Quarterly Black Review
Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power
Quarterly Black Review
Quarterly Black Review
Journal of Southern History
Tyson's firecracker text crackles with brilliant and lasting images of black life in the Carolinas and across the South.
An important study of a forgotten Civil Rights leader. . . . [A] groundbreaking, skillfully written revisionist monograph.
Radio Free Dixie presents an engaging portrait of one man's continuous struggle to resist political and social oppression.
Meticulously researched. . . . [and] magisterially argued.
Journal of American History
- The University of North Carolina Press
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Read an Excerpt
The sturdy frame house stood like a haven on a hill, two stories and seven rooms overlooking the dusty lane called Boyte Street that ran through the heart of "Newtown," a segregated shanty-town about a mile across the tracks from the business district of Monroe. On February 26, 1925, Emma Carter Williams gave birth to the fourth of five children born in that house and named him Robert.
Like the other houses in the neighborhood, the Williams homeplace had an outhouse in the back, fetid in the summer and frigid in the winter. Women born into slavery still tended vegetable gardens along the street where young "Rob" grew up. Smoke from the locomotives of the Seaboard Air Line Railway lingered over the clusters of wooden frame houses. On hot summer nights when the windows were open, the tinkling of a juke-joint piano drifted across the honeysuckle that climbed in the hollows. On Sunday mornings, gospel choirs lifted up anthems of redemption that echoed through the scrub oaks around Elizabeth Baptist Church. Most black families in Union County labored as sharecroppers or paid rent to white landlords, but thanks to John Williams's position as a boiler washer with the Seaboard Air Line, he and his wife, Emma Williams, were fortunate enough to own their home. "Seven of us, five children and my mother and father," Williams remembered, "and this house belonged to us."
Monroe, the small Southern county seat where Robert Williams entered the world, was home to 6,100 people, of whom just under a third were black. Monroe was "a good town to grow up in,"former mayor J. Raymond Shute recalled. Born in 1904, Shute descended from one of the town's leading white merchant families, traveled widely, and held liberal opinions. In the decades after World War II, he became an integrationist and one of Robert Williams's closest allies for a time. Eventually, not even his wealth and prominence would prevent white terrorists from firing guns into Ray Shute's house to punish him for his heresy. Still, Shute remembered the years before the war with warm nostalgia. "There were no social problems that were of any significance," the genial businessman recalled, "and no bustle and hustle of the larger city. Everybody knew everybody, and life was good."
Monroe's most prominent white conservative, born in 1921, waxed even more nostalgic. "I don't believe I could ever be dissatisfied with Monroe," Jesse Helms wrote in one of his 1956 newspaper columns. "I shall always remember the shady streets, the quiet Sundays, the cotton wagons, the Fourth of July parades." Helms cherished his first-grade teacher, "Miss Lura Heath, bless her heart," and called her "my favorite unreconstructed Confederate." Miss Heath inculcated in her students views that originated with her father, "the Major," who had fought for the Confederacy and later decried the "trend toward socialism in this country" and "the political manipulation of minority groups." Helms would echo this political legacy in his columns that appeared in the journal of the White Citizens' Council, in his "Viewpoint" broadcasts on WRAL-TV, and finally from a seat in the U.S. Senate. Nostalgia for "the Lost Cause" and fondness for the memory of the mythic Old South were central to the political culture of white Monroe. "I shall never forget," Helms wrote, "the stream of school kids marching uptown to place flowers on the courthouse square monument on Confederate Memorial Day."
White citizens who remembered Monroe in the 1920s, one journalist reported, could count "five churches, four Republicans, one pool hall and one whorehouse." The town's two or three police officers carried keys to Coke Helms's restaurant on Main Street so that they could help themselves to a midnight snack and leave money on the counter. White citizens who violated minor ordinances dropped by the office of the clerk of court "at their convenience" to plead guilty and pay their fines. White children who lost a dog felt no compunction about calling the mayor, who did not consider impromptu marriage counseling beyond the scope of his duties. The Chamber of Commerce claimed that Monroe's "lighting plant is one of the most efficient, and illuminates many blocks of white way" and even boasted that there were "seven miles of paved streets" in Monroe in 1925 and that certain of these were "paralleled by cement sidewalks." These sidewalks, like so many things in Monroe, did not extend to the black community.
Dotted with small farms, more than half of which were operated by sharecroppers and tenant farmers, Union County had a population of 40,979 in 1930. The census that year officially recognized 10,048 inhabitants as descendants of the 1,982 slaves and 51 free blacks reported in the 1850 tally. "Sweet Union," as North Carolina's Governor Thomas Bickett had dubbed his home county, rolled down across the peach orchards of the Piedmont just southeast of Charlotte. It jutted into one South Carolina county, Lancaster, bordered on another, Chesterfield, and almost touched a third, York. Union County's streams had been unsuitable for water power or navigation, and its sandy soil was not the best farmland. Gold mines that had played out before the Civil War promised much but delivered little. The Monroe Chamber of Commerce, hoping to attract outside investors, claimed in 1902 that cotton farmers in Union County frequently found gold, "pick[ing] up pure nuggets in the branches or on the hillsides."
