Though SNCC representatives pleaded with King to join them on the Freedom Rides, he declined, citing his probation for a May 1960 traffic violation.1 In this telegram, Williams, who had clashed with King in 1959 over the role of self-defense in the movement, calls King a “phony” for refusing to participate and challenges him to “lead the way by example.”2
rev martin luther king
208 auburn ave ne atla
the cause of human decency and black liberation demands that you physically ride the buses with our gallant freedom riders. no sincere leader asks his followers to make sacrifices that he himself will not endure. you are a phony. gandhi was always in the forefront suffering with his people.3 if you are the leader of this non violent movement lead with way by example. you are betraying our cause by attempting to appease our enemies ride the buses as the students have ask you to. if you lack the courage, remove yourself from the vanguard. i personally challenge you to ride for freedom. now is the time for true leaders to take to the field of battle
robert f williams
president union county branch naacp.
1. For more on King’s probation, see note 187, Introduction in Papers 5:37. On 22 May representatives from SNCC and SCLC met at the Montgomery YMCA to discuss the future of the Freedom Rides. During the meeting the students asked King to ride the buses with them (see Lewis and D’Orso, Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement[New York: Harcourt Brace, 1998], pp. 163–164).
2. Following King’s refusal to join the Freedom Rides, Williams wrote in his newsletter The Crusaderthat many freedom riders were angered by King’s refusal to join the campaign because they, too, had suspended sentences: “It is pathetic that some of the students are under suspended sentences and some are three and four time losers for freedom, yet they are participating. Maybe, in King’s estimation, they are just students and only stand to lose their lives or careers while he stands to lose a fortune in struggle and blood money” (The Crusader 2, no. 31 [5 June 1961]). Williams also criticized King for wanting to “ride the great wave of publicity but not the buses” and purported that if King is the “undisputed leader as the white folks claim he is,” he needs to ride the buses or “quit the scene” (The Crusader, 5 June 1961). Robert Franklin Williams (1925–1996), the grandson of a former slave, was born in Monroe, North Carolina. After serving in the U.S. Army and Marine Corps, Williams returned to Monroe in the mid1950s, where he became president of the local chapter of the NAACP. In 1959, Williams was suspended from the NAACP after he advocated self-defense in response to the acquittal of a white man charged with raping a black woman. His statement sparked a debate between himself and King on the efficacy of nonviolence (see Introduction in Papers 5:17–18). In 1961 Williams was indicted for kidnapping a white couple in Monroe, but fled to Cuba with his family. While there, he wrote his memoir, Negroes with Guns (1962), continued to publish his newsletter The Crusader, and started “Radio Free Dixie,” a revolutionary radio program. At the invitation of Mao Zedong, Williams moved to China in 1965, staying until he returned to the U.S. in 1969. In Detroit, Williams worked at the University of Michigan’s Center for Chinese Studies for a year and played a significant role in the opening of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and China. The kidnapping charges were dropped in 1976.
3. Williams elaborated on this point in his 5 June 1961 newsletter: “Gandhi was a leader who lead by example and suffered with his people. Gandhi never asked his followers to make any sacrifice that he was not himself willing to make.”
MLKP, MBU, Martin Luther King, Jr., Papers, 1954-1968, Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, Boston University, Boston, Mass., Box 59, folder 51 (CSKV87-A10)