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Robert F. Williams, "Black Power," and the Roots of the African American Freedom StruggleAuthor(s): Timothy B. TysonReviewed work(s):Source: The Journal of American History, Vol. 85, No. 2 (Sep., 1998), pp. 540-570Published by: Organization of American HistoriansStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2567750 .Accessed: 18/11/2011 13:48Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at ms.jspJSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range ofcontent in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact [email protected] of American Historians is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access toThe Journal of American History.http://www.jstor.org

RobertF Williams,"BlackPower;'and the Rootsof the AfricanAmericanFreedomStruggleTimothyB. illianSmithwrotein e,earth."NorthCarolina,in 1936.Standingtheearthfirstshookon a Saturdayon thesidewalkonmorningMain Street,RobertFranklinWilliamswitnessedthe batteringof an AfricanThepoliceman,Americanwomanbya shoein townandhe didn'tmindusingit."an admirerrecalled,The sse"as "a six-foot,two-hundredpoundgorilla.Whenhe said, 'Smile,'I smiled."Eleven-year-oldin terroras describedthescene:Helms"draggedheroffto thenearbyjailhouse,herdressup hissexualprey."He recalled"hertorturedscreamsas "The memoryofthisviolentspectacleand icanmenon menhungtheirheadsin "Williamsrecalled.1of Afro-Americanstudiesat the UniversityTimothyB. Tysonis assistantprofessorof Wisconsin-Madison.I am gratefulto thosewhograntedme interviews,readdraftsof thisarticle,or otherwiseassistedin itsprepAmiriBaraka,JulianBond, David S. Cecelski,WilliamH. Chafe,Alex Charns,Jeanaration:Susan Armeny,Comstock,John Dittmer,Adam Fairclough,JamesForman,Kevin Gaines, David Garrow,RaymondGavins,Glenda wendolynMidloHall, HerbertHill, GeraldHorne, Stephen Kantrowitz,Danielle McGuire,Nellie McKay,KatherineMellen, LorraineMessinger,PerriMorgan,SydNathans,David B. Tyson,M. Hope Tyson,SamuelH. Tyson,VernonC. Tyson,WilliamL.VanDeburg,StephenA. Warren,CraigWerner,PatrickWilkinson,JohnH. Williams,JohnL. Williams,MabelR.Williams,RobertF. Williams,and PeterWood.LillianSmith,KillersoftheDream (1949; New York,1961),22; ErnestB. Furguson,Hard Right:The RisebyRobertCarl Cohen, 1968,transcript,ofjesse Helms (New York,1986), 30, 40; RobertF. WilliamsinterviewDec. 1967,pp. 4-5, box 1,RobertCarl Cohen Crusader,p. 3; RobertF. WilliamsinterviewbyTimothyB. Tyson,March10, 1993,audiotape(in TimothyB. Tyson'spossession).See also RobertF. Williams,"WhileGod LaySleeping:The AutobiographyofRobertF. Williams,"1-4,1996,ibid. I am gratefulto the Williamsfamilyforsharingthismanuscriptand otherfamilydocumentswithme. Withrespectto the"emasculatedblackmen,"thegenderpoliticsat workareglaringand important.On thisheavilygenderedand sexualizedlanguage,see TimothyB. Tyson,Radio FreeDixie: RobertF Williamsand theRootsofBlackPower(Chapel Hill, forthcoming).540The Journalof AmericanHistorySeptember1998

