This is the grave of Robert and Mabel Williams.
Born in 1925 in Monroe, North Carolina, Robert Williams grew up as part of the black working class. His father was the washer of a railroad boiler. He came from a civil rights background, as his grandfather had run a newspaper during Reconstruction in favor of black political power. Monroe had a really nasty and awful racist police chief. When Williams was 11, he witnessed said police chief beat and drag a black woman through the streets. The chief’s name: Jesse Helms, Sr.
Williams went north like millions of other African-Americans during World War II. He ended up in Detroit and witnessed the 1943 race riots there. He was then drafted into the Marines in 1944 and served 18 months, in a segregated unit of course. He then returned to North Carolina. Shortly after, he married a 16 year old named Mabel Robinson. With the exception of Rosa Parks and perhaps Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker and Diane Nash, the story of the civil rights movement is told through men, but as everyone knew at the time, it was the women who ran the day-to-day show and kept everything together. While Robert would be the most notorious Williams, Mabel was not only at his side but every bit his equal in the fight for justice that was to come, even if it is harder to find specific details about her separate from Robert.
Robert and Mabel were pretty angry about racism. Robert had seen a lot of really bad stuff, South and North. World War II witnessed an explosion in the size of the NAACP, as a growing black middle class joined and gave financial support while activists determined to break down the nation’s racial caste system at the same time that the U.S. was fighting other racial caste systems globally. Robert Williams joined the NAACP upon his return to North Carolina in 1945. He basically took over the chapter in Monroe, which wasn’t that hard since it was moribund. He made it a militant force in that small town whose whites were well-represented by the attitude of the Helms family. He first took on segregating the library and then in 1957 moved onto the public swimming pool, nearly the last line of outrage for whites. Williams organized active picket lines at the pools. He had the support of most of the black community in Monroe. For whites, this was race war.
Monroe had a large Ku Klux Klan chapter. But see, Williams had a plan for that: armed self-defense. There’s a lot of myths about guns and the civil rights movement. The cult of nonviolence that developed among white liberals out of the civil rights movement is really much more about making said liberals feel good about certain kinds of protest by imbuing them with a certain moral purity than is connected to reality of those movements. There were guns all over the place in the civil rights movements. They were around Martin Luther King. They were around SNCC. Everyone knew that the best way to stop white violence in the rural South was to take a shot at the crackers. You didn’t have to hit them. Just back them off. There were a few of the northern nonviolence activists who struggled with this a bit when they got to the South but they learned quickly.
No one understood this better than Williams. So, he actually opened a Monroe chapter of the National Rifle Association! This was before the NRA had become a fascist organization building on white backlash to move the nation to the right. He organized the chapter, based around himself and other military veterans who knew how to shoot–and announced that armed self-defense was the policy of the NAACP chapter. To say the least, this did not make national NAACP head Roy Wilkins happy. Finding Williams a troublemaker, Wilkins and other national leaders, preferring to focus on the legal strategy and highly uncomfortable with SNCC or even King, really tried to isolate Williams. In the summer of 1957, it was found out that the KKK was going to attack the local NAACP’s vice-president, Dr. Albert Perry. So Monroe and his men put sandbags around the house and when the Klan came that night and fired into the house, they fired back. Freaked out, the Monroe City Council actually responded by banning the Klan from the town without a special permit from authorities.
It’s undeniably true that Williams was using heavily gendered language around this violence. Later historians have noted that he considered himself a patriarch and believed it was men’s duties to protect their women from danger with violence. But it’s hard to be overly critical here given the reality of the times. In any case, Martin Luther King, who certainly had no problem with the patriarchy, defended Williams’ use of violence, noting how many times he had appealed to Monroe’s leaders to end segregation and stop anti-black violence.
Williams’ fame grew significantly in 1958. There was a case in Monroe was that was all too common throughout the entire Jim Crow era. Two black boys were thrown in prison for kissing a white girl; it seems that in fact the girl had kissed one of them. The boys were 9 and 7 years old. Emmett Till was lynched for less than this. Williams did all he could to publicize what became known as the Kissing Case. Monroe became an embarrassment to the nation and the world. With the rise of the Cold War and the Global South liberation movements creating new nations that the U.S. wanted to ally with, this sort of incident became important geopolitically, one that the Soviets were more than happy to publicize. The boys were released, but the city and state wouldn’t apologize to the kids.
Of course, Williams paid a huge price for this activism. His insurance company cancelled his insurance after the Perry house defense, noting how many things were happening to his car. The Monroe police chief simply denied that any KKK members were shooting at Williams, his car, or anything else, all lies. Then, in 1959, a Monroe court acquitted two white men who had raped a woman named Mary Reid. Infuriated, Williams stated publicly:
“We cannot rely on the law. We can get no justice under the present system. If we feel that injustice is done, we must then be prepared to inflict justice on these people. Since the federal government will not bring a halt to lynching, and since the so-called courts lynch our people legally, if it’s necessary to stop lynching with lynching, then we must be willing to resort to that method. We must meet violence with violence.”
