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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 family history of empowerment

Williams roots Robert's passionate, even violent, dedication to civil rights in his long family history of strength, tracing his ancestry back to his biracial, literate slave mother. She reflects, too, on racial mingling and the drop of blood that can draw the line between white and black.

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:
But one sees something more behind that. And what do you think someone's going to see? What was behind the shotgun? What kind of—what would be good to see in Robert?
MABEL WILLIAMS:
I think they would see a person who really knows that one person can make a difference. One person standing up can definitely make a difference. In not only his life but in the lives of other people. And that that one person—. Rob believed that we all had that responsibility. That everybody's born for something. Everybody is here for a purpose. And that we—. Some people live their lives and they just eat, and sleep and die and never do anything. They don't have any causes. They don't have any purpose. And they think that there is no purpose. Maybe the purpose is just to get money, have a good time, play.
DAVID CECELSKI:
They certainly don't have anything that they're willing to die for.
MABEL WILLIAMS:
Nothing that they're willing to die for. But you should have something that you're willing to die for that gives you a reason to live.
DAVID CECELSKI:
That's a nice way to put it.
MABEL WILLIAMS:
And I think that that was the legacy, one of the legacies that he left. And I remember one newspaper article during the time that Robert had said about self-defense. One newspaper article came out and said that he was advocating the indiscriminate killing of white babies in their cribs. Now you know that was horrible. Making people think that this man—. Here's a crazy man out here who is trying to get all the white folks killed. That was just to mobilize white folks against him. And against what was going on that was really the right thing in the society to be happening at the time. So—
DAVID CECELSKI:
Where did he get that kind of—?
MABEL WILLIAMS:
I think it was passed down through his grandmother, his grandfather and all the way down from slavery. His grandmother came out of slavery literate, knowing how to read and write. Having been the offspring of a white slave master and a black slave. His grandfather came out of slavery knowing how to read and write. And determined to teach their children that they were as good as anybody on this earth. And that they should stand up for what was right and good. And I think that's another thing that the white south, and white Monroe especially, has not lived up to. I remember I was talking to Robert's brother right before I came here. He still lives in Detroit and he's eight years old. And he remembers going into Sechrest Drug Store in Monroe, and one of the clerks coming up to his daddy. He was a little boy with his daddy. And the clerk came up to his daddy and said, "John you know we're cousins." This white clerk said to Robert's father, "John, you know we're cousins. But don't tell anybody," you know. So my eighty-year old brother-in-law remembers that to this day. But those family members, family members would never accept the fact that—like I said—we're all one family even though we're black and white.
DAVID CECELSKI:
They don't want to treat people like family.
MABEL WILLIAMS:
They don't want to treat people like family. And they refuse to acknowledge the fact that they're family because we're so different because we have that one bit of black blood, you know, that makes us black.
DAVID CECELSKI:
Right. So you think—. Robert had this way back and his grandmother, I understand, was his special—
MABEL WILLIAMS:
Oh yeah, was his special person that he loved and taught him about world events and got him interested in reading newspapers early on. And, yeah, she was a very—-. And handed him a rifle that his grandfather had used way back, and a musket-loaded rifle, which I still have.
DAVID CECELSKI:
Do you?
MABEL WILLIAMS:
Yes, yes.
DAVID CECELSKI:
That's [unclear] .
MABEL WILLIAMS:
Yes. So his brother also told me that his grandmother looked white. And he said one day a white insurance man came by and said to his grandmother, "Are you the only white family in this nigger neighborhood?" And said she looked at him and said, "Don't you ever say that to me again. I am not white. I am black. And this is not a nigger neighborhood. This is a black neighborhood." [Laughter]
DAVID CECELSKI:
Good for her. Lucky he didn't get shot.
MABEL WILLIAMS:
Yes. He's lucky he didn't get shot. I remember reading some report when one of Robert's aunts was visited by the FBI. And he wrote that she was more—she was worse than Robert after Robert had left Monroe. She said, "Well this is a no-good town." And she should've burned the damn town down. That was one of the direct descendants of this grandmother, her daughter, who made that—. Aunt Cora. She was really a wonderful person, too. But, yeah, he got—. He had a tradition of struggle and of anger at the society for refusing to recognize people as people. And I think that's—. Robert didn't like to talk about it. His older brother John would talk about it. But Robert didn't like to talk about that connection. So he wouldn't talk about it very much. But his older brother would.
DAVID CECELSKI:
I wonder why not? [unclear]
MABEL WILLIAMS:
I told him that he wanted to deny that portion of his—that German stubborn portion of his heritage. And he would only claim the black portion [Laughter] because they denied him. I think that's the reason why. And he didn't like that part of it. But, you know, that's a reality that we face. That is a reality when you start to go back and research and find—. I don't remember which president said it was the most inhumane form of slavery he'd ever seen because people were selling their own sons and daughters into slavery. And the south knew that they were doing that. They knew that they—. They knew and they have never faced up to that fact. They have never faced up. Monroe has never faced up to the fact.