Struggle"BlackPower"and theRootsoftheFreedom541Knowledgeofsuchsceneswasas commonplaceas coffeecups in the Souththathelped to electFranklinD. Roosevelt.Forthe restof his life,Roberthad recentlyAfricanAmericanradiWilliams,destinedto becomeone of ers,tostorysearingcals ofhis time,repeatedthisand historians.He preachedit fromstreetcornerladdersto eager crowdsonin MalcolmX'sSeventhAvenueand 125thStreetin Harlemand to switnessTempleNumber7. He boreof his widelypubto the fervortoriumsacrossthe United States.It contributedlisheddebatewithMartinLutherKingJr.in 1960and dershipin the blackfreedomstruggle.Itsmercilessin his fingerson the nightin 1961whenhe fleda FederalBureauof Investigationa machinegun slungoverone(FBI) dragnetwithhis wifeand twosmallchildren,thathe isited bitterFidel Castro,Ho Chi Minh,and Mao Zedong. He told it overRadio FreeDixie,hisregularprogramon RadioHavanafrom1962to 1965,and retolditfromHanoiin broadcastsdirectedto AfricanAmericansoldiersin Vietnam.It echoed fromradiosin Wattsin 1965and fromgiganticspeakersin TiananmenSquaretransistor"While Godin 1966. The childhoodstoryopens the pages of his autobiography,Lay Sleeping,"whichWilliamscompletedjust beforehis death on October 15,we can finddistilledthebitterhistory1996.In theanguishofthateleven-year-old,thatshapedone of the South'smostdynamicracerebels,and thousandsof otherThat momentmarkedhis life,and his lifemarkedthe Africanblackinsurgents.Americanfreedommovementin the United States.2that"the civilrightsmovement"andThe lifeof RobertF. Williamsillustratesin verydifferentterms,grewout stforand dall of the elementsthatwe associateAfricanAmericanfreedom.In fact,virtuallywith"BlackPower"werealreadypresentin thesmalltownsand ruralcommunitiesof the Southwhere"the civilrightsmovement"was born.The storyof alaction,blackculturalpride,andoperatedin theSouthin tensionand inwhatWilliamscalled"armedself-reliance"and nonviolentprotest.tandemwithlegal effortsno placeWilliamshas thusfarhad fof the civilrightsmovement.Untilrecently,in the unfoldingnarrativelegal marchof the NationalAssociathe movementfocusedon the pathbreakingtion forthe Advancementof Colored People (NAACP) and the r.Dr. Kingand J. Garrow,have attractedthe energiesof ablebutand TaylorBranchamongothers.These worksopened newworldsof history,2 See TimothyB. Tyson,"Radio FreeDixie: RobertF. Williamsand the Rootsof Black Power"(Ph.D. diss.,1994); MarcellusC. Barksdale,"RobertF. Williamsand the IndigenousCivilRightsMovementDuke University,69 (Spring1984),73-89; RobertF. Williams,Negroesin New York,1962); and Williams,"While God Lay Sleeping."withGuns, ed. MarcSchlieffer

The Journalof AmericanHistory5424. nmanin frontofa "whiteonly"laundromat,Unidentified1961.In the SouthwhereRobertF. Williamsgrewup, blackmaidswashedthe bodiesof agedthattheyworecould not be launderedwhitepeople, but the uniformsand infirmin the same machinesthatwhitepeople Wzilliams.and the rangeofthe rootsof blackstrugglestheirfailuresto esM. Paynecalls"a historyblackself-assertioncal thaninstructive."3In thelastfewyears,a steadilygrowingstackoflocal and statestudiessensitivehas beguntobetweenlocal and nationalmovementsto the dynamicrelationshipLocal Peoplestories.JohnDittmer'sand morecomplextell larger,morerealistic,ofFreedomhavetakenus farbeyondthetelevisionand Payne'sI've Got theLz ghtcitizenswhomadetheblackfreeto theordinarycamerasand civilrightscelebritiesin thecultureoftheruralblackand to therootsofthatmovementdom movementand persuasiveevidenceofSouth.BothPayneand Dittmeralso presentextensiveplayed in sustaininglocal movethe indispensablerole that black self-defense3The e Historyof Brownv. Board of EducationBearingthe Cross:MartinLutherand BlackAmerica'sStruggleforEquality(New York,1976); David J. Garrow,(New York,1986); Adam Fairclough,To RedeemKing,Jr.,and the SouthernChristianLeadershipConferenceand cethe Soul ofAmerica:The SouthernChristian1987); TaylorBranch,Partingthe Waters:Americain the King Years,1954-63 (New York,1988); and TaylorBranch,A PillarofFire:Americain theKing Years,1963-65 (New York,1998). CharlesM. Payne,I've Got the1995),418.and the MississippiFreedomStruggle(Berkeley,Lightof Freedom:The OrganizingTradition

