Robert F. Williams, Epideictic Rhetoric, and the African American Freedom Struggle

Late in the summer of 1961, an interracial group of Freedom Riders arrived in Monroe, North Carolina, a town long mired in intense racial conflict, to join civil rights icon Robert F. Williams’s campaign to integrate the town’s facilities, particularly the public swimming pool and schools; to have all signs indicating white and non-white areas removed from public view; to achieve nondiscriminatory hiring practices in local factories; and to guarantee the appointment of African American citizens to positions within the city government. As president of the Union County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Williams had generated considerable controversy two years earlier when, in a moment of frustration over a series of racially-biased court decisions, he claimed that “the Negro in the South cannot expect justice in the courts. He must convict his attacker on the spot. He must meet violence with violence, lynching with lynching” (qtd. in Rucker 20).1 Although Williams tried to soften his rhetoric by explaining that he had meant only to say that the African American community must consider armed self-defense until such time as the criminal justice system guaranteed its constitutional right to equal protection under the law, the national leadership of the NAACP, led by Roy Wilkins, suspended Williams from his leadership post, but they did so only after a period of high-profile debate over the organization’s position on self-defense. It was in response to his being censured that Williams began to publish The Crusader, a widely-distributed monthly newsletter that served as a platform for his ideas and helped further elevate him as a militant voice within the largely nonviolent Civil Right Movement. The Freedom Riders who descended on Monroe that summer intended to help Williams integrate the town, but they also wanted to counter his advocacy of armed self-defense by demonstrating the effectiveness of nonviolent resistance in a town notorious for its bigotry and racist violence.

Williams welcomed the Freedom Riders as friends and allies, and they collaboratively organized a campaign of peaceful protests against Monroe’s segregationist policies.2 However, the protests attracted large numbers of Ku Klux Klansmen and other white supremacists from throughout North Carolina and beyond, and–as Williams had predicted would happen–the peaceful demonstrations soon devolved into mob violence. It was during the ensuing melee that Bruce and Mabel Stegall, a white couple who had traveled from out-of-town to join the racist counter-demonstrations, drove their car into Williams’s segregated neighborhood, where they were surrounded by a crowd of angry citizens, armed and ready to repel anyone associated with the day’s white-supremacist violence. What happened next is both confusing and disputed, but most historians agree that Williams offered the couple safe haven within his home, but that he would not assist them in escaping his neighborhood. His position was simple: he didn’t want them to be harmed, but he insisted that since they had found their own way into trouble, it was their responsibility to find their own way out of it. When the Stegall’s were able to leave Williams’s neighborhood in peace some hours later, the Monroe police charged Williams with their kidnapping.3 Unaware of the charges but fearing that he may be lynched as the town’s leading black activist, Williams fled North Carolina to stay with friends in New York.4 He thus becoming an unwitting fugitive from justice, a federal crime that landed him with an FBI arrest warrant.5 Convinced that he would never receive a fair trial in the United States, Williams fled first to Canada, and then to Cuba, where he was granted asylum by the Castro regime. It was as a consequence of these dramatic events that The Crusader found itself with a new base of operations and a new source of moral and material support, namely Cuba’s revolutionary society. Williams continued to publish The Crusader in exile from Havana, with a distribution of 40,000 copies per month, until he finally left Cuba for Maoist China in 1965 (Tyson 290).

