- “Catching Hell”Robert F. Williams’s Life as a Black Radical in Exile, 1961–1966
On the night of 27 August 1961, Robert F. Williams and his family escaped from Monroe, North Carolina, hours before a seemingly inevitable armed showdown between Williams’s followers and the authorities. At first on foot, the Williamses and a few collaborators evaded the local and state police barricades encircling his neighborhood before driving without rest to New York City. Racial tensions in Monroe had steadily increased since 1956 when Williams took over the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapter. The situation reached its climax with the arrival of a group of Freedom Riders to the town the week before the Williamses’ exit. A violent white mob besieged the Freedom Riders’ nonviolent, week-long picket of downtown Monroe on 27 August. Whites descended upon the picketers that afternoon until the police sheltered the activists in the town’s police station while also summarily arresting the group for inciting a riot. The incident downtown proved to be an epicenter for violent activity as gunfire erupted throughout Monroe. Phone calls inundated the Williams home over the next few hours with reports of state police, National Guard, and Ku Klux Klan caravans pouring into Union County. Williams and his family left Monroe that night in an attempt to defuse the situation and avoid considerable bloodshed. The Monroe Police Department then charged Robert F. Williams with kidnapping the Stegalls, a white husband and wife, whom the Williamses [End Page 121] had sheltered in their home during the unrest of 27 August. Within a few weeks, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) declared Williams an international fugitive for evading this arrest warrant.1 From exile, Williams attempted to continue his outspoken militancy while “catching hell” from the U.S. government and press, his Cuban hosts, and erstwhile allies in the activist community.2
Williams’s leading biographer, Timothy Tyson, firmly places Williams in the history of the civil rights movement. In 1958, Williams defended two young African American boys, aged 7 and 9, sentenced to reform school until the age of 21 for their participation in a kissing game with a white girl. His campaign garnered international condemnation for U.S. race relations in the midst of American Cold War propaganda celebrating the virtues of democracy. In 1959, the NAACP suspended his presidency of the Monroe chapter for his public endorsement of armed self-reliance. This expulsion created a debate on the merits of his self-defense philosophy at the NAACP national convention, even if many members condemned his views. In 1960, he traveled to Cuba twice as part of a group of influential African-American activists to document how Castro’s regime advanced Cuban race relations. In 1961, he faced fabricated kidnapping charges that transformed him into an international fugitive as officials in North Carolina and the federal government attempted to silence him. His mixture of civil rights tactics and black power rhetoric documents how the civil rights and black power movements “emerged from the same soil, confronted the same predicaments, and reflected the same quest for African American freedom.”3 However, Tyson skims over Williams’s time in exile from the United States. He characterizes Williams’s experience abroad as a disappointment. “The hard truth for all who admire Williams’s courage and leadership in the freedom movement is that, snared in exile, he became less a player than a pawn in the Cold War.”4
Tyson neglects to scrutinize this transformation, and perhaps “player” represents too high of an expectation for one man forced from his home. I contend that the limitations Williams faced in exile are essential to understanding how differences in the international Left about how best to support the black liberation struggle hindered the attempts of African-American activists to build an international movement. African American expatriates, wholly dependent on the goodwill of their hosts, most visibly bore the weight for the international Left’s inconsistent commitment to [End Page 122] black self-determination. The hardships Williams experienced while abroad can be extrapolated broadly to perceive the shifts in international support for the African American...