As we come up to the 150th anniversary of John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry we should also celebrate those who came after Brown and fought in his spirit. Robert F. Williams was heir to the militant abolitionist movement, but that part of the movement enslaved. Nobody’s boy, Williams followed his own path and this alienated quite a number of his supporters in his own life. He, however, remained true to himself and lived life fully always in the vanguard. He is as complex and compelling now as he was when he was alive. His freedom call has yet to be answered.
A hero of the black liberation struggle and the fight against imperialism around the world his story is completely absent from the dominant narrative on the movement for civil rights. If he is remembered at all it is for his militancy rather than the politics that informed that militancy. Williams’ voice is the working class voice of that movement. And Williams was not alone. The image of the Civil Rights Movement as being a single Gandhian movement is false. Whatever gains black folks have made these last years is as much a response to the methods of Williams as it was to those of King and Rustin.
His long and fascinating story; from North Carolina to a life of exile and an internationalist journey through the whirlwinds of history that rivals those of Paine and Che in its breadth and scope, finally returning to live out his life near Baldwin, Michigan is retold by his equally remarkable wife and comrade Mabel Williams in a recent audio CD and can be found here. Mabel Williams might be the most dignified presence I have ever been in a room with. She is still unwavering and a hero in her own right. Click on the video above to get to the rest of this nearly hour long interview with Williams. This is one that you’ll want to watch. Robert F. Williams, Presenté!