Most residents of Union County, black and white, continued to try to scratch a living from the earth, but few mentioned gathering gold or much of anything else in the process. By 1925, soil depletion, boll weevils, and plummeting prices had turned King Cotton into threadbare royalty all across the upper South. "Ain't nothing but cotton," one black citizen reported, "but that was a slave thing, there wasn't no money in that." White farmers fared only a little better, even though many more of them owned the land they tilled. "The first and only year my wife and I farmed, we sold cotton for five and a half cents," recalled Claude Thomas, a white sharecropper in Union County. "We didn't make enough to pay the fertilizer bill and eat. I figured it out like this: wherever I would go, whatever I did, I couldn't make it any worse than this. Just working like convicts and not making a living."
Like hundreds of other hard-pressed farmers in Union County, Claude Thomas ended up in a textile mill. By the time that Robert Williams was born, the Southern piedmont had surpassed New England as the world's leading producer of yarn and cloth. Hundreds of white men, women, and children moved to houses on "Factory Hill" and labored in the mills. Despite long hours at low pay, these jobs "furnished almost the only refuge for the white laboring people of the South from the strong competition of cheap negro labor," one mill owner wrote. The powerful sexual taboo against bringing black men into contact with white women, he argued, made it "wrong to work negroes in association with white women and children." Except for a handful of janitorial jobs, the cotton mills remained lily white.
The celebration of white supremacy by the mill owners did not prevent conflict. From 1919 to 1929, violent strikes pitted piedmont millworkers against their employers in conflicts that featured terrorism sponsored by the owners and what Raleigh News and Observer columnist Nell Battle Lewis called "lawlessness on the part of the law." Gun battles in nearby Gastonia killed both the chief of police and one of the local strike leaders. In Marion, "special deputies" opened fire on pickets, killing six strikers and wounding twenty-five more. Authorities arrested Fred Beal, the lead organizer for the National Textile Workers Union, and held him in the Monroe city jail.
Though the millhands were white, mill owners and white politicians charged that Communists had targeted the cotton mills in order to advance their radical agenda of "race-mixing" and social overthrow. David Clark of the Southern Textile Bulletin wrote that "the Communists may harangue until judgement day, but they can never convince the cotton mill operators of the South that negroes are their equals." Though Clark spoke for the mill owners, his assessment provides what amounts to a tragic summary of Southern labor history. Karl Marx exaggerated only slightly when he claimed that these hardworking people had nothing to lose but their chains. The links that white supremacy had hammered into those chains bound white working people in Union County not only to their poverty but to an ineffably deep sense of themselves as white Southerners. The bloody history of race and class conflict in the piedmont made it clear that white supremacy and the bitter legacy of slavery divided workers far more powerfully than self-interest could unite them; it was a lesson that Robert Williams learned over and over again.
The Williams family was more prosperous than many of the white families in Monroe, but still there were many hardships. When he was about two years old, little Rob contracted pneumonia. Dr. Hubert Creft, the local black physician, thought "that it was impossible for me to live," Williams remembered. "My mother refused to give up." Emma Williams moved the small iron bed out into the living room beside the fireplace and nursed her son night and day. After two weeks, according to family lore, Dr. Creft heard that the toddler was still alive and dropped by to see how this miracle had come to pass. Emma Williams told the physician that each time the little boy stopped breathing, "she would take me and shake me. And then she would start praying." Decades later, Williams only faintly remembered the rancid smell of castor oil and the apples that she fed him during his illness. But the vision of a mother's unrelenting love, burnished by her steadfast faithfulness to her family, shone brightly in his mind.
Emma Williams was a deeply devout Christian and raised her children in the Elizabeth Baptist Church. The church infused Robert Williams with a powerful and distinctive Afro-Christianity whose spiritual essence remained long after he had parted ways with its cautious politics and conservative theology. "She always taught us to help people," Robert Williams said, "to give them whatever assistance we could, when people were hungry and homeless and that type of thing." The Elizabeth Baptist congregation provided a strong sense of community and a nurturing place for the Williams children to discover and display their talents. "We used to get up and recite speeches and verse," Robert recalled. He enjoyed the Easter egg hunts and covered-dish suppers and relished the music. "At revival meetings they would have all kinds of singing and people would get happy, and they would sing and shout," said Williams. He never forgot the power of this religious experience and the importance of this spiritual community in his early life.
