Small things catch me. While reading a history book, I have a tendency to get pulled away on a tangent when the writer makes some small, perhaps even trivial, comment that strikes me as wrong. These journeys into minutiae can be rewarding, but sometimes they prove to be a waste of time. Sometimes these journeys make reading impossible. Hundreds of books sit on my shelves unfinished because some small thing sent me after the truth of some small matter. Sometimes this quest has led to purchase of more books that I start and never finish.
After watching a documentary* a few weeks ago, I set out to learn more about Robert F. Williams. The video mentioned Williams setting up a National Rifle Association (NRA) affiliate gun club for African Americans in Monroe, North Carolina in the late 1950s. Williams had been only vaguely familiar to me from a short essay of his in The Eyes on the Prize Civil Rights Reader (1991), which I had used a textbook in some classes I taught at Washington State University in the 1990s. The NRA affiliate caught me by surprise. Here was a piece of the Civil Rights Movement that has not been emphasized in most histories of the era. Maybe it had not been emphasized in any of them.
I ordered a copy of Timothy B. Tyson, Radio Free Dixie: Radio Free Dixie and the Roots of Black Power (1999), the book that offered the best prospects of illuminating this unknown (at least to me) story.
While waiting for the arrival of Radio Free Dixie, I spent some time searching the Spokane Public Library for books that might have a little bit about Williams. I found one. Bryan Burrough, Days of Rage: America's Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence (2015) is concerned with several groups of violent extremists of which the Weather Underground is perhaps the best known. The second chapter, however, is titled "Negroes with Guns". That chapter title came up in my library search and caught my eye because it is the title of a book Williams published in 1962 after he fled to Cuba to avoid trumped up kidnapping charges after he protected a white couple from violence at the hands of an angry black mob. The mob was still seething after Ku Klux Klan members from three states had descended on Monroe to disrupt an African American and white ally celebration after some direct action seeking to integrate area churches. The KKK transformed the celebration into a violent riot.
In Days of Rage, Burrough asserts his thesis and the place of Robert F. Williams in his story.
If the story of the civil rights and antiwar movements is an inspiring tale of American empowerment and moral conviction, the underground years represent a final dark chapter that can seem easy to ignore. To begin to understand it, one needs to understand the voices of black anger, which began to be noticed during the 1950s.Williams, he asserts, stimulated not only the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense and other Black Power groups, but these groups led to the mostly white groups, such as the Symbionese Liberation Army. Blacks led and whites followed, Burrough argues. His thesis is provocative and caught my interest, but then he seemed to erase more than two centuries of slavery when he asserted 1954 as a start date after African Americans in the South "had been subjected to almost a century of oppression, police brutality, discrimination, disenfranchisement, and lynching" (28). That timeline begins after the Civil War. Prior to emancipation, slaves did not vote and they suffered brutally. They were certainly oppressed. They may not have been lynched by the KKK, which came into existence after the Civil War, but they were routinely killed.
The next two paragraphs put me into a critical mindset as I grew more and more disappointed with Days of Rage. Then, finally, the existence of slavery was acknowledged with brief mention of the slave rebellions led by Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey. Even then, however, the author's suggestion that these rebellions in 1822 and 1832 were the beginning overlooks the significance of Toussaint L'Ouverture and the revolution in Saint-Domingue (1791). The American South was never isolated from the Caribbean. Events there affected events in the United States.
Nonetheless, I read on.
On the next page, I read that Burrough perceived a passing of the torch of self-defense (his metaphor) between five black men from 1959 to 1972. These five were Robert F. Williams, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, and the pair, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale.
The second sentence of this section stopped me again: "Williams spent his early years working in Detroit factories, where he became a labor organizer" (30). By the time I had picked up this book, I had read a dozen or more articles online about Williams. None mentioned that he had been a labor organizer, although work in Detroit's factories had come up.
This assertion gave me a reading question that had to await the arrival of Radio Free Dixie. The book arrived a week after I ordered it from some used bookstore in the Midwest. I read it through the course of several evenings.
Tyson's Radio Free Dixie offers no evidence that corroborates Burrough's claim. In Tyson's account, Williams joined Local 600 of the United Automobile Workers of America and read the Daily Worker, a publication of the Communist Party (39-40). In 1943, Williams was the youngest worker on the assembly line at River Rouge in Detroit. He did not remain at the job long, moving to California in search of better employment, joining the Army near the end of the war, and then returning to North Carolina. In 1948, he was back in Detroit working at the Cadillac plant. He rejoined Local 600 and read the Daily Worker in the washrooms. He submitted a "thinly fictionalized" story "of a black veteran's return to the small-town South" to the Detroit Daily Worker (62).
Where did Burrough get his information concerning Williams' alleged labor organizing? He does not offer the sort of citations that are expected of scholarly works. Burrough is a journalist and he aims his book at non-academic readers. Nonetheless, in the note on sources, he mentions Peniel E. Joseph, Waiting 'til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America (2007). Joseph offers a single sentence concerning Williams' time in Detroit.
A tall, broad-shouldered veteran, Williams was a well-traveled former industrial laborer who dabbled in poetry, consorted with radicals, and remained defiant in the face of racial terror in Monroe, North Carolina.Williams "consorted with radicals". I can imagine how sloppy note taking could mutate consorting into organizing, but Joseph does not call Williams a "labor organizer". Tyson offers more. Williams published a poem in the Socialist Workers Party newspaper, the Militant, in 1953. He also found another industrial job at Curtiss Wrights Aeronautics in New Jersey, commuting from Harlem, where he lived with his Aunt Estelle Williams. In Harlem, he spent a lot of time with "a group of white radicals whom he met through friends" (70).
Burrough went to great lengths to interview former members of the radical underground groups of the 1970s and the FBI agents who tracked them. Days of Rage may be a good book on the subject. However, the author appears to rely on sloppy reading of secondary sources for what he says about Williams. This may not invalidate his thesis concerning Williams' influence, or the influence of the Black Power movement on white radicals, but it does render Days of Rage a poor choice for learning about the Black Power movements themselves. It is too thin and not well-researched.
*In Search of the Second Amendment (2006) is available in full on YouTube. It is written, directed, produced, and narrated by David T. Hardy, whose law journal articles concerned with the Second Amendment are well-worth reading. The documentary strikes me as reasonably strong on the English precedents to the Second Amendment, on the revolutionary era, and on the mostly not often told story of the role of guns and gun rights in the antebellum Dred Scott decision and the mid-twentieth century Civil Rights era. When it gets to the past few decades, however, it becomes much more a strongly ideological brief for the NRA that is willing to delve into some weak sociology applied to cherry-picked crime data. Even so, this is my provisional opinion. My assessment is more a set of questions than a verdict.