Join 3,417 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


How the Daddy of Jesse Helms Gave Birth to Black Power
June 8, 2010 6:03 PM   Subscribe

In 1936 in the Jim Crow South, Robert F. Williams was an 11-year-old black boy in Monroe, North Carolina, who watched helplessly as Jesse Helms Sr. (father and namesake of the former senator) beat an African-American woman to the ground and "dragged her off to the nearby jailhouse, her dress up over her head, the same way that a cave man would club and drag his sexual prey." Years later, after a stint in the segregated military, Williams returned home to Monroe and worked as an NAACP organizer, where he brought international attention to the Kissing Case, a 1958 incident in which two black boys under the age of 10 were sentenced to a reformatory for kissing a white girl. By then, Williams had also attracted controversy for his advocacy of armed self-defense, a position he outlined in the book Negroes with Guns. But it would all change overnight in 1961, when Williams landed on FBI's Most Wanted list, after being charged with kidnapping a white couple that Williams claimed he was trying to save from an angry black crowd.

Williams became a fugitive, accepting asylum in Cuba, where he would broadcast the program Radio Free Dixie. Then, after having a falling out with the American Communist Party, Williams relocated to China, where Chairman Mao himself issued the Statement Supporting the Afro-Americans in Their Just Struggle Against Racial Imperialism at Williams' behest. Then, in 1969, Williams successfully bargained with the Nixon Administration to ensure his safe passage back to America, trading inside knowledge of the Cultural Revolution for amnesty from kidnapping charges, which were later dropped by the state of North Carolina in the 1970s.

A Chinese propaganda poster inspired by Robert F. Williams
The documentary Negroes with Guns: Robert Williams and Black Power (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6)
A letter from Robert F. Williams to Adlai Stevenson at the United Nations
So Long Patrick Henry, the pilot episode of the TV show I Spy, which features Ivan Dixon as a fictionalized version of Robert F. Williams and Muhammad Ali
posted by jonp72 (36 comments total) 220 users marked this as a favorite

 
(Wow - what a story, and I haven't even gotten to the links yet. Thanks, jpn972.)
posted by koeselitz at 6:06 PM on June 8, 2010


Wow--I had no idea. Thank you for this. (Off to schedule at least 30 minutes to wade through all these at some point.)
posted by availablelight at 6:13 PM on June 8, 2010


holy shit this is one of the best fpps I have ever seen.
posted by shmegegge at 6:15 PM on June 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


I had never heard of this man, or his works. Wonderful post, jonp72.
posted by hangashore at 6:23 PM on June 8, 2010


Why would negroes need guns when they have the police to protect them?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 6:27 PM on June 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


I can't get over how incredibly detailed and amazing this post is and I haven't even clicked on the links yet. Thank you.
posted by blucevalo at 6:34 PM on June 8, 2010


Fantastic post! Totally new history for me.
posted by darkstar at 6:49 PM on June 8, 2010


Buried in his wikipedia entry was another chilling story of insurance companies:

The Raleigh Eagle (North Carolina) reported on 12 May 1958 that the Nationwide Insurance Company was cancelling Williams' collision and comprehensive coverage, effective that day. They at first cancelled all of his automabile insurance, but decided to reinstate his liability and medical payments coverage, enough for Williams to retain his car license. The company stated that Williams' affiliation with the NAACP was not a factor in the cancellation, but "that rocks had been thrown at his car and home several times by people driving by his home at night. These incidents just forced us to get off the comprehensive and collision portions of his policy."

I'm also reminded of the ironic origins of gun control (and can't help but wonder how the regulars to a gun show would feel if they were outnumbered 5 to 1 or so by minorities buying guns, instead of the normal demographic).
posted by el io at 7:01 PM on June 8, 2010 [3 favorites]


holy shit this is one of the best fpps I have ever seen.

Yes, it really is impressive.
posted by nola at 7:17 PM on June 8, 2010


I haven't commented on a metafilter post for what seems like ages, but I just needed to say thank you for providing a perfect example of why this site is an internet treasure. Kudos to you and I hope to get through all these links in due course.
posted by Hammerikaner at 7:18 PM on June 8, 2010


Amazing post. Thanks so much for this story. Wow.
posted by zarq at 7:32 PM on June 8, 2010


Wow, every link is so dense and fascinating! What an FPP!
posted by a sourceless light at 7:40 PM on June 8, 2010


Is it even possible to find any other coherent nexus of modern world history this tightly interwoven? You really need a history channel producer to pick this up -- if they can get past ww2 for a while -- and bring this to the world at large.
posted by yesster at 7:59 PM on June 8, 2010


What a great post. I'm going to dig into this later. I was aware of the bare bones of Williams' story. I've been meaning to read Tim Tyson's Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power. This post makes me want to read it more. (Don't think it got mentioned in the body of your post, I haven't been to all the links yet).

I've spent a lot of time in Monroe and Union County. It's an interesting place. Union County is getting ready to place in plaque in front of the courthouse in honor of the faithful slaves.

Thanks for this.
posted by marxchivist at 8:07 PM on June 8, 2010


That is some propaganda poster.

The leader of the black crowd doesn't quite look like Martin Luther King.

Then again, the only white man in the poster is staring right at the MLK figure (everyone else is looking past the leader), and his gun is at least ambiguously pointing toward the chest of the MLK figure, while everyone else is simply brandishing theirs in the air.

Dated 1970, ~2 years after the assassination.
posted by jamjam at 8:10 PM on June 8, 2010


I've never heard of this guy... which fact is itself a lesson in history, or meta-history.

Duly favorited.
posted by darth_tedious at 8:14 PM on June 8, 2010


Awesome post. I learned so much from it. Thank you.
posted by lord_wolf at 8:25 PM on June 8, 2010


marxchivist: I read Radio Free Dixie a few years ago for a seminar. It's a fantastic book.

