It is done. Or is it?
Crowds of all races filed through the Capital Rotunda to view the remains of a lady who told the world she was tired and would not give up her seat. The Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin sang the seamstress to heaven in Detroit’s Greater Grace Temple. Senators and judges and civil rights leaders competed for seven hours to praise Rosa Parks’ courage.
But what would Rosa Parks have really wanted?
Nine years before her own passing, Rosa found her way to the small community of Monroe, North Carolina to speak at the hometown funeral of a man who unlike Rosa was often vilified by the civil rights movement as a dangerous radical who threatened to jeopardize the meager gains of the civil rights movement. She told the mourners of a close friend of Malcolm X that the work of a fiery defender of the world’s oppressed should go down in history and never be forgotten.
But Robert Franklin Williams attained international status in the late 1950’s after being forced to flee from North Carolina after forming a black self-defense group that was a precursor of the Black Panther Party. He life is an apt reflection of the saying that a prophet is without honor in his own country.
Although he was once president of the NAACP chapter of Monroe, he became frustrated as his neighbors were increasingly persecuted, harassed by the Ku Klux Klan, and stymied in pursuit of legal redress.
Williams advocated “armed self-reliance” and members of his NAACP chapter availed themselves of rifles in anticipation of attack, fortifying their homes with sandbags to protect their women and children when they were on patrol.
But the docile Negroes of the South could not accept Williams’ explanation that he called for self-defense, not anarchist war. Speaker after speaker denounced Williams at the 1959 national NAACP convention. Williams asserted that “We as men should stand up as men and protect our women and children. I am a man, and I will walk upright as a man should. I will not crawl.”
The NAACP nevertheless made him into a dangerous firebrand and suspended him.
But even the prophet of peace, the Reverend Doctor King was moved enough by Williams’ logic to issue agreement of Williams’ principles by stating that “when the Negro uses force in self-defense he does not forfeit support-he may even win it, by the courage and self-respect it reflects”
Perhaps King’s immersion in the teaching of Gandhi were reflected in an Indian proverb that “anger in defense of others inspires compassion, for Williams soon achieved international prominence; he was invited to visit the new Cuban nation under the leadership of Fidel Castro. Despite criticism of his trip by the national leadership of the NAACP, which felt that Williams was being used by Castro to attach the U.S. from inside, Williams vowed to see what this new nation was really like. His natural affinity for poor working people propelled him into the countryside to speak with farmers and other laborers; he was impressed that a true people’s revolution was developing. Williams published a reply to Roy Wilkins’ criticism of his trip in the newspaper he had begun, The Crusader.
“As for my being used as a pawn in the struggle of Cuba against imperialist and racist north America, I prefer to be used as an instrument to convey the truth of people who respect the rights of man, rather than as an Uncle Tom whitewasher of black oppression and injustice and an apologist for American’s hypocrisy.
“Yes, whenever there is oppression in the world today, it is the concern of the entire race. My cause is the same as the Asians against the imperialist. It is the same as the African against the white savage. It is the same as Cuba against the white supremacist imperialist. When I become a part of the mainstream of American life, based on universal justice, then and only then can I see a possible mutual cause for unity against outside interference.”
These words are remarkably similar to those of Marcus Garvey whose ideas influenced Rosa Parks parents. Many writers have tried to depict Parks as a political infant but she came from a very long and deep political family: she was a change agent waiting to take her destined role in history as was Williams.
But Williams was not destined to have a fulcrum to leverage his influence in the U.S. for long . After being falsely charged with riot and kidnapping in his defense of some Freedom Riders, he was forced into exile in Cuba. Never forgetting his people in the South, Williams took advantage of Castro’s offer of radio equipment to broadcast a radio program “Radio Free Dixie,” to the American South. Its message never faltered: fight for freedom with every muscle and sinew.
After a falling out with Castro, Williams found a more hospitable clime in Mao’s China, later using his Chinese expertise to negotiate a return to America when President Nixon opened economic doors to that vast land.
But why did he remain such a precious man to Rosa Parks? She was always personified as docile, far in temperament from Williams’ calling for armed guerrilla warfare in the cities of America.
