October 19, 1996
Robert F. Williams, 71, Civil Rights Leader


Robert F. Williams, a civil rights leader turned black revolutionary who lived in Cuba, China, and North Vietnam in the 1960s during an eight-year flight from kidnapping charges, died on Tuesday in Grand Rapids, Mich. He was 71.

Williams, who lived in Baldwin, Mich., had been suffering from Hodgkin's disease, according to his son John, of Detroit.

Williams was a decade or so ahead of the Black Panthers and other blacks who rejected the NAACP's doctrine of nonviolence. In 1959, Williams called publicly for meeting "violence with violence" in the civil rights struggle. For that, he was ejected from the presidency of the Union County, N.C., chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People -- the very chapter he had founded in his hometown of Monroe.

Two years later, he was accused of kidnapping a white couple and holding them in his Monroe home for two hours during an outbreak of racial violence. The circumstances were murky -- Williams said he was protecting the man and woman -- but the case prompted Williams to flee to Cuba.

From there, he broadcast appeals on "Radio Free Dixie," a half-hour program, for black Americans to sound a battlecry of "Freedom or Death." Williams was occasionally seen with Fidel Castro.

"Our people must stop allowing themselves to be beaten like common dogs in the streets," he said on one broadcast. "We will never receive protection until we return violence for violence."

Eventually, Williams and Castro had a falling out, in part over his unsuccessful efforts to open an information office in Havana, where he was living with his wife and sons.

Williams journeyed to communist China, where he was courted by Mao Tse-tung. Williams was provided with a chauffeured car, two cooks and two maids. "I had justice in China," he said years later, "but it made me feel guilty about my own people."

That guilt and what he called his duty to black Americans made him decide to return to the United States, which he did in 1969. He settled in Michigan to wait out a legal battle over whether he should be extradited to North Carolina to stand trial for the old kidnapping charges. To earn money, he became a lecturer on civil rights issues at schools and churches.

By the time he was ordered extradited to North Carolina, North Carolina prosecutors said the principal witness was too ill to testify, and charges against Williams were dropped in January 1976.

Toward the end of his life, Williams was active in the Peoples' Association for Human Rights, in Baldwin. He lectured, visited schools, and worked on his autobiography, according to his son John, who said his father was pessimistic about American society to the end and thought that the gains of the civil rights movement were being eroded.

John Williams said his father was a "revolutionary black nationalist" but was never a Communist, even though he sympathized with some of communism's goals.

His survivors include his wife, Mabel; another son, Franklin, also of Detroit; two brothers, Edward and John, both of Detroit; and two grandsons.  Another son, Robert Jr., died of leukemia in 1991.