Editor’s Note | This article was published for a brief time on September 3, 2021. It was temporarily removed after a few individuals raised concerns over the use of the word negro in the article’s headline in order to allow the author the opportunity to add context to his use of the word. The author requested the following explanation be shared: ‘The title of this piece is consistent with the life and times in which the events occurred. Robert and Mabel Williams both used the term, and much worse, to get their point across in their “Crusader” newsletter. If you are offended by the title, please refrain from reading this critical exposé.’
HOUSTON — “They’ll shoot you as soon as you get off the plane.” Twas the night before Rob’s scheduled return to the land of liberty, Honest Abe, Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, 14-year-old Sally Hemings, and now Nixon. With his flight itinerary confirmed and decision final, Rob’s good friend, Zhou, was deeply concerned. “Why do you have so much confidence in the U.S. government?”
Rob was not in disagreement as much as he was rallying his shrewd diplomatic possession gained over the past two decades. “I don’t have any confidence in the U.S. government,” he replied, “but I was the only person from the United States to have lived in China and had contact with you and Chairman Mao and the Chinese people. So, for my knowledge, rather than kill me, they will want to question me. Now, they might kill me after, but they won’t kill me as soon as I get there because they don’t have the information.”
Zhou paused. Neither seven thousand miles of separation nor the maw of America’s caste system was capable of severing the construction of such a fine bridge. The architect had spoken. Now his friend was ready to place another large-scale pile foundation to help complete the cross. “I hadn’t thought of it like that,” Zhou confessed. “You know, you may be right. If you want to go home we’ll assist you and when you get to the United States you can work for improved relations between the two countries.”
Before Rob boarded his flight to the United States, Zhou provided him with video documentaries and other material about China to present to U.S. media outlets. The year was 1969 and the path to diplomatic relations between China and the U.S. had taken a giant step forward.
|By knowing the mother, we will know ourselves as her children. By knowing ourselves as her children, we shall live the life of our mother.
– Lao Tzu (6th Century, B.C.E.)
Shutting a consulate last year
The abrupt closure of the Chinese Consulate-General in Houston by U.S. authorities in July 2020 came without warning and amid blowhard aspersions of spying. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo miraculously extricated himself upward from his previous post as CIA director, where he said he and his colleagues “stole…lied…[and] cheated” in pursuit of national interests — a career path fully in keeping with the “glory of the American experiment.” He then proceeded to shift blame onto China for “stealing” U.S. intellectual property, stating “We are setting out clear expectations for how the Chinese Communist Party is going to behave.” China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, was unmoved, saying, unflinchingly, that the closure of the consulate was “unbelievably ridiculous.”
Opened in 1979 — the first of five consulates in the United States, not counting the embassy in Washington — the Chinese diplomatic mission wasn’t only a source of honor and prestige for the Asian giant but also harkened back a decade earlier to a time of global revolution. Resistance to the U.S. war in Vietnam raged on. Women from Guinea-Bissau transported ammunition in fruit baskets balanced perfectly on their heads to guerrillas who pounded the “tugas” (Portuguese colonialists). Angola and Mozambique would follow suit. Sheba Tavarwisa — one of the first female commanders of the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army — and other revolutionary comrades leveled Ian Smith’s white minority government. Angolan and Cuban troops smothered the last gasp of Apartheid’s military, emerging as victors over the South African army at Cuito Cuanavale.
Then came the New Jewel Movement of Grenada, the Iranian Revolution, the Sandinistas of Nicaragua, and the rebirth of Garveyism courtesy of the Rastafari movement. Had the rise against imperialism been effectuated by anyone other than the colored rainbow of humanity, historians and history books, under any fair estimation, would have recorded the times with a title more appropriate than the Cold War. The season sizzled far and wide and no beach umbrella was large or brawny enough to save imperialism’s booty.
