Mabel & Robert Williams
Traditionally, when researching the more militant efforts of the civil rights era, people tend to cite Robert Williams and may exclude his wife, Mabel. In fact, Mabel Williams may be one of the lesser-known figures we choose to celebrate this month. She dedicated her life to racial equality, fighting alongside her husband in several landmark events. Together, they fought segregation, the Klan, and racial violence in the Southern US and abroad. When they discovered that local and national power structures were against them, they fled to Cuba and continued the fight there.
Both Mabel & Robert Williams were born Monroe, North Carolina in 1931 and 1925, respectively. In 1944, Robert Williams was drafted into the segregated Marines, and he served with them for almost two years before returning to Monroe. In 1947, the couple wed. Although they would go on to change the face of the civil rights struggle in North Carolina, Robert Williams rejoined the war effort shortly after their wedding. After he returned, Mabel & Robert Williams joined the local NAACP chapter. The previously inactive group elected Robert as president, and the couple got to work dismantling segregation in their town. They successfully desegregated the local library, and in 1957, they set their sights on public swimming pools. The two launched a newspaper, called The Crusader, for which Mabel Williams illustrated, and they both wrote articles.
The Kissing Case
Most of us who know of Mabel & Robert Williams learned about them in one of two ways. Either, it was through the iconic photo featuring the two of them, armed, or via the infamous kissing case. In 1958, Robert Williams became famous for defending two Black boys jailed because they “allowed” a young white girl to kiss them on the cheek. The local NAACP engaged in a publicity campaign that drew national focus. As North Carolina faced growing resentment, the governor pardoned the two boys but refused to apologize.
In addition to segregation, however, Monroe had another significant systemic racial problem. Although it was a rather small North Carolina town, it had a large and active Ku Klux Klan chapter. Local press even estimated that more than half of Monroe residents were members. As the Monroe NAACP picked up steam, desegregating public areas and holding peaceful demonstrations, the local Klan actively began targeting them. Even with local police present, Klan members would often shoot at nonviolent demonstrations.
The Rise of The Black Armed Guard
“Sometimes violence must be met with violence.”
With the escalating Klan violence, Williams applied to the NRA to open a local chapter, which would become the Black Armed Guard. Unlike many other gun clubs of the day, the Black Armed Guard placed an emphasis on nontraditional powerful weapons. When the Klan organized an attack on the Monroe NAACP Vice President, Dr. Albert Perry in 1957, the Black Armed Guard was prepared. The Klan arrived, and the Black Armed Guard returned fire, running them off. In addition to Mabel & Robert Williams, the Black Armed Guard consisted of largely local Black veterans.
In addition to humiliation at their defeat, this event had another lasting impact on the local KKK. City officials had previously claimed that the Klan had the same rights to organize and free speech as any other group. After the Klan’s attack on Dr. Perry, city officials held an emergency session to ban the Klan within Monroe city limits. Despite this seemingly progressive effort on the part of city officials, racist whites in the area did not ubiquitously share their sentiments. In 1958, The Raleigh Eagle quoted Williams saying that the Klan attacked with a 50-car caravan. It also quoted the local police chief, saying “I know there was no shooting.”
As the Black Armed Guard grew in notoriety, the Klan shifted their focus from individual civil rights efforts to the Williams family. As the Williams drove around the city, local racists often pelted their car with rocks. It became such a common occurrence that Nationwide canceled the comprehensive and collision portions of their auto insurance.
Leaving the United States
In 1961, when The Freedom Riders arrived in Monroe, North Carolina, they faced racist violence and turned to the local NAACP and the Black Armed Guard for help. While the NAACP housed The Freedom Riders, riots erupted throughout Monroe. A white couple found themselves in the Black section on Monroe, and they were quickly surrounded by Black rioters. The Williams sheltered the white couple in their home to wait out the riot.
This act of charity turned out to be the beginning of a huge controversy. Their relationship with the NAACP declined, and the NAACP suspended Robert Williams for advocating violence. Local law enforcement accused Robert Williams of kidnapping the white couple, and the Williams family fled North Carolina. This triggered FBI involvement. Once the FBI issued a wanted poster, they chose to leave the country.
“In Monroe, North Carolina we knew that the power structure in the local town was against us…But we didn’t know when we started fighting that the FBI was supporting the power structure.”
– Mabel Williams
While abroad, they continued to have significant impact on racial progress in the United States. They fled to Cuba, where they continued The Crusader and began Radio Free Dixie, a radio program addressed to Southern Black people with the assistance of Fidel Castro.
Robert Williams also wrote and published Negroes with Guns from Cuba, which would prove to be an influential publication with significant impact on The Black Panthers and other progressive Black organizations. In 1962, Mabel & Robert Williams publicly advocated for Black dissent within the US military during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Despite his absence, Revolutionary Action Movement elected Robert Williams as their president in 1964. Mabel & Robert Williams traveled to North Vietnam and China, where they encouraged armed engagement with the United States.
While abroad, the US government feared Robert Williams’s significance to Black activists in the states. There were whispers that people were seeking political office for Williams, perhaps even the presidency. Further, the FBI suspected that Williams’s militant revolutionary status could be destabilizing. In 1969, the couple returned to the States. Robert Williams was almost immediately arrested for kidnapping and extradited back to North Carolina. Despite his prolonged absence, several notable figured took an interest in his defense. William Kunstler represented Robert Williams, and the State of North Carolina eventually dropped all charges.
The family relocated to Michigan, where Robert Williams worked for the University of Michigan’s Institute for Chinese Studies. He went on to assist the effort to open diplomatic relations between China and the United States. He died in 1996 of Hodgkins Lymphoma. Mabel Williams continued her work in social advocacy and volunteered extensively in her community. Although Robert Williams worked on his autobiography, he never published it. Mabel Williams went on to be the chief historian of their efforts in North Carolina, Cuba, and abroad. She past away in 2014.