Robert Williams, one of the first blacks in the late '50s and early '60s to advocate meeting racial violence with counter-violence, found himself several years later shuddering at the thought of violence.
Williams, who fled this country in 1961 and lived for eight years in Cuba and China, was standing at a rally in Peking Square.
"The speaker shouted out in a loud voice, 'We're Marxists-Leninists.' He spoke with a lot of power. I drew up and started to quiver. I wondered what was going to happen. Maybe there would be trouble.
"Then I relaxed. I remembered where I was. I wasn't accustomed to hearing that kind of talk in this country."
Williams, 52, reminisced about living five years in Cuba and three years in China when he was in Washington this week speaking to university and community groups.
The soft-spoken former NAACP official fled the country under charges of kidnaping a white couple in Monroe, N.C., during a racial disturbance. As an advocate of black self-defense in racial conflicts, he became a hero to Afro-American radicals. His credits included authorship of the book, "Negroes with Guns."
Williams became a symbol of black militant resistance again when he returned in 1969. He successfully fought extradition attempts by the state of North Carolina until the kidnapping charges were dropped in 1975.
Williams, a nefty 5-feet, 10 1/2 inches and 225 pounds, wears a goatee that resembles a chiseled extension of his chin. He smiles easily and frequently uses vernacular such as "baby," and "man."
Williams wears a dark blue Chinese-style suit while speaking Thursday night at Howard University. He doesn't talk like a political ideologue. And he says he isn't one.
"They call me an extremist," he explains. "I wasn't trying to overthrow the government when I was here. I was opposed to the racist tyranny. Chairman Mao once said to me, 'Williams, we know you're not a Communist, but we can't get along with him.'"
Since his 1969 return, Williams has lectured, written articles for foreign and U.S. publications while living quietly with his wife Mabel in Baldwin, Mich., a rural town of about 2,500 in the northern part of the state.
He and his wife, a Community Action worker with senior citizens, live frugally. "My car has 100,000 miles on it," he laughs. "One reason we live in a rural area is that it's cheap."
When he first returned, William lectured frequently. "But the FBI started pressuring university officials to keep me off campus," he claims, smiling sardonically and stroking his goatee. "The FBI still still ask my neighbors about me. Hoover is dead. I thought Hooverism died with him."
Speaking to an audience of about 500 at Howard, Williams, a mill worker before fleeing the country, says the FBI had 32 volumes on his political activities.
"But they want to charge me $1,000 to get them under the Freedom of Information Act," he complained. "I can't afford that."
Williams is on a speaking tour sponsored by the U.S.-China Friendship Committee. His speech Thursday night was a combination of personal reminiscences of life in China humorous anecedotes and tough talk about the America race problem.
"There should be more known about China," he warns. "China will be a great force in the future. It has large resources, many people and great national pride. All they need is time to accomplish some things.
"Life there is different from here. They don't have crime. The streets are clean. People are serious.
I remember my sons having some trouble adjusting to life in the States. One night I had trouble calling them at college (Michigan State). When I finally reached them at two in the morning, they said they have been studying in the laundry room because students made too much noise, playing records, laughing and talking, in the rooms along the corridor."
Williams returned to China in the summer of '77 on invitation from the government to see improvements.
"I wanted to see the changes," he says. "I wanted to see my old friends."
America is still his home. "My oldest friends and relatives are here," he explains. "And there's the idea of soul. That's here, too."