Thawing the diplomatic tundra between China and the U.S. under these conditions wouldn’t come without a major heatwave. As of 1972, 25 years had elapsed since the countries last had official communication. Just then, a poor Negro couple, the grandchildren of slaves bought and sold like cattle by Christian Americans, appeared on the scene to help build a thoroughfare between the two global powers.
|To worship our lord and celebrate our nation at the same place is not only our right, it is our duty. … (Politics is) a never-ending struggle … until the rapture.
– Mike Pompeo during a 2015 speech at a “God and Country Rally” at Wichita’s Summit Church
From small-town lovers to global revolution
It was like, and unlike, so many love stories of the time. Still, as the year of clear vision — 2020 — attests, “raceland” America is no closer to reckoning with its history than it was in 1920. A year of merry elation, nevertheless, exists for the sake of true, bonafide lovers.
Married in 1947, Robert F. Williams, affectionately known as Rob, and his wife, Mabel Ola Robinson, began raising their family in Monroe, Union County, North Carolina. They had two sons, John and Bobby. It was the second half of the decade and commemorations remained on cue following the allied victory over Nazi Germany, for which classified negroes had fought under the red, white and blue. However, with Europe still smoldering beneath ash and rubble after six years of war, America was now enthroned as the world’s sole superpower, and “we still were not looked at as deserving human beings,” Mabel recalled. Efforts to make their community snug and homely never came to fruition. These were the times when U.S. laws and societal norms produced the Martinsville Seven and claimed the lives of George Stinney Jr. and Emmett Till.
“He (Rob) encountered all kinds of discrimination in the army and discrimination was everywhere and he was trying to get work and ran into all kinds of discrimination because of that,” Mabel explained. Besieged by unemployment, she would labor in various capacities to sustain the household.
As a cleaner at Eleanor Fitzgerald Hospital, Mabel observed, for the first time in her life, that negro patients and pregnant women were only admitted into the basement. While newborns were placed in a utility room where exposed plumbing snaked over patient beds, waste pads and basins were emptied and cleaned there. “And to this day I feel that that was a form of genocide…that they were actually using to curb our population, because they just didn’t care and, um, I’m not so sure that that mentality is not still there,” Mabel said during an interview. Asked to give her opinion about struggling against the double-edged sword of oppression as a Negro woman, she affirmed, “The power structure used that, I think, to split up our movement. I feel fine. I’m fighting for my rights just like [Rob’s] fighting for his. We’re fighting together for the rights of our people.”
Waltzing in and out of the Union County, North Carolina police station was a local KKK recruiter, such was the confluence between law enforcement and the terrorist organization. Rob had witnessed this dirty dance in broad daylight, just as he and a small clique of armed Negro men attended public Klan rallies to survey the events and show resolve in the face of despots. Home of segregationist and anti-Castro Senator Jesse Helms and his father, “Big Jesse,” who served as police chief, Union County was no stranger to these matters. But, in 1955, Rob was elected president of the county’s NAACP chapter.
Unable to persuade the “Black bourgeoisie — the doctors, the preachers, the teachers” — to renew their membership to meet the 50-constituent quota, Rob took his pitch to the local juke joint. “Hey you guys!” he started speaking amid several pool tables, “I’m the new president of the NAACP and from this day forward these white folks are going to catch hell.” Six new recruits signed up on the spot. In the coming days, the Union County NAACP chapter grew to 250 members. Under no circumstance, Rob implored his initiates, should they inform their employers that they had joined the civil rights organization.
Rob also helped establish the Union County Council on Human Relations (an organization that quickly dissolved before the battlecry of white power). Nevertheless, neither organization could expunge his boyhood memory. In 1936, when he was just 11, Rob witnessed Jesse Helms, Sr. beat an African-American woman to the pavement. He then “dragged her off to the nearby jailhouse, her dress up over her head, the same way that a cave man would club and drag his sexual prey.” He observed that “the emasculated black men hung their heads in shame and hurried silently from the cruelly bizarre sight.”
|It is well-known that the Black race is the most oppressed and the most exploited of the human family. It is well-known that the spread of capitalism and the discovery of the New World had as an immediate result the rebirth of slavery. What everyone does not perhaps know is that after 65 years of so-called emancipation, American Negroes still endure atrocious moral and material sufferings, of which the most cruel and horrible is the custom of lynching.