But for Williams the black church rarely confronted the harsh realities of the Jim Crow South in a way that transcended the politics of accommodation. "This preacher would preach and start very emotional sermons, but didn't say a thing about racial problems," he reflected. Oversimplifying matters somewhat, he claimed that most black preachers "didn't dare speak against the white people because some of the white people contributed money to the churches." Williams never attempted to make the black church the cornerstone of his racial activism, not because he rejected its moral teachings but because, in his eyes, the church did not live up to its own professed ideals. Williams objected to racial injustice out of an African American spiritual sensibility, even though he usually did not articulate it in religious language and often inveighed against the church.
"My father didn't go to church too much, only occasionally," Williams said. John Williams "would always say he was tired." Robert's favorite uncle, Charlie Williams, spoke more bluntly. "You niggers are always on your knees praying," Charlie would say, only half-jokingly. "If you believe in God, and God is so good, why don't you pray to God to free us?" Black folks in Monroe accused Charlie Williams of being an atheist, Robert said, "and then in a small town it wasn't considered the proper thing to be an atheist." Emma Williams "didn't like for me to be with him very much," said Robert. His Uncle Charlie jabbed at organized religion "in a joking way," Robert recalled, "but [Mother] took it very seriously. Plus the fact that he used to drink what they called `home brew,' and she found out that he had been giving me some of it."
If Uncle Charlie liked to pull a cork, he was a handsome and dapper iconoclast, sharp edged and clear eyed, with a penetrating gaze that flashed both insight and anger. A veteran of the First World War, Charlie Williams had come home disillusioned that the war to make the world safe for democracy had done nothing to expand democracy for the black citizens of Monroe. He attended college at Florida A&M and law school at Wilberforce University in Ohio. Setting aside the larger opportunities that might have opened for him outside the South, Charlie Williams came home to teach school in Monroe. "Rob's uncle was instrumental in this community," Annie Bell Cherry, a longtime family friend, remembered.
Once when a federal agency was conducting typing tests for young women to work in Washington, D.C., Uncle Charlie apparently carted his typewriter and a female cousin to the place where the local tests were given. She had been very reluctant, the story goes, partly because she could not even type. The woman waited anxiously while she listened to Williams put up a fierce fight for her to take the test. "As they walked away," Robert said, "she asked him nervously, `What if they had agreed for me to take the test? You know I can't type!' Charlie Williams laughed and told her, `I knew they would not allow a Negro woman to take the test but it is just a matter of letting them know that at least we have enough sense to know our rights.'" Despite pious admonitions from his mother, Robert idolized his uncle and emulated his example. "Charlie was bad and just about like an outlaw," Robert remembered, "but he was also said to be very brilliant and people respected him for that." His nephew may have overestimated Charlie Williams's renegade qualitiesafter all, he managed to retain his job in a school system run by whitesbut Robert's relationship to his favorite uncle had a lasting influence on him.
Robert Williams's paternal grandmother, Ellen Isabel Williams, was an even more compelling presence in the boy's life. Born a slave in Union County in 1858, she lived only a few dozen yards down Boyte Street. Williams and his siblings were all expected to help their grandmother with chores, and she repaid them richly, not only with her heaping platters of fried chicken and mouth-watering pots of collard greens, but with her vivid stories of their family's past.
Light-skinned and quick-witted, Ellen Williams was the daughter of "Grandma Honeycutt," of whom Robert's parents were reluctant to speak. "Susanna Honeycutt, slave, bore four children sired by Daniel Tomblin, her slave master," a family history reads. Though Tomblin also had a white wife and seven white children, he made no secret of his relationship with Susanna Honeycutt, whom her daughter, pointing to a cast-iron kettle, always described as "black as that pot." Tomblin and Honeycutt had two boys and two girlsEllen, Mary, Frank, and Danielthe last son named after their white father. There is little evidence as to the nature of this relationshipwhether it was consensual or coerced, or whether Susanna Honeycutt had worked some weary truce between love and necessity. If Daniel Tomblin regarded it as incongruous to keep his own children as slaves, there is no record of it. Certainly the arrangement was not unusual; Ella Belle Stitt, a slave woman born on the Green Ray plantation in Union County, remembered that "the Negro women were subject to the wills of the white men, and there was hardly any plantation around that you couldn't see that the owners had fathered some of the slaves."
In truth, the Southern family tree had never been as straight as the Carolina pines. "Despite the daytime white abuse and hatred of our race," Robert recounted, "the darkness of night brought an influx of prowling white men in quest of black sex." The immense social prerogatives of white men tempted some to have illicit lovers and even whole families on the other side of the color line. The resulting relationshipsand childrendid little to threaten the hierarchies of race and gender; they were largely a matter for unspoken resentments among blacks and furtive whisperings between whites. "My grandmother, her father was white," Robert's older brother John Herman Williams recalled. "People knew that. Once when we went to Secrest's Drug Store, the druggist told my father, `John, we're cousins, but don't tell anybody.' [White people] wouldn't let anybody know that. But a lot of [black] families were treated differently because the whites they knew were relatives."