Although it is just conjecture, is it straining very much to wonder if Rosa Parks harbored some resentment at her own exile from the South after starting the Montgomery bus boycott?
As president of the Montgomery improvement Association, Reverend King worked with the leadership and rank and file of the bus boycott after Rosa’s arrest to move the boycotters to and from work during the bus strike.
But who formed a committee to protect Rosa Parks when she received numerous death threats upon her life after the boycott was ended?
Is it possible that she always wished for a Robert Williams who would and could form a band of brothers to protect her and provide her with a livelihood after her contribution to the struggle?
Detroit Congressman John Conyers said during the week of continuous remembrances of Rosa that after he was elected to his first term in Congress, he knew that the first person he wanted to hire for his office was Rosa Parks. Fine, but the South had many businesses-what offers did Rosa receive from the region she had done so much for?
Rosa lived long enough to see the debacle in New Orleans when the Federal resources she and others fought so hard to utilize to secure the Voting Rights Act perform with ineptitude during Hurricane Katrina. The struggle to integrate buses in the South has solemn sadness when we consider the words of a doctor in the latest issue of The New England Journal of Medicine. The doctor who was on duty during Hurricane Katrina noted:
“I will never be able to sing “We Shall Overcome” quite the same again. It was painful to watch helicopters, ceaselessly evacuating insured patients from the roof of nearby Tulane Hospital while our 250 patients (at New Orleans’ Charity Hospital) were evacuated by twos and threes in boats said to lead to buses that sometimes didnot appear.”
The struggle to delineate and defend human rights is a long and difficult one. The leader of the New Black Panther Party, Attorney Malik Shabazz, told a heroic story of a spiritual descendant of Robert Franklin Williams. When the Black Panthers drove to New Orleans to help the disaster survivors, they were sent by Federal authorities to rescue a city bus which had been “liberated ” by a teenager who took a city bus to save residents who surely would have died without his help. It’s not enough sometimes to be able to sit on the bus; sometimes you need a driver.
Rosa may have wished for a driver in Montgomery to help her find work in her hometown since she was not able to work for many of her neighbors as a seamstress after her contribution-they were afraid as Roy Wilkins had been of Robert Williams’ trip to Cuba. As President Bush’s administration was of Fidel Castro’s offer to send more than one thousand doctors to help the sick and neglected of Hurricane Katrina’s fury. Afraid of accepting help from a nation that was exiled from the world by an U.S. embargo but still had compassion in their hearts for suffering people who had gone for days without food, water, or medicine. The Cuban doctors were never allowed to come.
After her passing, a U.S. Senator, the Detroit Mayor, and the U.S. House Minority Leader promised to dedicate a federal building and a riverfront development in Detroit as well as a statute in Washington D.C. with Rosa Parks’ name blessing them.
But Detroit-born poet Robert Hayden may have best visioned Rosa’s real desire and fitting memorial when he wrote of abolitionist Frederick Douglass in a poem entitled with the leader’s name:
When it is finally ours, this freedom, this liberty,
This beautiful and terrible thing.
When it is more than the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians.
This former slave, this Negro beaten to his knees,
Exiled, visioning a world where none is lonely, none hunted,
Alien, this man, superb in logic and love,
his shall be remembered, O, not with statutes’ rhetoric,
not with legends and poems and wreaths of bronze alone,
but with the lives grown out of his life, the lives fleshing his dream
of the beautiful, needful thing.
Robert Williams’ younger son, John, has become a minister in Southwest Detroit. He recalls his youth in North Carolina and later in China as preparation to carry on the legacy of his father.
In a interview with California writer Wanda Sabir, promoting a new audio CD called “Robert Franklin Williams: Self-Defense, Self Respect and Self Determination” as told by his mother, Mabel Williams, John Williams stressed: ‘What was disheartening to me was seeing brothers and sisters who had spent their entire lives to fight to improve life for our people on the 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, to do the best they can and not face death with all these regrets.”
Rosa left no biological children to wreath her legacy. But the beautiful needful thing poet Hayden speaks of is looking for new drivers for the buses. Are we ready for the road test?