– Excerpt from “On Lynching and the Ku Klux Klan” (Ho Chi Minh)
With an increase of violent KKK incursions into the Negro community and repeated attempts on his life, Rob organized and registered a rifle club with the National Rifle Association (NRA). Explaining how their local charter application was approved, Mabel said her husband simply used fake professions, portraying group organizers and members as respectable white community members, the kind who had mistaken a young boy in downtown Monroe as one of her sons and beat him to a pulp. “Praise the lord and pass the ammunition” was one of their early slogans, invoked when Rob and other armed Negro men protected the home of outspoken schoolmaster and physician Reverend Baxter Perry.
Foxholes, trenches, and other fixed positions of defense were now incorporated throughout the community as armed standoffs, skirmishes and shootouts went down between Black residents and the KKK. The rifle club, however, which included Mabel and other Negro women, was swiftly shunned by the NAACP, and Rob was suspended from the organization. However, NAACP officials — including the organization’s executive director, Roy Wilkins — contacted Rob’s attorney, Conrad Lynn, to inform him that his client would be taken to New York City and made the “biggest Negro leader in the United States,” if only he renounced his standing policy of “violent self-defense.”
When it became clear that mounting death threats wouldn’t impede Rob’s more than enthusiastic activism, North Carolina Governor Terry Sanford, a Democratic Party member and former FBI agent, sent a Black state representative, a Dr. Larkins — “the governor’s Negro,” Mabel clarified — to speak with her husband personally. He told Rob that Mr. Sanford is understanding of the “economic pressure” he was undergoing and that maybe a cozy state job was all but assured if he “just didn’t start any trouble around here.” Rob, however, refused to move an inch beyond the 10-point community program already submitted to Sanford. When he later called the governor’s office to report the attempted bribe, Rob was greeted by “Nigger, you ain’t dead yet?” The voice on the other line was Hugh B. Cannon, the governor’s top aide. “No, I’m not dead yet,” Rob answered, “but when I die a lot of people are going to die with me.”
As the tension barometer climbed unimpeded, a posse of Klansmen drove through the Negro community with signs reading “open season on coons.” The very next day, a white couple, Mr. and Mrs. Stegall, found themselves driving down the same block. Accusing the Stegalls of hurling racial slurs at passersby, a group of armed men brought their car to a stop. Forced out of the vehicle and pursued by locals, the couple dashed onto Rob’s porch, pleading, as they did, to be escorted out of the community. Rob refused their request as quickly as they had jumped on his porch. “No lady, I’m not going to take you out of here because I didn’t bring you here and I’m not going to take you out; you’re free to leave whenever you get ready.”
As Rob tried to calm the growing crowd of incensed locals, including an unarmed Negro who begged for someone to hand him a gun so that he could execute the couple, a low-flying, single-motor airplane flew directly over his house. About 15 men at ground zero, some armed with M1 carbines, trained their sights skyward and fired. The Stegalls had seen enough. Panic-stricken, they leapfrogged past Rob into his living room. “I advocated violent self-defense because I don’t really think you can have a defense against violent racists and against terrorists unless you are prepared to meet violence with violence,” Rob would later tell film documentarist Robert Carl Cohen. “My policy was to meet violence with violence.” That policy, Mabel recalled, prompted U.S. media outlets to report that her husband publicly advocated for the “indiscriminate slaughter of white babies in their cribs.”
