[Ppnews] Growing up Revolutionary: An interview with John Williams

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Thu May 19 11:10:25 EDT 2005

Growing up Revolutionary: An interview with John Williams, son of Mabel and 
Robert F. Williams

by Wanda Sabir
Robert and Mabel Williams. The most cursory search on the internet turns up 
a wealth of information on these amazing and widely revered 
revolutionaries. Rosa Parks, speaking at Robert Williams' funeral in 1996, 
said about this close friend of Malcolm X that those who marched with 
Martin Luther King Jr. in Alabama admired Williams "for his courage and his 
commitment to freedom. The work that he did should go down in history and 
never be forgotten."

"Robert Franklin Williams: Self-Defense, Self-Respect and 
Self-Determination" as told by Mabel Williams is a new audio CD that 
chronicles crucial moments in the life of an unsung hero, the late Robert 
F. Williams, former NAACP president in Monroe, North Carolina, author of 
several books, one of the more popular, "Negroes with Guns," which talks 
about his advocacy of self-defense and armed struggle at a time with the 
South was not governed by the rule of law.

Williams is an international celebrity whose story will hopefully gain a 
larger audience now that this entertaining and informative story has been 
documented. The CD release party is this Friday, May 20, 7 p.m., at the 
First Unitarian Church of Oakland, 685 14th St., at Castro. Both Mabel and 
John Williams, the wife and son of Robert F. Williams, will be present 
along with Amiri Baraka, poet and playwright, Destiny Arts and the Howard 
Wiley Trio. A $5-$25 donation is requested. The audio CD and 84-page 
resource guide will be available for purchase. For more information, visit 

When I spoke to Mabel Williams a year ago, she talked about her political 
awakening through her relationship with Robert F. Williams, her husband - 
talk about the power of love as a tool of transformation. The young woman 
who up to that point had taken for granted the unequal society she'd come 
to regard as normal probably couldn't have even imagined herself armed, her 
gun trained on the uniformed officer who had his gun trained on her 
husband. At that point it was, "If he shoots Robert, I'm shooting him."

Such is the stuff of fables, yet in this case the story is true.
Robert and Mabel Williams in later years

John, the Williams' younger son, now 55, said in an interview late Tuesday 
that it wasn't so much the violence directed at him that was frightening 
when at a young age he saw unspeakable brutality, but rather the violence 
directed at his parents that worried him the most.

"I was fortunate that my father was the caliber of man who believed that it 
was important to allow his children to live out the values he taught us. 
And so, at a young age -8, 9 years old - I was involved with the Civil 
Rights Movement. The Freedom Riders came down to Monroe, North Carolina, 
and I was involved with the sit-ins and all the demonstrations, even prior 
to the Freedom Riders getting there.

"Though I was much younger than the youth involved, my dad was head of the 
NAACP. Obviously, I was privileged and privy to a lot of movement kinds of 
activity, so that was a real blessing. From that, one of the things I 
believe as a principle is that we need to do more of that with young people 
In Havana, Cuba, in 1963, Robert Franklin Williams examines his FBI Wanted 

"So often, we as Black people tend to think once we have a achieved a 
degree of economic success, we shield our children and don't allow them to 
go through the hardships or even know these hardships. That is a grave 
error on our part. We just need to allow children to be involved in the 
struggle. This is one way to maintain some (level) of continuity."

I asked him if he was afraid of the people in Monroe, whose relations with 
his father, according to the archived records captured so brilliantly and 
succinctly on the newly released audio CD (AK Press), were contentious to 
say the least when the Williams' had to flee.

"The people in Monroe weren't happy about Black people asserting their 
autonomy, demanding equal access and refusing to participate in a system of 
government which refused to recognized the civil rights of all Americans. 
It was physically dangerous."
<http://falcon.jmu.edu/%7Eramseyil/hughes.htm>Langston Hughes wrote this 
poem for <http://www.ibiblio.org/southern_exposure/RFW.html>Robert F. 
Williams as a New Year's greeting and published it in 
<http://www.powells.com/cgi-bin/biblio?inkey=7-067973659x-2>"The Panther 
and the Lash" (1967). Nina Simone set it to music and 
it [mp3] on 
<http://www.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&sql=10:jx6ktr79kl1x>"Nuff Said" 

"I can remember many occasions as a child having fear, often times not for 
myself, but for my dad and my mom. I knew that my dad especially was a 
target. They attempted to kill him on several occasions, so I was very much 
aware of the dangers in this respect.

