As always, this blog is a space for me to freestyle and get my seeds of ideas out before class.
I couldn’t put down Radio Free Dixie. In fact, I read the entire book over the course of an entire day, with a small eating break every 100 pages. I haven’t consumed a non-fiction text that voraciously since… I don’t know when; maybe ever. Even after I finished reading the text, I went online to browse articles and wikis relating to Robert F. Williams, the KKK, the kissing case, and MLK and labor unions.
Williams has jumped near the top of my list of favorite historical figures, although I think I’m going to write this blog post about his exclusion from historical texts. Why did I not learn about Robert F. Williams until I was in my 30s and in graduate school? Certainly, I’m not the most well-read with regards to civil rights in America— but I’m nowhere near poorly-read. I’ve taken several history courses relating to the era at the collegiate level, but Williams was invisible to me until now.
The book (and Williams himself) posited that his peaceful death at an old age might have disrupted his chances of being remembered as a great black icon. Similarly, the book put forth the idea that his encouragement of self-defense (violence if necessary) put even liberal whites at disease. Philosophically, even though the book stresses that Williams and King were not that different, I would place his ideas of resistance somewhere between MLK and Malcom X (two ubiquitously historicized black civil rights leaders). In the end, Williams struck me as more pragmatic and realistic than either King or Malcom X.
When I initially considered the “why” of Williams’ exclusion from American history, I first jumped to the labor union connection. Segregationists (and the KKK in particular) hated labor unions almost as much as they hated the idea of free blacks. The book also paid careful attention to the effect of labor unions (both his experience in and his experience working with) on Williams. Labor connections dogged Williams for most of his political career, and detractors often liked to reference his connections (both real and imagined) to the Communist party.
Here’s the thing though: King didn’t exactly shy away from labor unions or labor connections. In fact, he was a stout supporter of organized labor.
Having pushed my initial assertions about Williams’ connection to organized labor aside, I next jumped on the idea of religion. We are all familiar with MLK’s religious influences, and most of us are probably familiar with Malcom’s conversion to Islam, but Williams’ religious influences were less apparent. While this seemed like a potential opening, especially given his previously mentioned Communist connections, I can’t find any substance to it. When I think of leaders like Garvey, I don’t think of a particular religious connection; religion is not necessary for historical civil rights relevance.
So ultimately, was Williams right? Is the reason the only monument built toward him is the drained and empty Monroe Pool because he didn’t die for his cause? If so, why do we place such an emphasis on martydom as it relates to racial equality in America? Does liberation history come with a lifespan?