“Radio Free Dixie” by Timothy B. Tyson

Published 16 Feb 2017

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The book “Radio Free Dixie” by Timothy B. Tyson tells an outstanding account of one of the southern freedom movement’s most famous but less understood personalities- Robert F. Williams of North Carolina. He was the president of the Monroe chapter of the NAACP. He first held national headlines in 1959. Subsequent to a white panel of adjudicators released a white man who had beaten up a Negro woman. Williams really furious at this decision of the jury; informed the reporters that in the future the black people must “meet violence with violence” and “be willing to kill if necessary”.

Even though the NAACP disqualified Williams for a while because of the remarks that he gave; he continued to head local campaigns in opposition to separate government schools, lunch counters, and swimming pools. In 1961, following an armed confrontation with whites, Williams took off the state and subsequently took sanctuary in Cuba. Supported by the Castro regime, he broadcast his weekly radio program, “Radio Free Dixie,” back to the United States for several years. Ultimately disappointed with Cuban communism, Williams relocated to China, where he lived as a privileged visitor till the time he quietly came back to the America in 1969.


This book revolves around Robert F. Williams and Tim Tyson proficiently used William’s story as a mean to comprehend the civil rights war. The author recognizes a few main reasons that made the progress of southern together with the impact of World War II on black expectations, the political pressures produced by the cold war, the pressures created by sexuality and gender issues, and the violence produced by white opposition to racial equality. Most importantly; he emphasizes that the freedom movement “had its origin in long standing traditions of resistance to white supremacy.” 3 The author further argues that the civil rights movement and the black power movement were not two totally different things instead they the same basics “and reflected the same quest for Black people’s freedom.” 4 Lastly, in this book Tyson emphasizes that William’s profession substantiates the survival with southern blacks of “an indigenous current of militancy, a current that included the willingness to defend home and community by force.

Thirty years after the publication of “William’s Negroes with Guns”, a historian has written an important account of Williams that, while not covering the whole story, sheds significant light on Williams’s important role in black liberation struggles. Tyson’s “Radio Free Dixie” is a well-researched case study and political biography that documents Williams’ enduring impact on both domestic and international struggles for black liberation in the age of civil rights. Contrasting the notion that blacks remained relatively quiescent during the heroic period of the modern Civil Rights Movement, Tyson’s study begins by examining the historic legacies of black resistance against white supremacy, especially in the South. Coming of age during the anti-colonial fervor of the 1940s the youthful Robert Williams developed a natural ability for writing as well as a penchant for political protest. Moving to Detroit in 1942 to become an auto-worker further developed Williams’s political consciousness. As Tyson notes:

Though he never joined the Communist Party or any of the other left-wing sects competing for influence in the black community, Williams read the Daily Worker and attended demonstrations occasionally, especially when the rallies focused on “cases in the south” and when “they would have black people doing most of the speaking.

During the war years Williams managed to serve 18 months in the Army, live for a time in California, read extensively in the area of politics and literature, and immerse himself in the race and class politics that characterized the era. All of these experiences would serve him well in the ensuing years.

Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power stands out as an important addition to the emerging field of scholarship on civil rights and Black Power era black fundamentalism. Tyson’s thoughtful study illuminates the myriad ways in which black fundamentals confronted American hegemony during the Cold War. Challenging anti-Communist hysteria that censored unpopular dissent against America’s domestic and international policies, black fundamentals forged international alliances to highlight an alternative to the political status quo. This included repudiating the philosophy of non-violence and its influential advocate Martin Luther King, Jr. Nonetheless, as Tyson’s bold study reveals, advocates of armed self-defense were more complicated and practical then their detractors claimed. Certainly, Williams’s greatest contribution was not in picking up the gun, so much as exemplifying new possibilities for American democratic institutions and apparatuses. Leaving no stone unturned in a struggle for human dignity, Williams highlighted the connections between domestic racism and the Third World and in doing so dragged issues of white supremacy, racism, and violence onto the international stage. Against frightening odds black fundamentals such as Robert Williams mandated placing the struggle for black freedom within an international context.

An examination of under-studied aspects of modern black liberation struggles the book is also an important case study of efforts by local southern blacks to end criminal acts of white terror and violence during the heyday of civil rights. Giving an account of the brutal anti-black violence that was planned under a regime of racial apartheid, Tyson demonstrated civil rights activism that obscure and augments conservative portraits of the period. White anti-black violence is too often glossed over in contemporary discussions of civil rights.

Black Death and injury was part of a historic blueprint of white supremacy that controlled black lives through threats and murder. Williams’s advocacy of “armed self-reliance” then, offered up a very real, albeit controversial, alternative against punitive acts of subordination and violence that black southerners were too-often victim to. Likewise, Williams’s political example served as a lightning rod for a younger generation of blacks all over the country seeking new avenues to oppose racial violence. Certainly, as Tyson argues, Williams’s advocacy of self-defense was based on a long historic tradition of black resistance to white supremacy. More research is needed to document how wide-spread such resistance was during the era of civil rights. Along with Gloria Richardson’s Cambridge, Maryland movement and the activities of the Deacons for Defense and Justice, Williams’s exploits serve to undermine notions that the entire black South locked arms singing “We Shall Overcome” in the face of increasingly mind-boggling acts of violence.