Struggle"BlackPower"and theRootsoftheFreedom543in Race and Democracy,his studyof the movementinments.Adam Fairclough,Louisianaoverthelongperiodfrom1915to 1972,challengeshisownearlierassumption that"the blackactivismof 1955 to 1965 displayeda unityand momentumDavid S. Cecelski'sthatsetit apartfromwhatcame beforeand whatcame after."profoundstudyofblackschoolsin nolder,moreconservativeRoad,pointsout the"notablecontinuityoverAmericanvoices,whichhad giventhebuildingofstrongblackschoolspriorityof blackseparatismand comand the rol."4of BlackPowertoucheson suchissues,thoughitsThe to beginafter1965and itsgeographychronologyjouror eamnorthernBlackPoweras a "newblackmood" or a "radicalnalismof the period,portrayingofwhiteliberalsandresponseto whiteAmerica"-a blackbacklashto thebetrayalsin the literature,The firstmajorbreakthroughthe assaultsof whitereactionaries.BlackPower"affirmedthe legitiInthatClayborneCarson's Struggle,recognizedin the ruraldeep South"traditionof armedself-defensemacyof a long-standingin Dixie. Carsonrecofblackradicalism""dormanttraditionsand thatit reflectedognizes that Black Powerrepresented"a logical outgrowth"of the freedomefforts"to instillin the mindsof blackpeople the notionthattheymovement'sBlackIn theseframeworks,however,could createa whetherpointa tragicdeparturePowerstillrepresentsor mDeburg'slandmarkNew Day in Babylonhas pointedbeyondculturaland psychotowardBlackPower'simportantdespairand disillusionmentstagein theVan DeburgrevealsBlackPoweras a tforCivilRightsin Mississippi(Urbana,1994); Payne,I've Got the4JohnDittmer,LocalPeople: TheStrugglesee Dittmer,Local People,among blackMississippians,to armedself-defenseLightof Freedom.Forreferences1, 47, 49, 86, 106, 166-67, 188-93, 215, 238, 254-86, 306-7, 310, 354, 358, 391-98. See also Payne,I've GottheLightofFreedom,44, 48-51, 54, 59, 61-62, 114,138-39, 159, 168, 176, 202-6, 209, 279-80, 287, 308, 314.see David R.in the freedomstruggle,Fora good local studythatrevealsthe importanceof armedself-defenseColburn,Racial Changeand CommunityCrisis:St. Augustine,Florida,1877-1980 (New York,1985), 35-36,Race and Democracy:The CivilRightsStrugglein Louisizna,1915-197254-55, 109, 208-9. Adam Fairclough,(Athens,Ga., 1995), 1; David S. Cecelski,Along FreedomRoad: Hyde County,NorthCarolinaand the Fateofand CivilRights:GreensBlackSchoolsin theSouth(Chapel Hill, 1994),10. See alsoWilliamH. Chafe,Civilitiesboro,NorthCarolina,and the Black StruggleForFreedom(New York,1979), 173, 237-39.5 HowardZinn,PostwarBlackPower:TheAmerica:1945-1971 (Indianapolis,1973), 208; ThomasWagstaff,in CapitalistAmerica:Hills,1969);RobertL. Allen,BlackAwakeningRadicalResponseto WhiteAmerica(BeverlyAn AnalyticHistory(GardenCity,1969); StokelyCarmichaeland CharlesV. New York,ofLiberationin America(New York,1967); ]up ait as "a strategic1969). Harold Cruseignoredthe rootsof BlackPower,presentingSee Harolddefeatwithouthavingto explaineitherthe basicreasonsforit or the flawsin the originalstrategy."Cruse, The Crisisof the Negro Intellectual(New York,1967), 544-65, esp. 544, 548. A morerecentanalysisand the(largely)Northernin thegoalsofthe ferencesand suggests. . havebeen overemphasized"movementsblackprideand blackconsciousnessand Western-baseda newsenseofselfand of blackculthatMartinLutherKingJr.and MalcolmX shared"thegoal ofconstructingture."See RichardKing,CivilRightsand theIdea ofFreedom(Athens,Ga., 1996),5. ClayborneCarson,In Struggle: SNCC and the BlackAwakeningof the 1960s(Cambridge,Mass., 1981),215, 299.

ckPower's"essentialposes hereis Van fgenerationsofblackpeople dealingwithpowerlessnessand surviving."6The lifeofRobertF. WilliamssuggeststhatbothBlackPowerand thecivilrightsofraceandmovementhavetheirrootsin whatPatriciaSullivan'simportanthistoryin theNew Deal-era Southcallsthe"traditionsoffreedomand citizendemocracyship" that, "born in the crucibleof orldWar II affordedthe blacksouthernerswho lopportunities;manywho stanceto whitesupremacy.And thosetraditionsare onlyremotelyrelatedto nonviolenceas it is conventionallydepicted.In fact,it mightbe Power,is theanomaly.A carefulsiftingofhistoricalev