An African-American activist in the court of Mao: The life of Robert F. Williams

In the United States, February is Black History Month: that last bastion of separate (the African American experience isn’t part of US history in November?) and unequal (the shortest month of the year). But it did get me thinking about African-American influences in China including Robert F. Williams, the civil rights activist and “militant revolutionary nationalist” who moved to China with his wife Mabel at the invitation of Mao Zedong in 1966.

Williams and his wife lived in China for three years and if you think your average laowai gets stared at now, imagine being Robert Williams walking the streets of Beijing at the height of the Cultural Revolution. Williams returned to the USA in 1969, and in his later years, this former autoworker and fugitive became a scholar-in-residence at the University of Michigan Center for Chinese Studies.

Williams was born in 1925 in Monroe, NC. In the 1940s, he moved to Detroit to work in the auto factories and it was there he met and married his wife, Mabel. After a hitch in the Marines, Williams returned to North Carolina and in 1955 was named the head of the Union County, NC chapter of the NAACP. He would remain committed to the struggle for civil rights the rest of his life. As recounted in his 1962 book, Negroes with Guns, Williams participated in many legal and extralegal activities against racial inequality and injustice including defending two young black boys jailed for kissing a white girl. While other leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr. advocated the use of non-violence, Williams argued that African-Americans had a need to arm themselves with guns to protect their families and communities from white racism.

Needless to say, a militant civil rights leader urging African-Americans to form armed militias throughout the south did not sit very well with local politicians or law enforcement. When Williams offered shelter to a white couple during a riot in a black section of Monroe, he and his wife were accused by authorities of kidnapping. Facing criminal charges, the pair fled to Cuba where the exiled activist wrote Negroes with Guns and made pirate radio broadcasts to the southern United States as Radio Free Dixie. In 1963, Williams asked Mao to speak out on the struggles of African-Americans in the United States and in response, Mao issued a declaration of support for African-American liberation. It must have made an impression on the Chairman. Upon falling out with Castro in 1966, Williams and his wife moved to China at the personal invitation of Mao.

In China, Robert and Mabel visited communes and factories and spoke about the civil rights struggle in the United States. Williams was named the international chairman of the Revolutionary Action Movement and elected president-in-exile of something called the “Republic of New Africa.” In this role, he traveled throughout the developing world. During the Vietnam War, the activist-in-exile met with Ho Chi Minh and made propaganda broadcasts to African-American soldiers on behalf of Hanoi and Beijing.

Finally, in 1969, the Nixon administration, desperate for knowledge of what was going inside China, offered Williams and his wife amnesty in exchange for information. The Williams’ agreed and returned home that year. In 1976, they were finally cleared of all charges. For the next twenty years, Robert F. Williams wrote books and articles about his experiences and continued his work as a civil rights activist. When he died in 1996, hundreds of people attended services in Detroit and New York. No less a figure than Rosa Parks eulogized Williams at the Detroit service and lauded his dedication and devotion to the civil rights struggle.

There are a host of resources, both online and offline, about Williams and his fascinating life story:

Very useful archive: The Robert F. Williams papers at the Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.

Charlotte Observer, “A History Quiz: Who was Robert Williams,” 2/16/07
Liberty and Power, “Robert T. Williams and Negroes with Guns,” 2/26/06

The following sources are listed on Wikipedia:

  • Tyson, Timothy B. Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power. 416 pages. University of North Carolina Press (February 1, 2001). ISBN 0-8078-4923-5.
  • Williams, Robert Franklin. Negroes With Guns , 89 p, Wayne State University Press, c1998. ISBN 0-8143-2714-1.
  • Williams, Robert F. “1957: Swimming Pool Showdown”, Southern Exposure, c. summer 1980; the article appeared in an issue on the Ku Klux Klan.
  • Williams, Robert F. While God Lay Sleeping: The Autobiography of Robert F. Williams