As the single-motor plane flew out of sight, a Klansmen caravan — vanguard to the local police on some days, janissaries on others — neared Rob’s home. A shootout ensued. Only hours later, after the tumult had subsided, would the Stegalls emerge from the house and safely return to their community. It was an unceremonious start to Rob and Mabel’s life in exile and a most unlikely path leading to diplomatic ties between China and the United States.
|Great multitudes of high flying birds wing their way homeward, racing against the advance of night. You watch them intently as they fade into the vastness of time and distance where the majestic palm trees tower in the forlorn and deserted valley… ‘The creatures and fowls of the earth have their nests, but the son of man has no place to lay his head.’ Yes, the birds are going home, but you… not tonight, nor tomorrow, perhaps never. Perhaps you may not even see the sun rise again.
– Excerpt from “Listen, Brother!” by Robert F. Williams
“State troopers are on their way and in 30 minutes you’ll be hanging in a courthouse square.” The voice was all too familiar. It was the sheriff on the telephone and Rob knew, unlike previous death threats, this call had a different edge. Accused of kidnapping the Stegalls, Rob presumed that a bloodbath awaited the Negro and white community. Instead of subjecting his family to any action on account of a lowly white couple who hadn’t traded rounds with community members, Rob had decided to take them out of town for a few weeks until the dust settled.
Arriving in New York City, Rob found FBI wanted posters hanging at post offices with his picture front and center. He and Mabel were now accused of illegally crossing state lines in flight from North Carolina justice. The family continued northbound. After crossing the Canadian border, they were greeted by front-page headlines reporting that the Royal Canadian Mountain Police, in a 15-year precursor to their capture and extradition of Leonard Peltier, had joined the hunt at the behest of U.S. authorities.
Having visited Cuba in 1960 as a member of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, Rob supported diplomatic ties between the Revolution and the United States during times of great hope and equal uncertainty. Therefore, when the news reached Havana that a friend of the revolution was being pursued by the KKK and U.S. authorities, Fidel Castro sent a wire to Cuban embassies around the world ordering them to assist Rob and his family if they reached their premises. Details of how that operation was mounted and carried out have dissolved out of recorded history. What is known is that in the coming days the family was able to make its way to Western Canada, then southward through California into Mexico, to land safely on Cuban shores.
|They say that on a quiet night if you listen hard enough and long enough you can hear the angry black people tugging fiercely at their chains all over America… It’s a monked up world… Niggers always fall short of qualifications when it comes to being entitled to equality, justice and democracy.
– Excerpt from “Listen, Brother!” by Robert F. Williams
Life in Cuba
Rob, Mabel and their two sons arrived in Cuba in 1961. After learning that the couple had halted publication of their newsletter — “The Crusader,” the first publication of its kind to identify their armed defense movement “as part of the third-world revolutionary movement” — unionized Cuban printers agreed to continue publishing it free of charge. The couple also received support from Fidel to produce a new underground radio show called “Radio Free Dixie,” which was broadcast to southern U.S. states via shortwave radio. Taking to the airwaves during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, Rob — harkening back to the turn of the nineteenth century, when David Fagan stripped off his U.S. corporal uniform to become a captain in the Philippine Revolutionary Army — spoke directly to U.S. Negro soldiers. “While you are armed, remember this is your only chance to be free… This is your only chance to stop your people from being treated worse than dogs. We’ll take care of the front, Joe, but from the back, he’ll never know what hit him. You dig?”
In Cuba, Rob and Mabel authored “Negroes With Guns,” a book that recounted extremist hate and violence perpetrated, matter-of-factly, against the Negro community in America and their last resort to protect their family and homes. Suzanne Weiss, author of “Holocaust To Resistance, My Journey,” recalled that the couple was very popular on the Caribbean island. Conjuring memories of her participation in the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, she told her colleague, John Riddell, that “the Black leader, Robert Williams, had been on our train to the Sierra Maestra. He was a hero in Cuba; Robert Williams Clubs had sprung up in Havana.”