If blood ties could not bring white slaveholders to acknowledge the humanity of their mixed-race children, it is hardly surprising that neither time nor kinship could bridge the racial chasm in Union County with respect to the memory of slavery. White natives recalled slavery as a largely benign and even charitable institution. Whites viewed slavery as "paternalistic, sometimes harsh but for the most part benevolent," a white local historian wrote. William Henry Belk, who grew up on a cotton plantation and became the wealthiest New South merchant in North Carolina, remembered how his mother taught children to read. "She especially wanted the Negroes to know how to read the Bible," he recalled.
The oral tradition in the black community reflected an entirely different world. Ella Bell Stitt, who later cooked for the Belk family, told of how her mother had come home from working in the fields to find that Mary Bell, her three-year-old daughter, was gone. When her mother asked the plantation mistress about the girl, Stitt recalled, "the white woman looked at her without changing her expression and told her, `Your Missy got married and I gave her Mary Bell and some more niggers for a wedding present.'" When her mother could not stop crying, Stitt said, the mistress threatened to have her whipped. "Mother never saw Mary Bell again," Ella Bell Stitt reported. "She named all of us girls Bell, hoping that one of us would meet her someday and know each other by our names." For blacks, this was the historical knife-edge of slavery, the violent, soul-murdering institution that white citizens in Union County preferred to remember as the "first and only opportunity," one local white man wrote in 1959, for black people "to indulge in anything like civilized living."
A red brick symbol of this war between black and white historical memory in Monroe still stands on the courthouse square at the center of town. The oldest building in Monroe, Town Hall is a proud landmark for white residents, depicted in civic memorabilia and featured in historical presentations. For black citizens, however, the brick structure marks a different past. In 1847 John Medlin, a wealthy planter who owned more slaves than anyone else in Union County, fastened a logging chain around the neck of a rebellious slave and dragged him to death behind a wagon. Medlin hauled the body of his bondsman through the dusty streets for all to see. This kind of open violence was an affront even to white sensibilities, in part because it undermined the paternalist justification for slavery and thus weakened the South's "peculiar institution." Authorities arrested Medlin for "felony and manslaughter," a capital crime. Although the offense mandated the death penalty, the judge imposed merely a substantial fine. Authorities used the money to launch the brick structure that housed the city government for almost a century. When J. Raymond Shute, Monroe's leading white liberal for many decades, served as mayor, his office in Town Hall was "right on the street, clearly marked, with door wide open, weather permitting," he wrote, "accessible to allwhite and colored, rich and poorpractically at any hour of the day." But for black citizens of Monroe, Town Hall would never be a point of historical pride or a symbol of democratic governance.
Both pride and democracy, however, featured prominently in the stories that Ellen Williams told her grandchildren, especially the tales about Sikes Williams, her late husband, to whom Robert bore a notable physicaland many said temperamentalresemblance. "They all said I was just like him," Robert recalled. In 1875, at age sixteen, Ellen Williams had married the handsome and articulate nineteen year old who, like herself, had been born into slavery in Union County. In defiance of North Carolina law, Sikes Williams had managed to learn to read and write even while he was a slave. After Emancipation, the former slave attended Biddle Institute in Charlotte, a black college known for its biblical and classical orientation and for leadership that rejected accommodation to white supremacy. Years later, Biddle became Johnson C. Smith University, a center of the black freedom movement in North Carolina a century after Emancipation. Sikes and Ellen Williams lived not only as man and wife, but as professional colleagues; they both returned to Union County as schoolteachers to a generation of African Americans hungry for education. Broad-shouldered and heavy-set, with dark skin and a thick mustache, Sikes Williams grew to manhood amid the political tumult and white terror of Reconstruction and eventually joined the Republican Party.
The piedmont region became the stronghold of the Republican Party in North Carolina after the Civil War. Founded in 1867 and led by liberated slaves and the white political heirs of Abraham Lincoln, this biracial coalition endorsed universal manhood suffrage, removed property requirements for voting, and threatened to overturn long-standing local hierarchies. More than a quarter of the white men who voted in Union County in 1868 wagered their political futures on an alliance with black men that promised a more democratic society for all. The conservative Monroe Enquirer derided white Republicans for their poverty, castigating them as "socialists and adventurers, who had lived among us without preferment or possessions of qualifications entitling them to it." These "agrarian and commune whites who exist in every community," the editors pointed out, shamelessly allied themselves with "a race of brutal savages and barbarians" who had been "lately emancipated from long years of hereditary slavery and immured in mental darkness." The Democrats, also known as the Conservatives, derided the Republican coalition for "breaking down every vistige of honorable distinction and attempting to plant upon its ruin the unwise ... doctrine of universal equality." Government, they argued, should remain in the hands of "virtue and property and intelligence" rather than being yielded to the power "of mere numbers."
