This book tells the remarkable story of Robert F. Williams--one of the most influential black activists of the generation that toppled Jim Crow and forever altered the arc of American history. In the late 1950s, as president of the Monroe, North Carolina, branch of the NAACP, Williams and his followers used machine guns, dynamite, and Molotov cocktails to confront Klan terrorists. Advocating "armed self-reliance" by blacks, Williams challenged not only white supremacists but also Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights establishment. Forced to flee during the 1960s to Cuba--where he broadcast "Radio Free Dixie," a program of black politics and music that could be heard as far away as Los Angeles and New York City--and then China, Williams remained a controversial figure for the rest of his life.
Historians have customarily portrayed the civil rights movement as a nonviolent call on America's conscience--and the subsequent rise of Black Power as a violent repudiation of the civil rights dream. But Radio Free Dixie reveals that both movements grew out of the same soil, confronted the same predicaments, and reflected the same quest for African American freedom. As Robert Williams's story demonstrates, independent black political action, black cultural pride, and armed self-reliance operated in the South in tension and in tandem with legal efforts and nonviolent protest.
To some, the civil rights radical Robert Williams's philosophy of armed self-defense was the very antithesis of Martin Luther King's nonviolent resistance. However, each man represented a wing of the growing civil rights movement, and both grasped and skillfully wielded the political leverage that the dynamics of the Cold War afforded the civil rights cause. After a stint in the army during WWII, Williams returned to his hometown in Monroe, N.C., where he built a uniquely militant NAACP chapter and attracted international attention to racist hypocrisy. When eventually forced by Ku Klux Klan vigilantes and an FBI dragnet to abandon his activities and flee the U.S. with his family in 1961, he found safe harbor in revolutionary Cuba, where he produced Radio Free Dixie, a program of politics and music broadcast to America. Written with the cooperation of Williams and his family, 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 Liberally peppered with quotes from Williams, many taken from his unpublished autobiography, While God Lay Sleeping, as well as from interviews and radio tapes, the book is imbued with the man's voice and his indefatigable spirit. An assistant professor of Afro-American studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the co-editor of Democracy Betrayed, 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. Photos.