With assassination after assassination of Negro leaders in the United States — as well as the murder of four young girls who were killed during Sunday school on September 15, 1963, when a white man tossed explosives into the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama — Robert reached out to Mao Tse-tung requesting that the Chinese leader take an official position on racist extremism and violence. He had written letters to several national leaders that same year — including the presidents of Ghana and Indonesia, as well as the King of Cambodia — but received no public response. Mao — having embarked on sandou yiduo (“three fights and one increase,” a reference by Mao to the struggle against imperialism, revisionism, and reactionaries in order to develop China) — was the only head of state to oblige Rob. In 1963, the leader of the People’s Republic of China released a statement titled “Statement Supporting the Afro-American in Their Just Struggle Against Racial Discrimination by U.S. Imperialism.”
In 1964, Rob sent a letter from Havana to his attorney back in the United States. It said, in part:
[T]he U.S.C.P. [Communist Party U.S.A] has openly come out against my position on the Negro struggle. In fact, the party has sent special representatives here to sabotage my work on behalf of U.S. Negro liberation. They are pestering the Cubans to remove me from the radio, ban THE CRU.S.ADER [newsletter produced by Rob and Mabel and eventually banned by the U.S. Postal Service], and to take a number of other steps in what they call ‘cutting Williams down to size’. …The whole thing is due to the fact that I absolutely refuse to take direction from Gus Hall’s idiots. …I hope to depart from here, if possible, soon. I am writing you to stand by in case I am turned over to the FBI.
Rob decided that it was time to leave Cuba. Before making a final decision on his next destination, and hoping that he could return to the United States with his family to defend himself against the kidnapping charges, Rob decided to apply for a U.S. passport from the State Department. He delivered his application to the Swiss Embassy in Havana. The request was denied.
|Brother, as a case of adding insult to injury, the two-legged devil has the gall to tell a spook, who can’t even use a public toilet without running the risk of losing his balls, that he is fighting in Vietnam for democracy and self-determination. Brother, what in the hell do they take us to be? What do they think we are?…A few niggers go to Congress and the man expects you to flip. He says this shows progress. In a way he sorta pisses in your face and says, “now ain’t you glad to be my nigger?
– Robert F. Williams
Life in China
In 1966, with their two sons remaining in China to continue their studies following a family visit to the Asian country, Rob and Mabel packed their bags and headed to the Far East. At the personal invitation of Mao, they landed in China on September 25, 1966 and were received at the airport by an honor guard and a slew of supporters. Chinese journalists used the term jienian (receiving) — which was generally reserved for meetings between presidents, prime ministers, heads of state and other top leaders — whenever they reported on the couple. Establishing themselves in Peking, Robert and Mabel would meet with leaders such as Chinese Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai, Chinese military commander and politician Chen Yi, Sri Lankan political leader R.G. Senanayake and others, who spoke about their experiences at Chinese communes and factories. A CIA intelligence report noted that Rob was “lionized and feted by top Peking leaders.” On October 1, 1966, China’s National Day celebration, Rob, standing alongside Mao, addressed an estimated 2.5 million people in Tiananmen Square.
Unwavering in his assessment that the Vietnamese were also being subjected to the “American concept of democracy for colored people,” Rob was welcomed to Hanoi during the height of the U.S. war. During his stay, he was introduced to an equally humble man who, working as a sea merchant nearly five decades earlier, had lived in Harlem, attended Garveyite meetings and authored a pamphlet titled, “The Black Race:” Ho Chi Minh. The leader of Vietnam’s independence movement told Rob that the Tet Offensive was partially inspired by the 1967 Detroit Riots, an event he’d read about in “The Crusader” newsletter. Ho also allowed him to speak to an American prisoner of war. When asked how did he arrive in Vietnam and why did leaders of the Vietnamese People’s Army afford him such courtesies, Rob told the P.O.W., “Well, I’m a guest… You came as an enemy, but I came as a friend.”
|Brother, was your great, great grandmother a Communist? Is your mother a Communist? Were the four little girls in the Birmingham Sunday School Communists? Is this why they were hated and butchered? Brother, isn’t it about time you started questioning Whitey’s motives?
