Robert Williams in China: From a Promoter for Armed Revolution to a Nonviolence Activist, 1963–69

Saturday, January 6, 2018: 11:10 AM
Hampton Room (Omni Shoreham)
Hongshan Li, Kent State University
Robert F. Williams took his first trip to the People’s Republic of China in 1963 as a distinguished guest of the Communist leader Chairman Mao Zedong. He went back to China the next year and resided there between 1966 and 1969. As a renowned leader in the African American armed self-defense movement, Williams was thrilled to receive unprecedentedly strong support from Mao and quickly became an enthusiastic promoter for an armed revolution in the United States. However, once Williams decided to go back to the United States in late 1967, he gradually turned down the call for armed revolution and shifted his focus to challenging government orders as well as racial discrimination through legal battles in courts.

Based mostly on primary sources archived in China as well as the United States, this paper examines the dynamic interaction between Williams and the Chinese Communist leaders in the 1960s. Williams’ visits to China, this paper argues, not only led to a transnational alliance that helped reinforce violent rebellions in both nations, but also exposed the black activist to the implosion caused by the Cultural Revolution in the Communist country that made him more aware of his disagreement with the Chinese Communist leaders on class struggle, more appreciative of the progress made in civil rights struggle through peaceful reforms, and more confident in American political system based on the Constitution. Marking the failure of Beijing’s effort to integrate the civil rights movement into the world revolution led by Mao, the transition of Robert Williams from an ardent promoter for armed revolution to a non-violence activist demonstrated the diversity and complexity of the U.S.-China relations in the 1960s.

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