"But I saw the courage of my father and my mother - their insisting on 
continuing the struggle despite the potential consequences. That in and of 
itself was a lesson for me to learn about the meaning of courage. It was 
not the absence of fear, but doing the right thing in the presence of fear."

If you were 9, how old was your brother, Robert Jr.," I asked.

John replied, "He was two years older."

Interested in the residual psychological effects, if any lingered in his 
life, I commented:

"I just wonder about the trauma of the Civil Rights Movement, particularly 
for children and the adults also. One never hears about how they processed 
that. It was a war. Now we have terms like post-traumatic stress disease. 
I'm sure some of those same elements were present in the lives of those who 
were using their bodies as shields to protest the way things were at that 
particular time, so I'm wondering what did you do with that trauma, what 
did you do with that fear?"

"I guess one fortunate thing," John answered, "by the time I was 11, we did 
have to leave. One fortunate thing about that whole experience was like 
decompressurizing. (We) were taken out of the fire. It was the difference 
between night and day, the attitude in Cuba towards race relations."

"When we got off the plane it was a sunny day. It was warm. It felt so good 
getting off the plane and being in Cuba. On the way from the airport, one 
of the things that caught my eye - my brother and I commented on it - were 
the swimming pools. We were from North Carolina, two boys from a poor 
community meant we hadn't seen a whole lot of pools.

"It was amazing to see all these pools in the hotels and these kids out 
there playing. There were always Black and white kids playing. In Monroe, 
one of the major struggles was that Black kids in our town had to swim in 
mud holes, even though there were taxpayer dollars supporting swimming 
pools we could not use.

"The last demonstration before we had to go into exile was over a swimming 
pool, over Black folks having the right - a taxpayer's right - to a public 
swimming pool. To see all these (Cuban) kids having such great fun, yelling 
and playing, just enjoying themselves, was a great contrast. In a lot of 
ways that was a simple, though it was my first encounter in Cuba, it was 
symbolic of what was to come in terms of race relations and being able to 
go to school in Cuba, not having to have those same kinds of fears and 
worries we had in (Monroe), people coming by our home with weapons 
threatening to kill my father. It was a welcome change, to say the least.

"To be able to leave the country and live in a place that was no longer a 
hostile environment probably helped me tremendously," John concluded.

Soon after a protest against Monroe, North Carolina, city officials, the 
Williams family had to flee the country. The four headed for Cuba, where 
the boys attended boarding school. Three years later they were sent to 
China, where they spent five years. John and Robert Jr. finished high 
school there before returning to the United States with their family.

John described his return to this country in the late '60s early '70s as a 
cultural shock. He'd gotten used to being around young people whose values 
were different from those of young Americans. The students in China were 
"serious, focused" and committed to "serving the people." The boys, John 
and Robert Jr., and their peers didn't date and applied the motto: "Fear no 
sacrifice until you attain victory."

When they returned, 19 and 21, and entered college, though they hadn't been 
raised in the American system and had to work hard to catch up in certain 
academic areas, this discipline helped the Williams' sons make the honor 
roll each term and achieve their academic goals. This difference could also 
be traced to an international perspective absent among the American youth, 
a perspective which allowed John to see how all human struggles for decency 
and human rights were one.

"Obviously, when we were in North Carolina, which is something people don't 
seem to realize when they think about the Civil Rights Movement, when they 
look at it in retrospect, is that everyone who was Black was (supportive) 
when that was not the case. We also had to concern ourselves with Black 
folks who were cross with us because they felt we were jeopardizing their 
good positions with white folks.

"As children we'd often have multiple fights because of (our peers') 
parents talk about my father being a 'trouble maker.' Because he was a 
'trouble maker' who made them lose their jobs or experience more 'trouble,' 
we had to fight battles not against the racist government, unfortunately 
against our own community who didn't like (what Robert F. Williams stood for)."

John received degrees in Chinese studies and law; his idea was to use his 
legal knowledge to defend and liberate the many political prisoners 
incarcerated during the Black Power Movement. However, the state of Indiana 
had other ideas and would not grant him a law degree. Nonetheless, John 
continued to develop and participate in community based diversion and 
reentry programs which were geared toward keeping African American men out 
of prison.

At 9 years old John was active in the Catholic church, he was an altar boy 
and even considered becoming a priest, until the pastor of his church was 
transferred and the new priest arrived, "a right wing conservative (who) 
hated the Black folk. So obviously my membership in that church didn't 
last," John stated with a chuckle. Later on, however, when John returned to 
Michigan from Indiana, he recognized the power of the Black church and 
wanted to be near this seat of power.