In order to recruit the same lower-class whites that they otherwise dismissed as rabble, Conservatives sought to drive a wedge between the races by attacking African Americans. They argued that "the negro, since his freedom[, has] become more savage and brutal." The rape of white women by black men, the Monroe Enquirer argued, was "a natural result of the political teachings" of the Republican Party. Democrats in Monroe insisted that "Social Equality and Rape" were the "natural offspring" of the Civil Rights Bill of 1875. "Radicals may squirm and twist," the editors declared just before the election of 1876, "but they cannot evade or deny the fact that Civil Rights naturally and inevitably leads to Social Equality." In Union County, Democrats loudly advocated "the reestablishment of the whipping post" because "the State has suffered as much from its abolishment as from any other cause." Headlines such as "LYNCH HIM!" and "BURNED AT THE STAKE" made it plain how far the Democratic Party in Monroe was willing to take the politics of white supremacy. "Every man must stand to his post," the Monroe Enquirer urged white men of Union County. "Shoot deserters on the spot."
Confronted by a formidable enemy espousing a social vision far more democratic than their own, white Conservatives turned to violence to preserve the remnants of an antebellum social order rooted in white domination and aristocratic privilege. Nothing less than violence would restrain the political aspirations of African American activists and their white allies. The Ku Klux Klan murdered, maimed, or terrorized hundreds and possibly thousands of black and white citizens across the Republican piedmont between 1868 and 1872. In Rutherford County alone there were one hundred to two hundred whippings. Nightriders burned many of the schoolhouses built by former slaves and poor whites for whom education had become an important symbol of democratic aspirations. Klan terrorists frequently claimed that they were only punishing immoral sexual behavior between blacks and whites. This reflected a hypocrisy so rank that even the white observers choked on it; the Greensboro Register replied to this argument: "Why you know yourself that there isn't a mulatto child in town scarcely whose `daddy' isn't a Ku Klux." Mandy Coverson, who had been a slave in Union County, recalled that the Ku Klux Klan "done a heap of beatin' and chasin' folks out of the county" and that the struggle for political power "was mostly the cause of it." Blacks sometimes fought back. Near Enfield, North Carolina, young black men organized a militia to defend their community against the Klan; they laid an ambush, and the white terrorists "got wind of it and stopped coming."
White racial violence, electoral fraud, and divisions within the Republican Party brought the Democrats back into power in Union County and across the South in 1876. The Ku Klux Klan was "a political organization of the Conservative party, in the interest of the Conservative party," one Klansman declared. "It was understood," another Klan member added, "that on the night before the election the Ku Kluks would turn out en masse and visit the houses of the colored people" to let them know that "if [black citizens] went to election they would meet them on the way." In Union County, the Conservatives won 427 of 554 votes cast and celebrated with a "grand torchlight procession."
By the mid-1870s, Conservative victories mounted across the South. The national Republican Party, long weary of the burden of protecting black Southerners, now left them to their own devices and to the dubious mercies of their former masters. "In short," crowed the Charlotte Democrat in 1876, "North Carolina is now a white man's state and white men intend to govern it hereafter."
Terrorized and defrauded at the local level, and more or less abandoned by their own party at the national level, black Republicans in North Carolina concentrated on survival. "Some of the darkies over the county," the Monroe Enquirer observed with distinct satisfaction, "are really frightened, and think that `freedom's up.'" Conservative legislators allowed registrars to bar opposition voters, especially blacks and illiterate whites, on the flimsiest pretext. In Union County, the Democrats refused to count black ballots from 1876 to 1896.
Only violence or its well-founded threat could enforce such a blatant repudiation of the U.S. Constitution. Arsonists torched the local AME Zion Church in 1877. In 1881 one hundred of what the Monroe Enquirer called the "best citizens" of Union County seized Edmund Davis, a black man accused of raping a white woman, from the constable and announced that they would lynch him a few hours later. Observing that Davis had strangled for forty minutes before dying, the Democratic editors stated that the victim had been "justly and promptly hanged" before the mob, "satisfied that he was quite dead, dispersed, leaving him still hanging." There were no prosecutions. Black residents scrambled to protect themselves from the same fate and to persist in their beleaguered hopes for democracy. "Many of my race," the Reverend A. B. Smyer, a black preacher in Monroe, wrote, "are becoming wonderfully stirred up about emigrating to Liberia," while "others have left their crops and what property they had and gone somewhere." Life had grown "very gloomy with us here," he acknowledged, "but God is still with us."
