NEGROES WITH GUNS: Rob Williams and Black Power

Radio Free Dixie


Radio Free Dixie

“This was really the first true radio where the black people could say what they want to say and they didn’t have to worry about sponsors, they didn’t have to worry about censors.”
—Rob Williams, in a 1968 interview with journalist Robert Cohen

A photo of a rectangular white 1960s-era radio; a two-handed clock on the left side and a tuning dial on the right.

On Friday evenings at 11:00, radio listeners from Key West to Seattle tuned in to “Radio Free Dixie,” an hour-long program broadcast to the United States by Robert F. Williams and his wife, Mabel, from exile in Havana, Cuba.

“Radio Free Dixie,” created for blacks in the South, included cutting-edge music by African American artists, news from the front lines of the black freedom movement and fiery editorials by Rob Williams that railed against “rump-licking Uncle Toms” and “Ku Klux Klan savages.”

A profile of Rob Williams speaking into a silver radio microphone in a radio studio. He is wearing black, heavy-framed glasses and a suit.

Williams got permission from Fidel Castro—who granted Williams and his family political asylum in Cuba—to begin the 50,000-watt broadcast. The radio program not only kept African Americans in the South in touch with Williams and his philosophy that blacks should arm themselves against white racists, it also introduced listeners to new music, including what became known as “freedom jazz,” for the songs’ thinly veiled appeals to “unity, protest and resistance.”

“Radio Free Dixie” drew listener mail from the coast of Washington State to the ghettoes of Los Angeles to the shores of Long Island. It was even heard on Radio Hanoi in Vietnam. Eventually, CIA jamming and Cuban censorship crippled the broadcast, but WBAI in New York City and KPFA in Berkeley, California, often rebroadcast tapes of the shows. Fans also circulated bootlegs in Watts and Harlem: “Every time I play my copy,” one listener wrote from Los Angeles in 1962, “I let someone else make another recording. That way more people will hear the story of Monroe.”

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