Robert F. Williams examining his FBI wanted poster

These events provide an important context for The Crusader‘s transnational perspective. Williams’s newsletter is remarkable not only for its unflinching advocacy of armed self-defense at a time when Gandhian nonviolence dominated the American Civil Rights Movement, but also for its insistence that the black freedom struggle within the United States was part of the revolutionary anti-imperialist movements that swept so many nations in Latin America, Africa, and Asia in the 1950s and 60s. It is true, of course, that the American Civil Rights Movement developed a militant revolutionary wing in the late 1960s, and that this faction was very much in sympathy with the Cuban and Chinese revolutions, as well as the many anti-imperialist struggles exemplified by the colonialist/imperialist wars in Vietnam. The Black Panther Party is a case in point. But the Black Panthers did not publish the first issue of their iconic newspaper, The Black Panther Intercommunal News Service, until 1967, well after Williams had begun to distribute The Crusader from exile in Cuba and China. Writing in his biography of Williams, Timothy B. Tyson argues that The Crusader “defies the conventional narrative of the black freedom movement that begins with civil rights and ends with Black Power. In fact, virtually all of the elements that we have come to associate with the Black Power movement that gained national attention after 1965–anticolonial internationalism, black pride, economic nationalism, cultural politics, and armed self-defense–resonated in these pages as early as 1959″ (196). Indeed, Williams himself recognized The Crusader‘s novelty, especially in terms of its commitment to internationalizing the American Civil Rights Movement, a point he makes clear in the foreword to his unpublished autobiography: “Through The Crusader, we became the first civil rights group to advocate a policy stressing Afro-American unity with the struggling liberation forces of Latin America, Asia and Africa. We steadfastly maintained, in the face of vigorous opposition from white liberals and the black bourgeoisie, that our struggle for black liberation in imperialist America was part and parcel of the international struggle” (qtd. in Tyson 196). And yet, despite its transnational perspective, The Crusader never abandoned its commitment to the African American freedom struggle in general, and to the plight of Monroe’s African American community in particular. Herein lies one of the newsletter’s special qualities: it was at once local and global, concerned with achieving justice in Monroe as well as with the liberation of oppressed people everywhere.

Williams forged this relationship between the Civil Rights Movement and the transnational, anti-imperialist revolutions of the 1950s and 60s by articulating a set of shared values between these seemingly disparate movements. Indeed, the pages of The Crusader are replete with appeals to solidarity between the African American people and those of the revolutionary postcolonial societies. For a representative example, we may look to how Williams represents Maoist China:

The Chinese people support all peoples who struggle for justice and liberation. They whole-heartedly support Afroamericans who struggle against Jim Crow and racial oppression in the so-called free world of the racist USA. In the factories, in the store windows, on billboards, in recreation centers and conspicuous places throughout the land, huge posters proclaim the Chinese people’s support for oppressed Afroamericans. Even the small children of China express great admiration and sympathy for their oppressed black brothers of the barbaric and racist USA. They are very saddened when they hear of the terrifying plight of our people in America. (“China” 7)

The emotional appeal in this passage is obvious, but what is perhaps less obvious–and altogether more interesting–is the way in which Williams represents revolutionary China as a positive antithesis to the Jim Crow south. Whereas Williams came of age in a town that displayed “whites only” signs in its store windows and other conspicuous places, a town that exercised racist hiring practices in its factories and segregation in its recreation centers, he represents Maoist China as a society that has effectively transformed these sites of racial oppression into beacons of justice and liberation. The message is clear: the African American people have friends among the world’s struggling masses. This point is made explicit in the illustration of the “Non-Anglo-Saxon World” condemning “U.S. Racism” that Williams included on the title page of the February 1964 issue of The Crusader. The illustration depicts a diminished and isolated African American figure struggling to find his place among the giants of Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Williams directly appeals to his fellow African Americans to do more to forge bonds with revolutionary China when, just after the sentences quoted above, he writes, “We are extremely fortunate to have such honest, sincere, and militant people as our allies. We must do more to create a greater bond between our peoples” (“China” 7). Williams used The Crusader to create the conditions for such a bond within the minds of his readers, and in so doing he helped transform the consciousness of a generation of activists that would come to see itself as the revolutionary vanguard of the anti-imperialist struggle within the United States.

“You a Majority Charlie?” The Crusader, vol. 5, no. 2, 1964, p. 1.