But the expansive vision of freedom kindled in slavery and fanned to flame at Emancipation did not leave for Liberia. Nor did it desert North Carolina for Kansas or Indiana with the thousands of black citizens who struck out for a better life in the late 1870s and 1880s. Most black North Carolinians held fast to their roots, and many in the piedmont refused to relinquish the promise of interracial democracy that Reconstruction had held forth; it is true, of course, that their realistic political options were limited. "The only hope of our people," the Messenger, a black newspaper in nearby Charlotte, declared in 1883, "is to unite their forces with the liberal and progressive element among southern whites. There is a large class of these men," the editors continued, "who in their heart of hearts loath the dull despotism that hangs over their native section like a nightmare." This radical democratic vision would neither cringe nor compromise, but its authors asserted that if "these enlightened Southerners declare themselves in favor of free schools and a free ballot, simple justice and equal opportunities for all men, we will meet them halfway, whether they were abolitionists or slaveholders." Robert Williams was an heir to this outlook.
Soon this prophetic vision of biracial democracy once again found white adherents in Monroe. In 1887 white tenant farmers, sharecroppers, and yeomen in Union County organized a farmers' alliance that challenged conservative merchants and planters and helped launch the Populist Party. "Fusion" between Populists and Republicans seized control of the state from the Democrats in 1894 and instituted sweeping democratic change. In Union County, electoral reforms gave black voters the balance of power between contending factions of whites. In 1896 fusionist campaign flyers, "To The Colored Voters of Union County," reminded African American voters that "two years ago the Republicans and Populists of North Carolina united and made one grand struggle for liberty" that defeated the Democratic Party and enabled blacks to vote again after two decades of disfranchisement. "THE CHAINS OF SERVITUDE ARE BROKEN," the county's second biracial political alliance proclaimed to its black constituents in 1896. "NOW NEVER LICK THE HAND THAT LASHED YOU."
It is likely that Robert Williams's grandfather, the husband of Ellen Williams, himself born to the chains of servitude, posted or even wrote these campaign flyers. Sikes Williams became a Republican activist during the late nineteenth century and "traveled all over the county and the State making speeches and soliciting support for the Party." Just as they had done when Sikes Williams was a young man, black Republicans again allied themselves with white working people who had organized on the basis of economic interest against the business-oriented "Bourbons" of the Democratic Party. Williams and another black man, Darling Thomas, obtained a printing press and published a small newspaper called the People's Voice. The broadside "was supposed to be a paper for dealing with the black people and against certain kinds of oppression," Robert Williams recalled. His grandfather "was called a radical," according to Williams, "and had a lot of trouble with the whites." Not surprisingly, Sikes Williams kept a loaded rifle close at hand to protect himself and his family from white vigilantes.
In 1896 the biracial Populist-Republican alliance of which Sikes Williams was a part swept both the county and the state, taking the governor's mansion and seizing a 120-50 advantage in the legislature. Democrats did not win a single office in Monroe and Union County, nor did they retain any statewide office except their seats on the North Carolina Supreme Court. Two years later, however, white conservatives unleashed the violent white supremacy campaigns of 1898. "Redshirt" terrorists attacked Republicans, Populists, and especially African Americans. White vigilantes broke up fusionist political rallies, whipped black leaders, and drove black voters from the polls. "Go to the polls tomorrow," Alfred Waddell, soon to be mayor of Wilmington, told white citizens there, "and if you find the negro out voting, tell him to leave the polls, and if he refuses, kill him, shoot him down in his tracks." Just after the election, white mobs in Wilmington slaughtered black citizens in the streets and forced black public officials to resign at gunpoint. Across the state, "the party of white supremacy" seized power. In Monroe, Democrats elected to the state senate Thomas J. Jerome, author of Ku Klux Klan No. 40, a book that lauded as heroes the hooded terrorists of Reconstruction. Democrats had again turned to violence, fraud, and disfranchisement to secure what News and Observer editor Josephus Daniels celebrated as "permanent good government by the party of the White Man."
The national government's failure to intervene in North Carolina's bloody white supremacy revolt left black citizens to rely on their own ability to defend themselves. When the Democrats quickly moved to take the ballot from African Americans by constitutional amendment, white Populist newspapers abandoned even their own limited support for black rights. Biracial politics, they argued, had provoked so much fraud and violence that disfranchisement might be for the best. "If it will settle the Negro question and give political freedom to white people and guarantee them to vote as they please and have that vote counted," the editors of the Times-Mercury suggested, "Populists should vote for it." But "stopping [the Negro] from voting will not settle it," they added gravely. The only way to "do it humanely is to colonize him. We prefer this to killing them. One of the two will be done and that soon."