"I really need to be able to approach church people and know how to talk on 
a level church people can relate to, so I said to myself, I need to put a 
little time into studying some of the sayings of Jesus. I'd recognized 
Jesus as a great revolutionary who walked the earth, who looked out for the 
brothers. I said, hey, I can relate to Jesus on that level. Plus I wanted 
to get a couple of really nice quotes I could use to motivate Christian 
folks to get involved socially to become politically and socially active.

"I started to study the Bible with that in mind and got drawn in. The more 
I read, the more intrigued I became as I learned about Jesus and what made 
him tick, his philosophy. Before I knew it, I'd read the whole Bible and 
came to the realization what was needed in terms of our struggle - that it 
could not be achieved by solely waging war in the natural realm, that it 
needed to also be addressed in the spiritual realm. For me it was a natural 
progression. When you do all you can do in the natural realm and it's still 
not enough, where do you go?

"What was disheartening to me was seeing brothers and sisters I knew who'd 
spent their entire lives to fight to improve life for our people on their 
deathbeds, (feeling) like their lives hadn't accomplished anything, that 
there was just this end. Having an understanding of spirituality I believe 
helps people struggle, do the best they can and not face death with all of 
these regrets."

Armed with the gospel, John decided to use this spiritual tool to wage war.

"For the first time, I knew there was a God and the reason He'd put me on 
the earth," he said. "I didn't have a sense of that prior to inviting 
Christ into my life and having for the first time an experience where God 
communicated with me; that just blew my mind. It was so radical; it do have 
that kind of effect on my life, so I changed."

His family was highly skeptical, especially his late father and elder 
brother, Robert Jr. But eventually his family noted his serious commitment 
to his beliefs and all supported him in it.

Twenty years later, John is pastor of Cass Park Baptist Church, in a poor 
community in Southwest Detroit. He describes his work as "outreach 
ministry," where the church runs a neighborhood recreation house that 
serves poor African Americans, Appalachian whites and, I presume, Native 
Americans and a large population of Hispanic immigrants.

John said that ultimately the struggle is not based on race, rather on 
principle, and everyone has a role to play.

"Individuals can make a difference. We need to think collectively and look 
out for the good of the whole. We need to truly love God's people. It 
doesn't matter what your philosophy is; it doesn't matter what kind of 
political philosophy (one has). If you really at the end of the day don't 
love the people when the chips are down, you're not going to do what's 

"It's that genuine love of the people that's so critical and fundamental. 
You have to genuinely love and care for the people to make personal 
sacrifices and understand when struggle comes the individual effort is 
critical, and you can't fight and make other people do (what's right).

"Struggle is important," he said. "It requires sacrifice," something he 
knows first hand when one looks at the work of his father Robert Williams 
and his mother Mabel Williams who took up the banner of liberation for 
Black people here in America and disenfranchised people throughout the 
colonized Western world.

"Everyone has a role to play no matter their role in life; they can make a 
contribution. The cause is to understand that fundamentally there is evil - 
evil exists in the world. The conflict that goes on is not just between the 
rich and the poor, the haves and the have nots, but it is also between 
spiritual forces and wicked forces that desire to actually destroy the 
people, the people of God, God's creation. It's really important to 
recognize the conflict in the natural realm is nothing more than an 
expression of what's going on in the spirit realm."

John stated that we should continue to unite with people who share our 
point of view on crucial issues to forge "united fronts," because 
"ultimately we're all in the same boat when it comes to the forces of evil. 
It's our challenge to allow good to reign on the inside of us, and we do 
that by being in the right relationship win our creator, who in turn 
demands that we be in the right relationship with our brothers and sisters 
- people made in the same image we are. Struggle is bigger than national 
boundaries, borders."

When I asked John if he'd always felt this way, or if the struggle had ever 
been a "black-white" thing, he said that for as long as he could he could 
remember it was always bigger, even though it played out in the United 
States on that stage and the immediate, pressing, in your face wrongs, 
fatalities and struggles were around race. The simple fact was that from as 
far back as he could recall, he'd always had white people in his life who 
were "good people," such as the priest who lived among the poor, ministered 
to the poor, the Freedom Riders from the North. From this he learned early 
on that the quality of a person is not based solely on the color of their 
skin, he stated with a laugh, as he reminded himself of the many fights 
he'd had with Black kids whose parents opposed the movement.

Email Wanda at wsab1 at aol.com.

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