How Southern communists, socialists and expatriates paved the way for civil rights.
That’s the title of the WaPo book review of Defying Dixie, The Radical Roots of Civil Rights, 1919-1950, by Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore.
As Gilmore demonstrates, the real and infinitely more complicated history of the modern civil rights struggle “begins at the radical edges of a human rights movement after World War I, with communists who promoted and practiced racial equality and considered the South crucial to their success in elevating labor and overthrowing the capitalist system. They were joined in the late 1930s by a radical left to form a southern Popular Front that sought to overturn Jim Crow, elevate the working class, and promote civil rights and civil liberties. During and after World War II a growing number of grassroots activists protested directly against white supremacy and imagined it poised to fall of its own weight. They gave it a shove.”
Mentioned in the review is Lovett Fort-Whiteman, the first African-American member of the Communist Party. Time Magazine called him “The Reddest of the Blacks.” He eventually gave up on the US, moved to USSR, found that Stalin’s communism was hardly his, was not allowed to return to the US, and starved to death in a gulag. Yikes.
The book focuses on expatriate rather than local activists (a seemingly odd choice) and ends in 1950, when the real battles began. However it amply documents in detail the huge contribution made by the hard Left in the early fight for civil rights.
Another forgotten hero is the amazing Robert F. Williams.
Williams lived in North Carolina in the 50’s, and headed a local chapter of the NAACP. The Klan would often drive into the black part of town, opening fire on homes. Williams trained other Blacks in firearms usage. The next time the Klan rode in and opened fire, they received a disciplined volley of gunfire in return. No one was hurt, and the Klan never returned.
He played a major role in making an international cause of the 1958 “Kissing Case.” Two black boys, 7 & 9-years old, were accused of rape for the “crime” of kissing a 9-year-old white girl. (Yes, thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s how insane things were then.)
In 1962, Williams wrote “Negroes With Guns,” which had a major influence on Huey Newton & the Black Panthers.
In the early 60’s he learned that the FBI and a multitude of other police were looking for him, so he moved to Cuba. From Cuba, he broadcast a radio show “Radio Free Dixie” which reached into the southern US. He then moved to China, where he was a honored guest of the government.
He returned to the US in 1969, and worked as a China scholar. In that rarest of occurrences for a revolutionary and freedom fighter, he died peacefully and in his retirement years – in 1996 at age 71 holding hands with his wife of forty nine years.
He was buried in a suit given to him by Mao Zedong. Rosa Parks spoke at the funeral, saying she and those who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Alabama “always admired Robert Williams for his courage and his commitment to freedom. The work he did should go down in history and never be forgotten.”
Radio Free Dixie. Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power, by Timothy B. Tyson is a biography of his life.