28 July 2016


Robert F. Williams, Labor Organizer?

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.

My reading process is like the glass bead game in Hermann Hesse, Das Glasperlenspiel (1943).

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.
Burrough, 28.
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.
Joseph, 20.
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.

02 July 2016

Christian Sparta

The revolutionary generation who separated the American colonies from Britain and crafted a new nation managed to blend the secularism of the Enlightenment with Puritan Christianity into a consistent view of themselves, their needs, and the nature of government. At the heart of their views was the public interest. Gordon S. Wood explains in his seminal The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 (1969).
The traditional covenant theology of Puritanism combined with the political science of the eighteenth century into an imperatively persuasive argument for revolution. Liberal rationalist sensibility blended with Calvinist Christian love to create an essentially common emphasis on the usefulness and goodness of devotion to the general welfare of the community. Religion and republicanism would work hand in hand to create frugality, honesty, self-denial, and benevolence among the people.
Wood, Creation, 118.
One almost gets the impression that Wood had been listening to The Youngbloods while writing this book. In 1969, their version of "Get Together" peaked at number 5 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Come on people now
Smile on your brother
Everybody get together
Try to love one another
Right now
Chet Powers, "Get Together" (1964)
Maybe he was listening to The Kingston Trio who first brought the song to the attention of the public several years earlier.

For Wood, this view of the blending of Puritanism and eighteenth century rationalism embodied the hope that America could become what Samuel Adams called "the Christian Sparta".
I love the People of Boston. I once thought, that City would be the Christian Sparta. But Alas! Will men never be free! They will be free no longer than while they remain virtuous.
Samuel Adams to John Scollay, 30 Dec. 1780
Republican virtue meant shunning luxury and privilege. The common good took precedence over individual ambitions.

13 June 2016

Embracing Bias

When I began Patriots and Peoples, I had a clear notion to read and reread two books. Neither A People's History of the United States nor A Patriot's History of the United States pretend to be objective. As an historian who has challenged presumptions of and ambitions towards objectivity, the openly expressed ideological positions of these two books refreshed me.

Many friends and colleagues over the years have praised Howard Zinn's approach in A People's History. Others have condemned it. More often than not, the opinions expressed revealed when Zinn's biases were shared or when they were anathema. My hope was to examine his claims more carefully. To what extent does his bias help illuminate neglected history? To what extent does his bias distort facts and interpretations?

I have neglected this critical reading of Zinn in favor of the same questions posed towards Larry Schweikart and Paul Allen's A Patriot's History of the United States. Their book is close to three times the length of Zinn's and offers better documentation. As I examined the sources they cite, I learned a lot that I did not know.* I also discovered a consistent pattern of distortion. Too few of their sources make the arguments that they allege (see especially "America was not a disease-free paradise").

I was hoping for better research in support of conservative ideology. Zinn's distortions appeared to be of a different sort than those by Scheikart and Allen.

The difference provoked disillusionment. My interest in this project waned. Increasingly, I put my energy into my Chess Skills blog (now 1001 published posts). In chess, fabricated evidence and analysis holds no sway. Checkmate cannot be faked.

I would like to return to this project--comparing right-wing and left-wing histories with equal scrutiny. There are plenty of lies and distortions on all sides of the American political spectrum. These lies and distortions affect public policy and they affect our understanding of a shared past. Recently, however, it has become increasingly clear that the pursuit of evidence-based history is less bipartisan than one should expect.

*I am particularly excited about how the work of Richard Steckel and his colleagues have expanded my understanding of early America. I remain indebted to Schweikart and Allen for bringing this work to my attention. See "Footnote to Larry Schweikart's Claim".

20 November 2015

Refuting Ignorance

George Takei posted on his Facebook page a letter issued by David A. Bowers, mayor of Roanoke, Virginia.

The mayor's comparison of the Syrian refugee crisis to internment of Japanese Americans in World War II demonstrates that Mayor Bowers understands neither history nor current events. There is an underlying theme of xenophobia.

Takei's comments have gone viral, reappearing in many publications.
Mayor Bowers, there are a few key points of history you seem to have missed:

1) The internment (not a "sequester") was not of Japanese "foreign nationals," but of Japanese Americans, two-thirds of whom were U.S. citizens. I was one of them, and my family and I spent 4 years in prison camps because we happened to look like the people who bombed Pearl Harbor. It is my life’s mission to never let such a thing happen again in America.

2) There never was any proven incident of espionage or sabotage from the suspected “enemies” then, just as there has been no act of terrorism from any of the 1,854 Syrian refugees the U.S. already has accepted. We were judged based on who we looked like, and that is about as un-American as it gets.

3) If you are attempting to compare the actual threat of harm from the 120,000 of us who were interned then to the Syrian situation now, the simple answer is this: There was no threat. We loved America. We were decent, honest, hard-working folks. Tens of thousands of lives were ruined, over nothing. 
Mayor Bowers, one of the reasons I am telling our story on Broadway eight times a week in Allegiance is because of people like you. You who hold a position of authority and power, but you demonstrably have failed to learn the most basic of American civics or history lessons. So Mayor Bowers, I am officially inviting you to come see our show, as my personal guest. Perhaps you, too, will come away with more compassion and understanding.

-- George Takei

Learn more about our show here:

I might take issue with one small point in Takei's refutation. The Interment of Japanese Americans did take place after Pearl Harbor, but there was planning and discussion of the enterprise in the months leading up to Pearl Harbor. The degree and extent of United States actions against both the Japanese and the Germans prior to formal declaration of war is too easily forgotten.

Concerns about the loyalty of Japanese immigrants and their citizen children had been thoroughly investigated earlier in 1941 by Curtis B. Munson, who gathered much of his information from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Office of Navy Intelligence.

Munson addressed the prospects of putting Japanese Americans in concentration camps.
We do not want to throw a lot of American citizens into a concentration camp of course, and especially as the almost unanimous verdict is that in case of war they will be quiet, very quiet.
As quoted in Greg Robinson, By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), 66
When I taught this material at Washington State University in the 1990s, students would often insist that only late twentieth century liberal critics of the Internment Camps would use the term concentration camps. The textual evidence of the time reveals that concentration camps was the term used prior to Pearl Harbor. Only after the the declaration of war and the firing up of the government's propaganda machine did the term "relocation centers" come into use. Later, these camps were named "internment camps" to distinguish US actions from those of Nazi Germany.

01 October 2015

Richard Slotkin on Guns and Violence

Another school shooting today raises anew why these tragedies occur with growing frequency in the United States. Richard Slotkin spent his career researching violence in American culture. His discussion with Bill Moyers in December 2013 is worth viewing. Segment: Richard Slotkin on Guns and Violence | Moyers Company |

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