Robert F. Williams Papers

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Robert F. Williams papers

The materials in this online repository form part of a larger Robert F. Williams papers collection held by the Bentley Historical Library. For a more complete index to the materials, please consult the collection's online finding aid.

For questions or more information, please contact the Bentley Historical Library's Division of Reference and Access Services

African American civil rights activist and black militant leader in Monroe County North Carolina who came to advocate armed self-defense in response to violence, left the United States in 1961 and lived in Cuba and China until 1969 when he settled in Baldwin Michigan. Papers include correspondence, newspaper clippings, audio-visual material, manuscripts, petitions, and government documents documenting the civil rights movement, black nationalism, radical politics in the United States and Williams's experiences in Cuba and China.

Robert Franklin Williams was at various times in his life a civil rights leader, a black militant, an author and resident of Cuba and later the People's Republic of China. Although he was not recognized as one of the major black militants during the civil rights upheavals of the 1960s, he was one of the earliest and most important black militant leaders. Born in 1925, Williams grew up in Monroe, Union County, North Carolina. He was trained as a machinist in the National Youth Administration, and later attended West Virginia State College and Johnson C. Smith University. Following a tour of duty in the Marine Corps, Williams returned to Monroe in 1955. In the same year he was elected president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and began a career in the struggle for civil rights that would eventually lead him to exile in Cuba and the People's Republic of China.

As president of the Union County NAACP, Williams not only revitalized the organization, but also began a non-violent campaign to integrate the county's public facilities. The attempts to integrate the public facilities, such as the swimming pool, were largely unsuccessful and often were met by violent resistance. Repudiating the NAACP policy of passive non-resistance, Williams began to advocate a stronger means of defense by blacks. He urged that blacks arm themselves and meet violence with violence. Williams' stand on this question eventually forced a minor split in the NAACP because many black leaders had become increasingly impatient with passive non-resistance. Williams was temporarily suspended from the NAACP, but many blacks in Union County heeded his advice and did arm themselves.

Racial violence in Monroe culminated in August 1961 when Freedom Riders arrived in the county to call national attention to the situation in Monroe. On August 26th violence exploded. Williams and other blacks fought back with guns. During the height of the violence, a car containing a white couple inadvertently wandered into the black neighborhood. Williams gave the couple refuge in his home, but was charged with kidnapping and a warrant was issued for his arrest by county officials. Rather than risking arrest in this racially torn community, Williams fled to New York City. Now faced with interstate flight from a warrant, Williams' crime became a federal crime and the FBI entered the case. Williams then fled to Canada and later to Cuba where Premier Fidel Castro offered him political asylum. Williams' interpretation of this affair can be found in his book Negroes with Guns.

In Cuba Williams' black militancy hardened. He became one of the most outspoken critics of the United States and called upon blacks to arm themselves for the battle ahead. To communicate his ideas, Williams began to publish The Crusader, a black militant journal, and also began to broadcast a program called "Radio Free Dixie". The radicalization of Williams' ideology and the changing attitudes of blacks in the United States can be traced through Williams' correspondence. Further evidence can also be found in the collection of The Crusader and "Radio Free Dixie" transcripts. He also wrote several articles in various radical journals.

After five years in Cuba, Williams became disenchanted with Castro's views of the black in America. For this reason, he left Cuba and traveled to the People's Republic of China where he established a new residency. As a friend of Mao Tse Tung and Chou En Lai, Williams redoubled his criticism of the treatment of blacks in America. About this time in 1966, Williams moved toward black separatism. He was elected president of the Detroit-based Republic for New Africa. The leaders of the Republic called for a separate state for blacks within the United States. Williams had reached the full development of his ideology: from a proponent of passive resistance as a NAACP leader, to a black militant, to a black self-determinist. The folder on the Republic of New Africa in the collection clearly illustrates his self-determinist ideology.

In 1969, Williams decided to end his self-imposed exile and return to the United States. Upon return, he settled in Baldwin, Michigan. In 1970-71 he served as a research associate in the Center for Chinese Studies at the University of Michigan. Drawing from his extensive stay in China, Williams advised political scientist Allen Whiting who in turn advised Henry Kissinger shortly before Kissinger's first trip to China. The last major battle of Williams' career came in 1975 when the state of North Carolina requested that he be brought back to face the 1961 kidnapping charges. Despite a large campaign to stop Williams' extradition, Governor William Milliken of Michigan extradited him. Following his acquittal, Williams returned to Baldwin. In the 1980s and 1990s, Williams remained active in community affairs in Baldwin and took up the cause of Clyde Cleveland, a prisoner on death row in North Carolina. Williams died in 1996.

Please note:

Copyright has been transferred to the Regents of the University of Michigan.

Access to digitized sound recordings may be limited to the reading room of the Bentley Historical Library, located on the Ann Arbor campus of the University of Michigan.

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