The way in which Williams presented revolutionary anti-imperialism as the positive antithesis to the Jim Crow South is an example of how epideictic rhetoric, or the rhetoric of praise and blame, contributed to the development of a transnational consciousness within the American Civil Rights Movement. By engaging in a sustained and vituperative condemnation of American racism, and by unapologetically praising those aspects of the revolutionary societies in Cuba and China that he knew many African American people supported (e.g., social equality, economic justice, anti-racism, etc.), Williams articulated a clearly-defined value system that could serve as a point of solidarity between the African American community and the postcolonial communist states. In his recent overview of the pedagogical uses of praise and blame, Peter Wayne Moe situates the epideictic in relation to the shared values that animate a strong sense of community. For example, he defines the epideictic as “the rhetoric of showing forth, or display, of demonstration, of making known, of shining. And what the epideictic shows forth is the shared values of a community. These are the values the epideictic upholds, the foundation from which the rhetor can praise and blame” (426). In other words, one can only praise and blame effectively if those within the rhetorical situation share the values that render one thing praiseworthy and another worthy of condemnation. It is in the act of organizing these shared values–in articulating them into focus–that the epideictic has the potential to shape the contours of a particular community. Summarizing the work of Michael Carter, Moe states that “the epideictic can generate particular knowledge within a community, create a sense of that community, define that community, and establish a ‘paradigm’ for being within that community” (437). It seems to me that this is precisely what Williams accomplished in the pages of The Crusader. He drew on the shared values of an oppressed community within the United States and placed them alongside the values of a transnational liberation struggle, thus redefining that community in terms that were altogether more radical than anything offered by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), or the NAACP.

Williams’s use of epideictic rhetoric is evident from The Crusader‘s inaugural issue, but the epideictic becomes more effective as Williams develops a first-hand knowledge Cuban and Chinese communism, in part because they offered Williams something praiseworthy with which to throw America’s failures into high relief. Consider, for example, how he contrasts race relations in the United States and Cuba:

The U.S. is angry because of the example that Cuba is setting for all Latin America. She is also angry at the example in race relations that Cuba is setting just 90 miles from the racist USA. There are no racial barriers in Cuba. The U.S. says that oppressed colored people must be patient and wait generations for the attitude of bigots to change. Cuba has proven this to be a lie. Cuba has changed the attitude of racists almost overnight. Those who can’t take the change go to Miami to join the other racist scum of the USA. (“Cuba” 4; my emphasis)

Here, as in so many of his editorials, Williams condemns the United States as a center of deception and hatred in the world, while he praises Cuba for having effectively purged racism from its shores. The image on the cover of the April 1962 issue of the newsletter illustrates the point. Titled “Cuba: Territorio Libre de América,” the drawing depicts the Williams family being protected from American bigotry by armed Cuban revolutionaries. In the foregrounds stands Fidel Castro, one hand signaling that the racists should come no further, while the other cradles a dove of peace. Williams is clearly presenting Cuba as a land of peace and freedom, but also as a society that will defend the lives of its black citizens and allies. Indeed, in the editorial that accompanies this image, Williams writes, “A few years ago no black man could have dared expect a nation in this hemisphere to extend a friendly and protective hand to him after he had aroused the brutal caveman instincts of white racists determined to make a vicious example of an Afro-American fighter for human rights” (“Truth Crushed to Earth” 2). Cuba thus shines forth in the pages of The Crusader as an examplar of truth and justice, and Williams uses this shining to impress upon his readers that solidarity between the African American people and anti-imperialist societies such as Cuba “is where the heart of our victory lies” (“Truth Crushed to Earth” 2). This shift in perspective away from a regional movement for civil rights and toward a transnational revolution in social relations is made possible by the epideictic positioning of the revolutionary communist societies over and against the United States.

“Stop! No Racists Allowed Here!” The Crusader, vol. 3, no. 8, 1962, p. 1.

