, which he eventually broadcast on Radio Free Dixie in English from Cuba, was not new, but has gone relatively unchronicled. Tyson’s narrative portrays the contrapuntal perspective to the adoption of the nonviolent struggle, the boundaries of which famed a decade of effective unarmed resistance.
Williams had been a soldier, not a military strategist, and it appears that neither Tyson nor his subject had formally studied the theories and methods of nonviolent resistance, which are not based on turning the other cheek, but on realistic premises of power. Tyson, for example, repeatedly asserts that white violence was an essential elements in the achievements of nonviolent struggle, but he does so without realizing and therefore without acknowledging, that the capacity to reveal the opponent’s brutal repression is one of the properties of nonviolent resistance and part of how it can be used to achieve success.
The patriarchal metaphors of William’s appeals for violence in response to violence in the name of protecting women curiously echoed the paternalistic rubric that was hypocritically used to justify white violence. Tyson’s research in the morgues of newspapers pinpoints the paradoxes inherent in the sexual justifications by southern white oligarchies for maintaining their apparatus of apartheid. White judges and politicians who protected vigilantes were the descendants of Caucasian males who for generations had considered the sexual predation of black women their due and their rationalizations for state-condoned terrorism against blacks were based on the pretense and sham of protecting the purity of white womanhood from rapacious black men, when it was they who had been the rapists.
Elsewhere in the south and spared by the 1960 sit-ins, techniques of struggle were based on remarkable equity between men and women. Women did what men did in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. With the making of decisions based on consensus, they shared equally in its conclusion. Moreover, the best that we SNCC workers in the rural south in the early 1960s could hope for was that the local people would leave their guns at home. Guns were readily available for hog-killing time, to hunt for food, or to put a horse out of its misery. When we were around, the guns were put away.
Tyson’s claim that Robert Williams was the accoucheur for Black Power is similarly metaphorical. Black Power meant something different to every ear and was more simile that strategy. In the end, it can be seen from Tyson’s magisterially argued book that Williams was neither a separatist nor an ideologue. He adhered to the law and tried to use it as an instrument for justice. Despite his calls for meeting violence with violence, he appealed to the federal authorities to mitigate Monroe’s brutal bigotry. He never gratuitously assailed his white adversaries.
About the Reviewer:
Mary E. King, Ph.D., is professor international politics at St. George’s University. Grenada, West Indies and Visiting Scholar at The American University for Global Peace, in Washington, D.C. She is the author of Mahtama Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.: The Power of Nonviolent Actions (UNESCO, 1999) and, in 1988, won a Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Book Award for her book Freedom Song: A Personal Story of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement (William Morrow, 1987).
Mary E. King. Journal of American History (December 2000: 1127-28), review of Timothy B. Tyson’s Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power.