Jacksonville, Ferguson, Beavercreek, Waller County, Baltimore, and
Staten Island are not named on the maps or timetables of Williams’s
pages—but the themes of “The Man Who Cried I Am,” today a largely
forgotten novel, continue to resound. There is something contemporary,
too, in the way that Williams’s fictional King Alfred Plan took hold of
the public imagination upon its publication, in 1967. That year, there
were uprisings in Boston, Philadelphia, Detroit, Newark, Milwaukee, and
Tampa, in which black men and women were assaulted by the police. The
federal government was known to be surveilling black leaders, and,
according to Williams, many activists were already convinced that the
F.B.I., C.I.A., and local law-enforcement agencies were conspiring to
neutralize the Black Panther Party and other radical organizations. As
Williams’s agent, Carl D. Brandt, observed, the plan, when combined with
the novel’s fictional but accurate portraits of Wright, Williams, Martin
Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, as well as its faithful reporting on
the Kennedy White House’s half-hearted desegregation initiatives and the
rise of the Black Power movement, appeared “entirely credible in the
light of current events as well as within the terms of necessity for the
plot of the novel.”

The fictional King Alfred Plan outlined the measures that the U.S. government would adopt if the racial unrest and discord of the mid-nineteen-sixties turned into civil war.

Courtesy of the Department of Rare Books, Special Collections and Preservation, University of Rochester River Campus Libraries

Williams, who had worked for a time in P.R., had an innate sense of what
might today be termed viral marketing. The summer before the book’s
publication, Little, Brown sent promotional materials—an excerpt of the
King Alfred Plan alongside details of the book’s publication, all in a
manila folder labelled “CLASSIFICATION: TOP SECRET”—to two thousand
booksellers and jobbers. Williams thought that the King Alfred Plan
could make more of an impact if presented without the references to the
novel, and urged his publishers to take out a one-page ad in the Times to publish the plan without any reference to what it was or where it was
from. Williams was “enormously distressed” when he learned that his
publishers had balked, both because it seemed to him a missed
opportunity to make a splash and because he sensed that the mere act of
speculating about the plan’s authenticity had an almost revolutionary
potential. For Williams, the documents weren’t fake news but a conduit
to a deeper truth. “I don’t believe it is cheap publicity,” he wrote.
“The concentration camps do exist. I have since learned that the Federal
government does have such a contingency plan. We know that the Army and
National Guard as well as the local police are undergoing riot training.
What in the hell is cheap about the truth?”

In a schedule that he put together for his sales manager, Patrick
McCaleb, Williams suggested that Little, Brown “get the plan in its CIA
folder, perhaps, to representatives of the Soviet bloc nations, either
press or diplomats.” He wanted copies to go “the embassies of every
nation mentioned in the plan” and to “make sure the Germans got a copy.”
He also wanted “copies to go in some mysterious fashion to Dick Gregory,
James Meredith, Claude McKissick, and Stokely Carmichael,” the black
activists who Williams believed would “make the most noise.” The plan
had to look like it had no point of origin. “Secrecy can be power, and
there is power in secrecy,” Williams wrote to Sions.

In mid-October, Williams asked Little, Brown for a hundred copies of the
plan—ones that made no mention of his novel—and began leaving them in
subway cars in Manhattan. According to Williams’s friend, the journalist
Herbert Boyd, “The ploy worked so well that soon after black folks all
over New York City were talking about ‘the plan’—a fictitious plot that
many thought was true.” As photocopies circulated, readers themselves
edited the plan’s visual presentation to enhance its authentic
appearance and reproduced their versions of the plan in oppositional
black newspapers. Portions of the plan were redacted; the map was
enhanced to include color-coördinated keys and city names where the
concentration camps were located; patterned code names such as “REX-84,”
short for “Readiness Exercise 84,” were affixed to the documents. The
plan migrated north to Boston and west to Chicago, where members of
activist groups, unsure whether it was real or fictional, read it at
meetings, sometimes aloud, and interpreted how its designs reflected the
history of black oppression in America. According to the Black
Topographical Society of Chicago, the plan was key to understanding
everything from racist hiring practices to how superhighways were
“always routed through black ghettoes to facilitate eventual military
operations against those communities.”

In 1970, Clive DePatten, a nineteen-year-old from Des Moines who had
joined the Black Panther Party following a violent altercation with the
police, appeared in front of the House Internal Security Committee to
testify to the existence of a plan to exterminate blacks that he had
encountered in an activist publication. According to an account in the
Hartford Courant, the congressmen let DePatten finish his testimony
before informing him that the F.B.I. had already investigated the King
Alfred Plan, in 1969, and had “found it to be lifted from a novel, ‘The
Man Who Cried I Am,’ by John A. Williams, a black himself.” DePatten
nevertheless insisted on its truth. “Even if it actually is fictional,
events in the black community are paralleling those set out in the King
Alfred Plan,” he said. The urban-renewal projects of the
nineteen-fifties and sixties had corralled black Americans “into the
ghettoes,” he argued, where they were as vulnerable to state brutality
as interned Japanese-Americans during the Second World War or Jewish prisoners
in Nazi concentration camps. “It is a plan of fear,” the Republican
congressman William J. Scherle said at DePatten’s testimony. “If you
want to believe it, sure, it will scare the hell out of you.”

Through the early nineteen-seventies, many other people and
organizations testified to the truth of the plan before the government:
ex-Army spies, who claimed that it was an open secret; the A.C.L.U.,
which claimed that the Reverend Jesse Jackson was under surveillance by
the government. The government was dismissive of all their concerns.
Just as Williams had found the American Academy in Rome’s silence proof
enough of their racism, they found in this response all they needed to
confirm their sense that Williams’s fictional documents bespoke an
American truth.