Armed Self-Reliance

Reviewed by Robin D. G. Kelley

Vol. 21, No. 4, Winter 1999 p. 17

Timothy B. Tyson, Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams & the Roots of Black Power. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999).

Radio Free Dixie is one of the most important books on the black freedom movement written in the past decade. Challenging much of the scholarship that dismisses Robert Williams (1925-1996) as a marginal figure, if not a dangerous "crank," Timothy Tyson takes a careful look at what Williams represented to a new generation of militants who emerged within the Civil Rights Movement.

A native of Monroe, North Carolina, Robert F. Williams not only embodied old and established Black traditions of armed self-defense, but--as a hero to the new wave of Black nationalists--his importance at the time rivaled that of Malcolm X. Tyson offers a broad context for both of these traditions--militant armed self-defense (which turned out to be more extensive than historians have admitted), and black nationalism. Moreover, he makes the crucial point that "nationalism" is actually too small a category to contain Williams, who displayed a deep commitment to internationalism. He was drawn to groups such as the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, and upon returning from an historic trip to Cuba in 1960 accompanied by other black activists, intellectuals, and artists, Williams hoisted the Cuban flag in his backyard and ran a series of articles in his mimeographed publication, The Crusader, about the transformation of working peoples' lives in Cuba as a result of the revolution. His support of the Chinese revolution was evident in the pages of The Crusader as well, emphasizing the importance of China as a beacon of strength for social justice movements the world over.

Although Tyson does not deal with Williams' life and work in exile either in Cuba (where he broadcast "Radio Free Dixie," a program of black politics and music heard widely in the US), or in China and Tanzania, he helps us understand his impact even when Williams is thousands of miles away. His decision not to explore the period after 1962 makes sense since Tyson's primary goal is to write about the black freedom movement in the U.S. and not necessarily offer a full-blown biography of Williams.

Radio Free Dixie is less about a single person and more about a time. It captures the excitement of a local movement having national reverberations; it portrays the international dimensions of the black freedom movement by looking at the Monroe struggles in the context of African independence movements and the Cuban revolution; it reminds us of the famous Bandung meeting of non-aligned nations in 1955, which turned out to be a key turning point in the black liberation movement according to several leading black activist/intellectuals, including Robert Williams.

Radio Free Dixie persuasively demonstrates what very few scholars have been willing to admit: armed self-defense worked in terms of reducing violence. It is a provocative thesis (reinforced by a forthcoming book by Akinyele Umoja) that will be discussed and debated for years to come.

Robin D.G. Kelley is Professor of History and Africana Studies at New York University. His latest book is Yo' Mama's Disfunktional: Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America (Beacon Press, 1997).