The problem, according to Furnifold Simmons, one of the foremost architects of the white supremacy campaign, was the fragility of white racial solidarity. The future U.S. senator conceded that Democrats must realize that "the white people will not always stand together." What the party sought in 1900, another Democratic politician frankly stated, was "a good, square, honest law that will always give a good Democratic majority." Gubernatorial candidate Charles B. Aycock called whites who opposed the disfranchisement of black citizens in 1900 "public enemies" who deserved "the contempt of all mankind." Three-quarters of the voters in Union Countyby a margin of 2,396 to 822supported the amendment to bar black voters. Disfranchisement passed across the state by a margin of 59 percent to 41 percent. "In North Carolina," the Monroe Enquirer wrote ten years afterward, "the negro has been removed from politics and every good citizen is glad of it." It would be six decades before a single white political leader in North Carolina would openly challenge this point of view.
It is not clear how Sikes Williams responded to the crushing of interracial democracy in Monroe; a fire destroyed all but a handful of his voluminous personal papers. In the early days of the civil rights movement, however, an African American man who had "lived in Monroe for seventy-five years" recalled that "in all that time I have known just two real Negro men, one was Sikes Williams and the other," he continued, "is his grandson Robert F. Williams. I have felt the same as both of them, I suppose, but I was afraid to do or say anything about it." In the thirty-five years after Emancipation, interracial politics had threatened entrenched power twice in the South and been turned back each time by violence and demagoguery. But traditions of interracial democracy and black liberation, born in the hopes and agonies of Reconstruction, persisted in African American communities. Black Southerners developed an expansive vision of democracy in their effort to secure the fruits of emancipation. Into such a community Robert Williams was born.
Unlike his illustrious father, John Williams was no firebrand. Perhaps because of Sikes Williams's volatile career in racial politics or perhaps because times had grown so much harder for black North Carolinians after 1898, his son stepped carefully along the color line. He was a solid "race man," to be sure, but "very quiet, soft spoken," Robert recalled. John Williams did not neglect to instruct his children in the perils of race. "Me and my father used to talk about the race riots in Atlanta and different places," Robert remembered, "and the fact that at that time they had a series of brutal lynchings." In public, however, John Williams took care not to offend white people. "In fact," Robert recalled, "in later years whites in the community used to always tell me that I should be like my father, that he was a good man and he was a hard worker, and he never gave them any trouble."
His father was not reckless, but neither was he a deferential soul or in any sense a pacifist. One night a black man came running through the streets of Newtown yelling "like a town crier," Robert said. "You niggers better stay in the house tonight because it's gonna be hell in this town," the man warned. Boyce Richardson, a black man from out in the country, had been sitting on the curb on Main Street eating watermelon with his small son, according to the story, and Chief of Police Elmsley Armfield walked up and kicked Richardson off the curb. Richardson whipped out a knife and nearly sliced the collar off the police chief's throat, threatening to kill him. White men seized Richardson, beat him, and threw him in jail. The word on the street was that a lynch mob was gathering for Boyce Richardson and that many other black citizens would be run out of town. That night, when it was time to go to work, John Williams collected his hat and his lunch and quietly slipped a pistol into the pocket of his overalls as he left the house. "He admonished us to stay in the house," Robert recalled. Whites who opposed lynching managed to prevent mob violence, but the streets remained "as deserted and silent as a cemetery." It was an atmosphere of racial terror all too familiar in the Monroe of Robert Williams's youth. "The older people, who had experienced the ferocity of racist violence unleashed in earlier years, exuded such fear that they unwittingly infected their children," Williams recalled. "To be so terrorized was to feel a chill deep inside me that made me feel numb and helpless." At the same time, he never forgot that his father dared to go out into that night, or that he carried a gun when he did so.
As a boiler washer on the Seaboard Air Line, Robert Williams's father had a skilled position that made him one of the best-paid black men in Monroe. "They classified him as a boiler washer because that was as high as a black man could go," his son said. "They had a system on the railroad that the boiler maker had to be a white man [but] the white man could have a helper." According to Williams, "My father used to do all of the work and the white man was getting the money," even though the boiler maker "stayed drunk all the time. [The white man] would go into houses in the black community where they sold whisky, or bootleggers, and he would leave my father and another man to do the work."
Despite racial discrimination, working for the railroad shielded the family from the worst indignities of dependence on local whites. "In fact," Robert explained, "the railroad had it arranged so that anybody who worked for the railroad could get credit anywhere in the town, so this was a form of prestige." Unlike most jobs available to blacks, railroad work provided employment that did not depend entirely on the local white power structure. Within the African American community, a position with the Seaboard afforded a man considerable status. "He was able to keep a family, to keep a home that he bought," Robert recounted. "He worked very hard." Nobody at the Williams house went hungry or lacked for clothing. Christmas morning might bring a brand-new red wagon or shiny new bicycles for the Williams children; a little boy's BB gun became a .22-caliber rifle as Robert grew older. "The fact that my father was working and had a pretty secure job," Williams remembered, "this gave us some insulation from some of the harshness and abuses that some black children experienced."