– Excerpt from “Listen, Brother!” by Robert F. Williams
During his stay in Vietnam, Rob authored a pamphlet titled “Listen, Brother!” In it he told Black U.S. soldiers that their presence in Vietnam rendered them accomplices in a “big mob of savage klansmen who maim and kill in the name of Christian democracy” as well as pawns in a long-running “honky trick worked up against other oppressed colored people.”
Named president-in-exile of the Republic of New Africa, a black nationalist organization fighting for self-determination; and international chairman of the Revolutionary Action Movement, another black nationalist group, Rob took his message to the world revolution against imperialism. During his visit to Tanzania in 1968, he spoke with Foreign Minister Abdul R. M. Babu.
|Traveler, there is no path. The path is made by walking.
– Antonio Machado
With scant intel concerning China’s leadership and political functions, and desperately wanting to initiate talks with Chinese authorities so as to pave the groundwork for diplomatic relations, the United States government offered Rob and Mabel amnesty in 1969. The family, having leveraged their contact with top-ranking Chinese officials to foster the conditions for a settlement, decided that the moment was propitious to return and clear their names. “I don’t have any confidence in the U.S. government but I was the only person from the United States to have lived in China and had contact with you and Chairman Mao and the Chinese people,” Rob told his good friend Zhou.
“I hadn’t thought of it like that,” Zhou replied. “You know, you may be right. If you want to go home we’ll assist you and when you get to the United States you can work for improved relations between the two countries.”
|[Robert F.] Williams now clearly takes the position that he has been deserted by the left… Radio Free Europe offered him pay to broadcast for them. So far he has refused… He takes the position that he is entitled to make any maneuver to keep from going to jail for kidnapping.
— Attorney Conrad Lynn writing to his colleague, W. Haywood Burns
|If the Klan had known what a great education we would have gotten, they would never have run us out of Monroe. You know, the Klan, backing up the Monroe officials and the FBI coming in backing up the Klan and the Monroe officials.
– Mabel Williams
Upon his return in 1969, Rob, unlike his wife and two sons who had entered the U.S. without incident weeks prior, was taken into FBI custody as soon as he stepped off the plane. “Williams could be the person to fill the role of national leader of the black extremists. We should offset attempts by him to assume such a position,” detailed the Internal Security Division of the U.S. Department of Justice.
To what degree Rob’s jailing was a PR stunt remains unclear. His detention, similar to his one-week jailing in London en route to the U.S., was only temporary, perhaps an effort by the FBI to save face with the American public. Soon after his release, Paul H. Kreisberg, the director of the U.S. State Department’s Office of Asian Communist Affairs, wrote a letter to Rob. The official introduced himself as being responsible for “assessing information relating to mainland China and making recommendations regarding United States policy toward the People’s Republic of China.” He went on to indicate that their meeting would be held in strict confidence and that U.S. Secretary of State William Rogers “has indicated on several occasions that the United States seeks to improve understanding and reduce tensions between people of China and the United States.”
Invited to the U.S. State Department, Rob advised government officials on political, cultural and social affairs in China. He also spoke extensively with Allen S. Whiting, a U.S. intelligence chief, government expert on Sino-Soviet relations, and top aide to U.S. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger.
Subsequently, in 1971, Whiting briefed Kissinger on China days before his boss’s secret flight to meet with officials in Beijing. The move paved the way for U.S. President Richard Nixon’s historic 1972 official trip to China, thus ending 25 years of xinwen fengsuo (communication isolation), a policy that had been in place since 1950, when the United States banned its citizens from traveling and transferring funds to the Asian giant.
China, in a relatively short period, had come a long way from its century of humiliation. And while there was no longer a government program to rid the country of “America-loving,” “America-worshipping,” and “America-fearing” sentiment, the success of such programs and its revolution of renewal were evident from the start. When Kissinger convened with Zhou Enlai to discuss opening diplomatic relations, as well as the fate of an imprisoned American spy pilot whose plane was shot down over China, the Chinese premier interposed, asking what U.S. authorities were doing about Rob and Mabel’s outstanding charges.