Author should also be applauded for illuminating the international dimensions of black liberation struggles during the age of civil rights. Contrasting the view of the movement as being domesticated due to the exigencies of the Cold War, author reveals a vibrant black fundamental underground that defied the dictates of the America’s State Department to form important and lasting coalitions with the Third World. It was not surprising that black American fundamentals should look outward for a way forward at home. In the past, black fundamentals have utilized the international terrains as both a figurative and literal symbol of liberation. For fundamentals during the age of civil rights, decolonization movements in Africa, Asia, and Cuba held out real possibilities of global redemption. Configuring Castro’s Cuba and Kwame Nkrumah’s Ghana as African-Americans’ last best hope for political freedom, fundamentals highlighted the international dimension of domestic struggles. While Robert Williams’s Crusader was on the cutting edge of such discourses, it was not the only one. Periodicals such as the Liberator, Muhammad Speaks, the Baltimore Afro-American, and Soul book all connected domestic civil rights struggle to the larger global arena during the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Even though the author provides a clear examination of Williams’s political utilization at the local, national, and international levels, he is on less sure ground in analyzing Williams’s political thought. Arguing that Williams was “neither a nationalist nor a liberal” the author fails to grapple with the complexity of the Black Nationalist tradition. Certainly, Williams’s ties to the white left, belief in the American dream, and eclectic approach to political struggle fits outside of more conventional portraits of black nationalism. Frequently Black Nationalism is narrowly defined as a focus on black pride that is both borderline anti-white in its practice and politically naive in its focus on culture and re-location to Africa. Simplistically decreasing Black Nationalism to caricature rather then political thought and action disallows for the depth and breadth that fundamental Black Nationalism has in the past exemplified.

Robert Williams’s political activity and thought illustrate tenets of Black Nationalism, socialism, internationalism, and fundamentals humanism emanating from one historical subject. As Author argues, much of what appeared in the early issues of Williams’s Crusader exemplified the principles of revolutionary nationalism that would be the hallmark of Black Power politics. An advocate of an expansive racial (inter) nationalism that sought to reconstruct American institutions, Williams personified a fundamentals anti pragmatic ethos of Malcolm X’s famous phrase by any means necessary. Using tactics that included protests and armed resistance, Williams was not above using his gifts of satire to cajole, prod, and humiliate local, state, and federal officials into action. Nonetheless, Williams was a fundamental black nationalist who utilized Black Nationalism as a bulwark against the dehumanizing ethos of white supremacist ideology. Williams’s fascinating exploits were enough to fill several volumes, and certainly much of his story remains incomplete.

Even though mentioned in author’s case study, Williams’s years abroad in Cuba and China as well as his decisive impact on the Revolutionary Action Movement and the Republic of New Africa and other fundamentals groups and individuals deserves further detailed study.

Emphasizing the means in which black fundamentalism pushed the cover of modern dialogue during the Civil Rights Movement; the author has provided a fresh reading on black liberation struggles in the post-war period. Dealing with state-sanctioned violence, white supremacy, and a leadership bound to prevaricating on issues of black freedom, black fundamentals copied an underground oppositional movement in the course of the crucible of whole-scale white conflict, violence and terror. Enforced into banish, detested and marginalized, murdered and missing, black fundamentals dragged issues of racism, colonialism, and white supremacy to the center of American and international discourse. In the progression, fundamentals opened a Pandora’s Box that forces of racial reaction are still attempting to close. “Radio Free Dixie” gives a logical example of the significance of these dialogues today.


By doing a broad research by means of different sources, Tyson has formed a well-ordered and interesting narrative. He evidently respects William’s bravery and persistence. Tyson also noted that the opponents of the adamant North Carolina thought that he unpredictably combined support for straight action campaign with a conviction in armed self-defense and an interest in fundamentals political thoughts, a stimulating and practical thinking that the author frequently preserve as a good feature. Tyson’s narrative discloses Williams somewhat as an exceptional leader with a remarkable personality, Nonetheless this would appear to make his personal story rather challenging as a allegory for the larger freedom movement. Overall, this is a significant and practical book, one that will motivate historians to re-evaluate few of their suppositions related to the civil rights effort.


  • Tyson, Timothy B., Radio Free Dixie: Robert E Williams and the Roots of Black Power (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999) 81-89.
  • Marable, Manning, Race, Reform and Rebellion: The Second Reconstruction in Black America, 1945-1990 (Jackson, MS: University of Mississippi Press, 1990) 58.
  • Joseph, Pentel E., “Waiting Till the Midnight Hour: Reconceptualizing the Heroic Period of the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-65,” Souls, vol. 2, no. 2 (Spring 2000).
  • Kelley, Robin D.G., “‘But a Local Phase of a World Problem’: Black History’s Global Vision, 1883-1950,” Journal of American History 86, no. 3:1045-1077 (December 1999).
  • Tyson, Radio Free Dixie, p. 40.
  • Woodard, A Nation Within a Nation; Bush, Rod, We Are Not What we Seem: Black Nationalism and Class Struggle in the American Century (New York: New York University Press, 1999).
  • James, Winston, Holding Aloft the Banner of Ethiopia: Caribbean Radicalism in blade, Twentieth-Century America (London: Verso, 1998).
  • Gaines, Kevin K., “African-American Expatriates in Ghana and the Black Radical Tradition,” Souls 1, no. 3 (Fall 1999) pp. 6-41 and 64-71.
  • Clemons, Michael L. and Charles E. Jones, “Global Solidarity: The Black Panther !:)arty in the International Arena,” New Political Science 21, no. 2, (June 1999), pp. 131-155 and 177-202
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