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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Mabel Williams, August 20, 1999. Interview K-0266. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Robert Williams's bold legacy

Williams argues that her husband Robert's belief in violent retaliation against racist attacks played a role in breaking the segregationist regime in Monroe. Once whites learned that there might be consequences for their actions, Williams thinks, they began to make changes. Furthermore, Robert, who retired in comfort, set a strong example for young black people who have seen many historic role models die violently.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Mabel Williams, August 20, 1999. Interview K-0266. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

DAVID CECELSKI:
What's the images of kind of Robert and y'all that are—but people don't talk as much about kind of the meanings of a life.
MABEL WILLIAMS:
What did it all mean and what was the struggle all about. And the fact that, you know, people like to blow up the fact that Robert was a violent man or believed in violence.
DAVID CECELSKI:
That's right. He makes a great poster, you know what I mean. I'm not against that.
MABEL WILLIAMS:
And that was a part of what happened. It wasn't that he was—. He was not a non-violent person. Well, no, he was a non-violent person. He didn't believe in doing violence himself to others other than in defense of his own. And I think that his stance on violence—violence self-defense. Let me put it that way. I think his stance on violent self-defense did more for the civil rights movement than people want to believe. Because once those evil people out there found that they couldn't do violence and be immune to violence then they didn't do as much violence as they did when they knew they were doing it with immunity. And that nobody was going to prosecute them or—. They weren't going to have to pay any price if they killed. There used to be a saying, "kill a nigger, buy another one", you know, during slavery times. You kill a nigger, you buy another one, you know. And—but when they found out you killed a nigger, you're going to have to maybe somebody—a nigger'll kill you.
DAVID CECELSKI:
Or burn your tobacco barn.
MABEL WILLIAMS:
That's right. So I think that that part of Rob's stance in saying, "Just this far and no further", played a big role in letting not only the racist bigots in the local area know that they had to make changes. But let the power structure know that they had to really move to do some protection or else the country would suffer for it, and fall apart. So—
DAVID CECELSKI:
[unclear] the black community. And the example that Robert [unclear] set. And that also affected [unclear] —
MABEL WILLIAMS:
Yes.
DAVID CECELSKI:
—particularly [unclear] . Could you talk [unclear] other with that [unclear] .
MABEL WILLIAMS:
Here in Monroe or all over? I think it—
DAVID CECELSKI:
Maybe both.
MABEL WILLIAMS:
Yeah. I think it affected the black community all over because at last it made them see that, "Well, no, we don't need to accept this lying down and doing nothing. We need to stand up and when we stand up and say, 'no,' we have a greater impact." If we look at—. This is a story that Robert liked to tell all the time. You go by a school and it's a Martin Luther King school. And a little black child says to his mother, "Mama, who is a Martin Luther King?" The mother replies, "Martin Luther King was a civil rights man. He was a great leader of the black people. He loved his people. And he led them in a non-violent fight, struggle. And as a result of that now we have integration and blah, blah, we." And he said, "Well, oh, what happened to Martin Luther King?" "Well, he was killed." "Why was he killed?" "He was killed because he loved his people and struggled for his people" etceteras, etceteras, etceteras. Okay. Go down the road and here's a Medger Evers University. Same scenario. "Well, mama who was Medger Evers?" And she explains who Medger Evers was. "Well, what happened to him?" "He was killed because he struggled for his people. He loved his people. And the racists killed him. They killed him." Malcolm X. "Well, mama this is Malcolm X Boulevard. Who is Malcolm X?" Same story. "He loved his people. He struggled for his people. And he was killed." And the message that that is giving to young people, young black people, is if you love your people and you struggle to raise their level you will be killed. So what young person is going to want to become a Malcolm X, a Martin Luther King or Medger Evers or any of those martyrs that—. Now we've got Martin Luther King holiday, you know.
DAVID CECELSKI:
[unclear]
MABEL WILLIAMS:
Who's going to want to pattern themselves after those people? Not anybody. No—. And now you look out there. Who's leading? Who's leading, you know. What kind of leadership do you have? Who wants to step in those footsteps? Nobody. But then you've got a Robert F. Williams who—as he liked to say, "Went home to Mt. Vernon" [Laughter] "and lived out his days as a gentleman." Well, like the president went home to Mt. Vernon and lived out his days as a gentleman.
DAVID CECELSKI:
Surrounded by his family.
MABEL WILLIAMS:
Yes. Surrounded by his family and loved ones, and so forth and so on.
DAVID CECELSKI:
Had a long life.
MABEL WILLIAMS:
Had a long life, long fruitful life. Loved his people, struggled for people, fought for his people not only nationally, not only in North Carolina. Not only in Monroe, let's say, not only in North Carolina. Not only in the United States, but all over the world. Went all over the world and continued to struggle for his people and then went home to become a gentleman farmer, you know. So hey, maybe, maybe this is the kind—. That's the kind of example that should be out there in front of, not only black children, but white children as well. Hey, if you take the side of the people and you struggle for the best interests of the people—
DAVID CECELSKI:
The side of good.
MABEL WILLIAMS:
And the side of good. And hook your self to that star. Then your life is worthwhile. And that's the legacy that I would like to see for the Robert F. Williams' story. That's the legacy that I'd like to see.