His question floated up, unanswered. Though it seemed as if his U.S. counterparts had never heard of Robert F. Williams, records obtained by Rob through a U.S. Freedom of Information Act request years later showed that he and his armed guard in Monroe, North Carolina, as well as his good friend, Malcolm X, and other Black leaders, had been the subject of debate by high-level White House officials, President John F. Kennedy included. In fact, Rob said the records indicated that he, having led a strike as a teenager against racist practices employed by the National Youth Administration (NYA), had been under surveillance since he was 15-years-old.
As Zhou’s query nearly flew out of the meeting room, he kept it simple for Kissinger, telling him that if he was unaware of Robert F. Williams, he should make proper acquaintances upon his return to America.
|Although we had an association with guns, we knew how to use guns, we trained other people how to use guns, our children included,…Robert was the ultimate teacher…and he always taught…that a gun is a weapon that can do terrible damage to people and the only reason you would ever pick up a gun is for self-defense.
– Mabel Williams
Back in the United States, Rob was awarded a Ford Foundation Grant from 1970 to 1971, serving as a research associate at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Chinese Studies. He and his wife were eventually cleared of the kidnap and interstate flight charges and continued their community activism. Finally, they settled as family farmers in Baldwin, a small, trout-fishing village in western Michigan, their own version of Mount Vernon, until the end of their days.
Shortly before his passing, the NRA, in a strange twist of fate, invited Rob to their anniversary celebrations to deliver a speech about his experiences in Monroe and how his family was able to survive in the South with guns. Though his physical condition prevented him from attending, the organization honored his legacy just the same. Eulogizing Rob in 1996, an 83-year-old Rosa Parks gently made her way up to the church pulpit to hail “his courage” and “commitment to freedom,” reminding mourners “the work that he did should go down in history and never be forgotten.” In 1999, China opened a museum in honor of Mabel, Rob, and freedom fighters from other parts of the world who had lived in the country.
|By dint of hard work and the aid of prayers, they built a new world… They brought black savages from Africa, enslaved them, ‘Christianized them and civilized them.’ …The white man’s six-gun won the West and in your innocent ignorance you were glad that the saintly and civilized white man won. Yes, the mighty white man was bound to win because he had God on his side. After all, God is white too and white folks stick together.
– Excerpt from “Listen, Brother!” by Robert F. Williams
Diplomacy yes, diplomacy no
Rob and Mabel Williams: the poor, Black couple’s role in opening diplomatic relations between the two countries can never be underestimated, though it is routinely ignored. Ten years after their triumphant return to the U.S. and seven years after Nixon’s ping-pong diplomacy, the Chinese Consulate-general would open its doors in Houston, the very first in the United States. In the years to come, Chinese consulates would open in New York City, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles, as well as the main embassy in Washington. Rob’s counsel with his friend Zhou, prescient as it was courageous on that historic night in 1969, reverberated far beyond diplomatic pomp and pageantry, and the racialized degradation of days both memorable and all too present now.
|I never had any aspiration to be the leader. My ego never required me to be the leader. My ego never required me to be in front. In fact, I used to wish somebody else would be out there and I could be like the rest of them and be behind… Real leadership is not an honor. It’s a sacrifice.
– Robert F. Williams
Still, the gambit of stoking division, turmoil, and controversy — in China, as in so many other countries and communities of color — continues writing its inglorious history. In the nineteenth century, heroin addicts, 90 million of them, would beleaguer the Asian giant while Britain annexed Hong Kong as punishment for not being allowed to continue opium sales to the Chinese in exchange for tea. Nowadays, foreign military build-up in the South China Sea and mounting U.S. economic sanctions, to highlight just two cases, show just how far Manifest Destiny has come after packing its steamroll on gunboats and warplanes, its tentacles stretching across the Pacific to Hawaii, Samoa, Guam, Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the Marshall Islands. For its part, China, unquestionably, has come a long way since the days it lugged “inferiority in its bones,” and was “relatively backward,” notes Jin Canrong, professor at the School of International Relations, Renmin University of China.
|A recent poll from the Pew Research Center suggests that 73% of U.S. adults have an unfavorable view of China today. That’s up 26 percentage points from 2018 and back in 2010 the number was only 36%. What do you think are the factors affecting people’s view on China?
