From the Introduction: On Trembling Earth
Emma Williams has sent her eleven-year-old son, Robert, to the post office downtown shortly after one of the regular Friday prayer meetings that met at her home. He was a thick-chested, round-faced, almost cherubic youngster with chestnut-brown skin and a ready smile. ?What a Friend We Have in Jesus? still echoed in his ear as he walked from Boyte Street toward the railroad. As Robert crossed the gravel railroad bed, he met a black man walking the tracks, clutching a pint of whiskey and singing, ?Trouble in mind, I?m blue / But I won?t be blue always / Because the sun is gonna shine in my back door someday.? The boy smiled to himself and headed on toward the courthouse square in the middle of Monroe, not suspecting that what he would witness there would shake his whole world.
Walking down Main Street, Williams watched a white police officer accost an African American woman. The policeman, Jesse Alexander Helms Sr., an admirer once recalled, ?had the sharpest shoe in town and he didn?t mind using it.? His son, U.S. Senator Jesse Helms, remembered ?Big Jesse? as ?a six-foot, two hundred pound gorilla?when he said ?smile,? I smiled.? Eleven-year-old Robert Williams looked on in terror as Big Jesse flattened the black woman with his huge fists, then ?dragged her off to the nearby jailhouse, her dress up over her head, the same way that a cave man would club and drag his sexual prey? Williams recalled ?her tortured screams as the flesh was ground away from the friction of the concrete.? The memory of this violent spectacle and the laughter of white bystanders haunted him for decades. Perhaps the deferential way that the African American men on the street responded was even more deeply troubling. ?The emasculated black men hung their heads in shame and hurried silently [away] from the cruelly bizarre sight,? Williams recalled.
Knowledge of such scenes was as commonplace as coffee cups in the American South that had recently helped to elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt. For the rest of his life, Robert Williams repeated this searing story to friends, readers, listeners, reporters, and historians. In the late 1950s, Williams used the story to inspire African American domestic workers and military veterans of Monroe to build the most militant chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in the United States. He preached it from street corner stepladders to eager crowds on 7th Avenue and 125th Street in Harlem and to Muslim congregants in Malcolm X?s Temple Number 7. He bore witness to its brutality in labor halls and college auditoriums across the United States. It contributed to the fervor of his widely published debate with Martin Luther King Jr. in 1960 and fueled his hesitant bids for leadership in the black freedom struggle. Its merciless truths must have tightened in his fingers on the night in 1961 when he fled the Ku Klux Klan terrorist and a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) dragnet with his wife and two small children, a machine gun slung over one shoulder. Williams revisited the bitter memory on platforms that he shared with Fidel Castro, Ho Chi Minh, and Mao Zedong. He told it over ?Radio Free Dixie?, his regular program on Radio Havana from 1962 to 1965, and retold it from Hanoi in broadcasts directed to African American soldiers in Vietnam. It echoed from transistor radios in Watts from gigantic speakers in Tiananmen Square. The childhood story opens the pages of his autobiography, ?While God Lay Sleeping?, which Williams completed just before his death on October 15, 1996.