Moreover, the Harvard Crimson also reported that Williams said, “the Negro in the South cannot expect justice in the courts. He must convict his attackers on the spot. He must meet violence with violence, lynching with lynching.” It’s unknown whether Williams actually said this. That and other quotes led the NAACP to suspend Williams from the organization. King began distancing himself as well.
None of this was going to stop Williams. He and his men hosted the Freedom Riders in their homes on their fateful and famous 1961 journey of direct action to challenge segregation on interstate transportation. Later that year, in the midst of huge protests in the town, a white couple wandered into the city’s black neighborhood in their car. Surrounded by angry protestors, Williams intervened and gave the couple shelter in his own home. But word got out about this to the state police, who charged Williams with kidnapping. Knowing that this meant imprisonment or murder, he and Mabel fled. The FBI, led by notorious racist J. Edgar Hoover, then charged Williams with unlawful interstate flight. Hoover himself signed the wanted poster for Williams.
In response, Robert and Mabel Williams left the United States and ended up in Cuba, after brief stints in Canada and Mexico. They were welcomed by the Castro government as heroes in the battle against white American racism that both Cubans and black Americans had faced. Castro gladly accepted Williams’ idea to run a radio station out of Havana to beam the freedom struggle into the United States, which had a media that would never report on it properly. Radio Free Dixie ran from 1962 until 1965, led by the Williams’ but with plenty of help from Cubans. This all both made Williams a hero for many in the civil rights movement, especially as it moved to the left and toward Black Power and made Cuba a prime destination for civil rights workers oppressed by the racist American state. Robert wrote Negroes with Guns while in Cuba. The book is credited with “input” from Mabel. More than likely, she wrote a large part of it, even more likely than that is that she typed it. This 1964 book was a major influence on the Black Panthers, especially Huey Newton. In 1965, Williams also traveled to North Vietnam to express solidarity against the racist and imperialist war the United States was committing against them. Mabel traveled with Robert the whole time, chose the music for Radio Free Dixie, and wrote many of the articles for their newspaper.
My personal favorite part of the Williams story is when the Communist Party-USA came out against him for not focusing on the class struggle! “Class not Race” analysis is almost always a racist position, then and now. The CP claimed his use of violence against white workers would divide the races against the real enemy of capitalism. Williams wrote a sharp response in 1964:
.. the U.S.C.P. has openly come out against my position on the Negro struggle. In fact, the party has sent special representatives here to sabotage my work on behalf of U.S. Negro liberation. They are pestering the Cubans to remove me from the radio, ban THE CRUSADER and to take a number of other steps in what they call `cutting Williams down to size.’ …
The whole thing is due to the fact that I absolutely refuse to take direction from Gus Hal’s idiots … I hope to depart from here, if possible, soon. I am writing you to stand by in case I am turned over to the FBI …
“Gus Hall’s idiots.” Love it.
In 1965, Robert and Mabel moved from Cuba to China, where they were well-received and treated with a lot of respect. Of course, China was going through the beginnings of the Cultural Revolution at this time and it wasn’t all that easy to live there. Plus, they were ultimately Americans and wanted to come home. In 1968, the beginning of that process started, when Williams wrote that he was willing to come back to the U.S. so long as there was financial backing for him to not be thrown in jail. He was also thinking about making a point with a leftist presidential run. But the left had moved on by 1968. Other than the Panthers, who were having more than their share of troubles, he was kind of forgotten about. Hoover still hated him and believed he was an equal threat to Malcolm X. The FBI openly compared him to John Brown, evidently seeing this as a negative. But they came back anyway. Mabel returned first, in 1969, and Robert late that year. Robert was immediately arrested in Detroit and then extradited to North Carolina. But he never served any time there. He didn’t go to trial until 1975, with William Kunstler as his attorney, and the state immediately dismissed all the charges.
Robert and Mabel Williams lived pretty quietly the rest of their lives, though were still committed leftists. Robert died in 1996. Mabel lived until 2014. Who gave the eulogy at Robert Williams’ funeral? Rosa Parks, which should make you continue to rethink everything you know about nonviolence and the civil rights movement. Timothy Tyson’s Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power is a brilliant book about all of this. You should read it.
Here’s a 1959 interview with Robert.
And here’s a late life interview with him.
Robert and Mabel Williams are buried in Hillcrest Cemetery, Monroe, North Carolina.
This grave visit was funded by LGM reader donations. I hope you found it worth your resources. If you would like this series to visit other heroes of the civil rights movement, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Fannie Lou Hamer is in Ruleville, Mississippi and Harry and Harriette Moore, assassinated in 1951 for registering black people to vote in Florida, are in Mims, Florida. Previous posts in this series are archived here.