– World Today (China Plus)
As Harvard graduate and equally distinguished KKK member Lothrop Stoddard hints in the title of his 1920 literary classic and New York Times editorial favorite, “The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy,” China’s ascendance, like the phoenix soaring above the Yellow River, has been an intolerable feat to watch. No other country on earth has lifted more people, 800 million and counting, out of poverty; Chinese universities match and outperform coveted elite colleges in the West; technological and biochemical advances continue at pace, and the list goes on.
These gains have come in spite of the western world’s longstanding efforts to smear and oppose the Asian giant and, while an Ivy League Klansman would be heavily medicated in 2020 — diagnosed with severe, if not incurable bipolarism — Stoddard’s poignant, century-old analysis still qualifies. “Toward the close of the nineteenth century the world had been earnestly discussing the “break-up” of China,” he writes, continuing:
The huge empire, with its 400,000,000 of people, one-fourth the entire human race, seemed at that time plunged in so hopeless a lethargy as to be foredoomed to speedy ruin. About the apparently moribund carcass, the eagles of the earth were already gathered, planning a ‘partition of China’ analogous to the recent partition of Africa. The partition of China, however, never came off.
Nixon’s former speechwriter, William Safire, may have been even less flattering in his assessment. Interviewing his former boss in 1994 for The New York Times, he stated that the “old realist who had played the China card to exploit the split in the Communist world, replied with some sadness that he was not as hopeful as he had once been: We may have created a Frankenstein.” His monstrous reference to China was not a far stretch from former CIA Station Chief Daniel Hoffman, who said the closure of the Chinese Embassy in Houston by U.S. authorities represents “the bellwethers of a twenty-first-century cold war.” Not a week would go by before Chinese authorities ordered the shutting of the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu.
Silk Roads of history
|It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice.
– Deng Xiaoping
In 600 B.C., there lived an old fellow. Some say he was 80 years of age, more or less. The hermit and former librarian and historian of China’s imperial court headed west. Reaching the border, a guard asked him to deliver a synthesis of his travels and ruminations amidst the crowns of nature over the past four decades. The old man — Lao Tzu, he called himself — extended his hand, presenting the functionary with a short manuscript containing 81 poems, aphorisms, or what have you. Despite his having walked for so long and such distance, one poem read: “To know the world / It’s not necessary to travel the world / I can learn the secrets of the world / Without looking out of my room window.” Touched by the offering, the guard stepped aside. Lao Tzu then crossed the border and was never heard of again.
The border guard continued reading, interpreting and reinterpreting the artistic curves and elasticity of the Chinese ideograms contained in the manuscript, so unlike the rigid uniformity of the Latin alphabet as a courier for understanding. Eventually, he would reach poem number 39, a time-immemorial response to the agents of division and unrest, both past and present, a secret to the success of any nation or community hounded by enemies:
All plurality resides in oneness / And these two are one in the same / The sky is pure because it is One / Spiritual powers are active / Because they are one / All that is powerful / Is due to its oneness / All living things exist / Thanks to its oneness.
That oneness, China, comprises well over three thousand years of recorded history, and its heirs — young and old, near and afar — remember and honor their forebears like yesterday.
The Robert F. Williams Papers, manuscripts and writings, fully digitized episodes of Radio Free Dixie, “The Crusader” newsletter, correspondence, and other documents are available at the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan.
Feature photo | Mabel and Robert at the Beijing Working People’s Cultural Palace on May Day, 1967. @DabSquad_Slank | Twitter
Julian Cola is a translator (Brazilian-Portuguese to English). A former staff writer at the pan-Latin American news outlet, teleSUR, his articles and essays also appear in Africa is a Country, Black Agenda Report, Truthout, Counterpunch and elsewhere.