Also: Fantastic post, jonp72!
posted by dhens at 8:30 PM on June 8, 2010


jamjam: "the MLK figure"

Dude, he's not an MLK figure so much as he is a Huey Newton figure or a Malcom X figure or a Toussaint L'Overture figure or a Nat Turner figure. That is, he's a generic representation of black revolution. Part of the reason MLK is the guy the federal holiday is named after is his preferability to revolutionary alternatives. The white guy could reasonably be characterized as a John Brown figure, I would say, but probably not as a James Earl Ray figure.
posted by mwhybark at 8:44 PM on June 8, 2010


All win be to jonp72.
posted by HotPants at 8:59 PM on June 8, 2010


Thanks for this - each one of these links would be worth a post to me. I have to go to bed now. Thank God at least I can watch the I Spy episode from there.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 9:04 PM on June 8, 2010


stellar post!
posted by ms.jones at 9:04 PM on June 8, 2010


Great post, thanks. I'd seen Williams mentioned in Chinese sources (here's a pic of him and his wife meeting Mao in 1963) but didn't know the half of hiis sootry.
posted by Abiezer at 9:07 PM on June 8, 2010


Jaysus - 'his story,' obviously.
posted by Abiezer at 9:07 PM on June 8, 2010


Dude, he's not an MLK figure so much as he is a Huey Newton figure or a Malcom X figure or a Toussaint L'Overture figure or a Nat Turner figure. That is, he's a generic representation of black revolution. Part of the reason MLK is the guy the federal holiday is named after is his preferability to revolutionary alternatives. The white guy could reasonably be characterized as a John Brown figure, I would say, but probably not as a James Earl Ray figure.

Not necessarily to suggest you're implying they all look alike, or anything, mwhybark (though in your obtuseness you do tempt me), but you need to refresh your memory of Malcolm X's and Huey Newton's faces.

They look nothing like the man in the poster, but MLK does, very much so, in fact.

Here's James Earl Ray.

You clearly have no idea what John Brown looked like.
posted by jamjam at 9:17 PM on June 8, 2010


Heh, I just reread the main post, to which we should possibly defer:

"A Chinese propaganda poster inspired by Robert F. Williams."

My understanding of the context and intent Chinese propaganda posters is that heroic figures (with exceptions such as Mao) were intended as generic representations of proletarian individuals acting in the service of the will of the people. So resemblance is not what I was looking for in reading the poster.

I'll concede that there's a facial resemblance in the poster as you note, however, and further, it is a depiction of a march on Washington. So I suppose it's plausible the artist in the People's Republic was intent on that meaning.

Given that you are pursuing that orientation, who is that white guy, then? Robert Redford?
posted by mwhybark at 9:36 PM on June 8, 2010


I Spy? Really? Starring first-time actor Bill Cosby? And Robert Culp? It turns out that Robert Culp wrote that episode.
posted by eye of newt at 9:40 PM on June 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


also, jamjam? Never mind the Redford crack, you did already say what your reading was, and why. I don't see it the way you do. But I can understand your interpretation and the specific, accurately observed reasons you came to it.
posted by mwhybark at 9:50 PM on June 8, 2010


I didn't see it as a crack, mwhybark, and your point about Williams himself is well taken; he is a possible for the poster leader in my opinion based on the most wanted poster mugshot. I think Ray does not look enough like the white guy in the poster to say that was the intent of the poster based on resemblance alone.
posted by jamjam at 10:10 PM on June 8, 2010


This is what a good post looks like. I had heard of him and his experience Cuba. Thanks for the rest of the story.
posted by nestor_makhno at 10:18 PM on June 8, 2010


Man, with a few changes this would be an awesome tossup for ACF Nats. And great post, too.
posted by kmz at 10:39 PM on June 8, 2010


Hate to have to undercut my own comments like this, but I think the white guy in the propaganda poster is actually Che.
posted by jamjam at 1:32 AM on June 9, 2010


He saw the Detroit riot of 1943? That would radicalize a rock. For those not familiar with the story, white servicemen basically ran around the city murdering, beating and raping black folks. Some fought back.

People in Detroit don't talk about the 1943 riots much, but they scarred the city and laid the groundwork for later chaos, hatred, mistrust and fear.
posted by QIbHom at 6:58 AM on June 9, 2010


Without having gone through all the links, I've been educated. This is what fpps should look like. Brilliant.
posted by SecretAgentSockpuppet at 7:08 AM on June 9, 2010


Havannah was a popular stop for many US black revolutionaries and Civil Rights leaders including Stokely Carmichael and Eldridge Cleaver. Ironically their, millitant stance and separatism did not gel with the Communist party or the Republican party, who did not want the agitation of their black population .

Castro (who was never a communist) emphasized with the black struggle because the injustice of the sledgehammer-like oppression was so similar to the iron-fist imperialism with wich US reguarded Cuba. Che Guevarra Entertained Guerill tactics to Wiliams and his "Freedom Fighters" but we don't know how far that went.

Aside from inderminate asylum, a platform and moral support. Cuba usually grew tiresome of the US black revolutionaries (Black nationalism/separatism was anathema for the Old-guard Communist and Cuban Republicans.) and let them go on to other destinations including China who were impressed with them for the same reasons. Standing up for themselves in spite of overwhelming oppression and force.
posted by Student of Man at 9:09 AM on June 9, 2010


I'd never heard any of this before. Thanks for the fantastic post.
posted by homunculus at 10:19 AM on June 9, 2010


« Older A perfectly cromulent new word: Collapsitarianism....  |  Stadiums in South Africa are c... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments