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Black Liberation leader Robert Williams remembered

Published May 28, 2005 8:53 AM

Hundreds of people packed an Oakland church May 20 to celebrate the release of a new audio documentary about civil-rights leader Robert F. Williams. The documentary is titled “Robert F. Williams—Self-Defense, Self-Respect & Self-Deter mination (as told by Mabel Williams).”

Organized and funded by several foundations, including the Paul Robeson Fund for Independent Media and the Freedom Archives, the event brought together at least three generations of progressive activists and artists, primarily from the Black communities in the San Francisco Bay area.

In the late 1950s, Williams became pre sident of the Monroe, N.C., chapter of the NAACP. At that time, the African Amer ican neighborhood of Monroe was sometimes attacked by groups of Ku Klux Klan. When North Carolina Gov. Luther Hodges did nothing to stop the attacks, Williams and the local NAACP chapter formed a National Rifle Association chapter and trained their members in using firearms.

In the summer of 1957, when a Klan motorcade attacked the home of NAACP member Dr. Albert E. Perry, an armed defense squad drove them off. Klan night riding came to a sudden stop in Monroe.

This famous incident electrified many Black people and identified Williams with armed self-defense for Black people.

Mabel Williams, who had been together with Robert Williams for almost 50 years when he died in 1996, spoke eloquently of the historic struggle in Monroe in the late 1950s and through the 1960s. The government’s phony charges for an alleged kidnapping, but really for their militancy, forced the couple into exile in Cuba. There they became de-facto representatives of the oppressed and working class people in the United States.

She said that everywhere they went—Cuba, China, Vietnam and African countries—Williams told her that he did not want to represent the “ugly America” but be a good ambassador “for our people and for the whole human race.”

The Williams’ son, John C. Williams, told the audience what it was like to be raised by his activist parents. Forced into exile in Cuba, the Williams family saw firsthand what a socialist government can do for its citizens and guests.

John Williams also recalled the struggle to integrate a public swimming pool back in Monroe. Black people were forbidden in the pool because the white racists spread the lie that Blacks would leave an untidy discolored ring on the sides of the pool. By contrast, Williams said, the public schools and recreation areas were integrated in Cuba.

Other speakers included world-renown ed activists and artists Amiri Baraka and Amina Baraka, and Yuri Kochiyama. Kochiyama spoke about Black freedom fighter Assata Shakur, herself now living in exile in Cuba, and the $1 million bounty the FBI recently place on her life. Quoting Cuban president Fidel Castro, Kochiyama said, “Nothing will happen to her—she will be protected.”

Amiri Baraka recalled his many years of friendship with Robert Williams, whom he first met in Cuba in the early 1960s. He pointed out that Robert F. Williams was an advocate for armed self-defense before Malcolm X became known and before the emergence of the Black Panther Party.

Baraka also talked about the Mont gomery, Ala., bus boycott, reminding the crowd how truly correct Williams was in promoting the idea of “treat people as they treat you.” Racist White Citizens Councils and KKK members—also known as the state police—burned and bombed homes and shot dead or beat to death Black people. Baraka compared these acts of terror to the present international activities involving the terrorist Luis Posada Carriles’ attacks on socialist Cuba.

All the participants shared the sentiment of Robert F. Williams’ words on the banner hung in the front of the church: “We are going to have justice or set the torch to Racist Amerika. Let our battle cry be heard around the world—Freedom, freedom, freedom now or death.”