The way that Williams uses the epideictic to lambaste the United States while upholding Cuba and China as models to which the African American community should aspire needs to be placed within a Cold War context. It’s important to remember that Cold War America depended upon the idea that the United States represented a safe-haven from tyranny, and that the promise of America was irreducibly attached to the ideal of freedom and justice for all. When the horrifying realities of racism in places like Monroe found their way into the international press, the United States found itself in an embarrassing situation that compromised the moral authority it attempted to wield against the world’s communist nations.6 But The Crusader can’t properly be thought of as an international publication. Throughout its history, it was aimed squarely at an African American readership, and the praise and blame it showed forth was not intended to embarrass the United States in the eyes of the world, but rather to reorient the perspectives of its readers. By using epideictic rhetoric to expose the hypocrisy of a nation that announced itself as the lone defender of freedom in the world while subjecting its minority populations to systematic racism and violent bigotry, Williams invited his audience to reconsider the accomplishments of the communist world–especially in terms of racial equality–and to re-imagine themselves in light of that particular knowledge. That he was doing this before anything like a Black Power movement had taken shape in organizations such as the Black Panthers or the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) is a testament to Williams’s influence within the American movement for racial justice, but it is also a testament to the power of the epideictic to articulate and give shape to new forms of solidarity and community.

I presented a version of this paper at the Conference on College Composition and Communication annual convention in Kansas City, Missouri on 16 March 2018. Many thanks to those in attendance who asked questions and offered insights and/or suggestions.

Notes:

1. Two cases in particular motivated Williams’s controversial remarks. One involved a white man who physically assaulted an African American housekeeper who disturbed his sleep when she knocked on his hotel-room door. The other involved a white man who raped his African American neighbor. In both cases, all-white juries acquitted the men on all charges.

2. Williams agreed to participate in the demonstrations, but he refused to sign the Freedom Riders’ pledge of non-violence. His position remained consistent throughout his life: if attacked, he would fight back.

3. Monroe’s pro-segregationist police became aware of the Stegall’s presence in the Williams home when Williams allowed Bruce Stegall to speak with the town’s police chief A. A. Mauney during negotiations over the release of a group of injured protestors who were being held without access to medical treatment. Mauney claimed that Williams proposed a prisoner-swap–the Stegalls in exchange for the injured protesters–which is how he justified the kidnapping charges.

4. Williams was concerned about the large Klan presence in Monroe, but he also feared police chief Mauney, who had claimed earlier that day that he would see Williams “hanging in the Court House Square” by nightfall (Tyson 280).

5. The FBI had had Williams under surveillance since his teenage years, and their interest in his activities became all the more intense when he began to visit Cuba with the Fair Play for Cuba Committee in the late 1950s. The trumped-up kidnapping charges were no doubt a convenient excuse to apprehend someone they considered to be a dangerous political dissident.

6. Williams was instrumental in bringing one such embarrassing injustice to international attention. In 1958, two African American children–9-year old James Hanover Thompson and 7-year old David Simpson–were arrested after one of their white female neighbors told her mother that she had kissed Simpson on the cheek while playing a game earlier in the day. The girl’s parents went to the police with the story, and Thompson and Simpson were accused of attempted rape and sentenced to reform school until they reached the age of 21. As president of the Monroe NAACP, Williams helped rally international attention to Thompson and Simpson’s plight, and international newspapers were soon carrying front-page coverage of what came to be known as “The Kissing Case.” President Eisenhower consequently pressured North Carolina Governor Luther Hodges to pardon the boys.

Sources:

Moe, Peter Wayne. “Reading Coles Reading Themes: Epideictic Rhetoric and the Teaching of Writing.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 69, no. 3, 2018, pp. 433-457.

Rucker, Walter. “Crusader In Exile: Robert F. Williams and the International Struggle for Black Freedom in America.” The Black Scholar, vol. 36, no. 2-3, 2006, pp. 19-34.

Tyson, Timothy B. Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power. U of North Carolina P, 1999.

Williams, Robert F. “Truth Crushed to Earth Shall Rise Again.” The Crusader, vol. 3, no. 8, 1962, pp. 1-3.

—. “Cuba No Fallara.” The Crusader, vol. 4, no. 1, 1962, pp. 3-5.

—. “China: A New Hope of Oppressed Humanity.” The Crusader, vol. 5, no. 2, 1964, pp. 6-7.

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 2018 Micah Robbins

 

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