When John Williams went to work at the railroad roundhouse in the evenings, he frequently took Robert along to keep him company. "At night they didn't have many people working there," his son said, "and he would show me all about the boiler and the trains." Young Robert Williams also observed the racial politics of the railroad yard. Black women walking from Newtown crossed the railroad yard on their way to work in the kitchens of white families. White workers using the washroom "would walk all around the place and in the yard nude. They would do that," according to black workers, "just so the black women would see them." According to Williams, white workers also liked to "talk about how they liked black women and which black women they had gone with." This was done as a deliberate humiliation, an expression of white dominance, he said, largely because whites "didn't want [blacks] to make as much money as the railroad was paying them." White workers acted this way, African American men felt, because "the only thing they had was their white authority, the power of their white skin."
One of the railroad workers with "a notorious reputation for lauding his interracial exploits over Black men" was a much-hated white man from Georgia named Clarkston. On Saturday nights, like a number of white men, Clarkston would cruise his fancy automobile through a dark, isolated section of Newtown called "the Neck" or "Fourteen" to pick up a local black woman for sex. As a teenager, Williams organized several friends into a secret organization called X-32 "to make war on white philanderers who fancied Black women after dark." The boys of X-32 sewed white hoods to conceal their identities and "night after night we vainly patrolled the alleys and dark sectors of the streets hoping to catch him." One evening, as Clarkston's distinctive car rolled slowly into the Neck, Williams and his cohorts swooped down on the vehicle and unleashed a broadside of bricks and stones, smashing all of the car's windows and sending their enemy screeching off into the night. The boys fled and regrouped in the woods, where they rolled on the ground, pounding the earth "in a seizure of laughter and satisfaction." It was Williams's first direct confrontation with white supremacy, and he always remembered it with deep pleasure.
What People are saying about this
Meticulously researched. . . . [and] magisterially argued.Journal of American History
Tim Tyson, by excavating the story of Robert Williams, has served to deepen an understanding of the Cold War-era African-American freedom struggle. His exploration of the meaning of race, gender and class in the South of the 1950s is an eye opener. His portrayal of the deep undercurrents and diverse strands of resistance to Jim Crow should be read by all those concerned not only with the hidden history, but with the ongoing American dilemma of an evolving but still all-too-persistent color line.Madison, WI Capital Times
[An] excellent book. . . . Timothy Tyson has done Williams, and scholars of 20th century world radicalisms, a great service with Radio Free Dixie. . . . Definitive in its coverage of Williams's life between his birth in North Carolina in 1925 and his exile to Cuba in 1961.Against The Current
Radio Free Dixie is a superb biography, one that will change the way we think about the black freedom struggle of the 1950s and early 1960s. Tyson eloquently portrays Robert F. Williams as an activist ahead of his time. Occupying the ideological territory between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, Williams led nonviolent protests while developing a philosophy of self-defense that at times bordered on a call to armed insurrection.John Dittmer, DePauw University
A sympathetic, absorbing portrait of one of the most influential and controversial African-American leaders of the twentieth century. . . . A remarkable, often harrowing, account of the civil rights movement and some of the people that made it possible. . . . A book that powerfully conveys the life and voice of one of the key personalities of the modern civil rights struggle.American Historical Review
Popular and academic cultures share a deeply-rooted tendency to either marginalize or demonize African American self-assertion. This thoughtful, eloquent book, much more than a biography, offers us a chance to re-examine some of the assumptions that have long undermined our national discourse on race. It turns out that Rosa Parks and the gun-toting Robert Williams are not so far apart, a fact that cannot be explained in the context of the traditional civil rights paradigm.Charles Payne, Duke University
Tyson's firecracker text crackles with brilliant and lasting images of black life in the Carolinas and across the South in the 40s, 50s and 60s. Liberally peppered with quotes from Williams . . . the book is imbued with the man's voice and his indefatigable spirit. . . . Tyson successfully portrays Williams as a troubled visionary, a strong, stubborn and imperfect man, one who greatly influenced what became the Black Power Movement and its young leaders.Publishers Weekly
Fills a void in the history of the civil rights struggle and provocatively details an evolution of armed black nationalism during the 50s that was overshadowed by the nonviolent movement associated with Martin Luther King. . . . Contain[s] a great deal of intriguing and revelatory information that makes it a worthy read.Charlotte Observer
Radio Free Dixie is a valuable and needed addition to the literature of the modern African American freedom struggle. For many activists of my generation, Robert F. Williams was a heroic, yet little understood, civil rights leader who attracted controversy when he challenged first the national NAACP leadership and then the United States government. Tyson has ably and vividly supplied the missing chapters of Williams's remarkable odyssey as an agitator in the South and fugitive rebel in the Third World.Clayborne Carson, director, Martin Luther King, Jr., Papers Project
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