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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 >>

NAACP members face retaliation

Members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had to conceal their involvement in the organization, Williams remembers. When Robert became head of the local chapter of the NAACP, he urged members not to reveal their membership, but Williams remembers one janitor who declared his allegiances. He lost his job. Those who kept quiet learned valuable information from their employers.

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:
When was the first time that Robert went beyond in Monroe—when was the first time he went beyond the letter writing or standing up maybe to one person on the job.
MABEL WILLIAMS:
That came when he became president of the NAACP. I think that must have been around '56 or sometime when all of the local professional people were experiencing a lot of problems if they belonged to the NAACP, or if the white folks thought they belonged to the NAACP. There was a lot of economic pressures that were coming down. Teachers, just all of those people—. The local white power structure was letting it be known that they were not going to tolerate having their Negroes being part of that—what they called that Communist-backed NAACP. And so the professional people—and they were most of the people that belonged—black people who—. When Robert came back from the Army and he was elected—. He went in the NAACP thinking this is the organization now that's going to help to bring about all these changes, you know. And the Supreme Court has made the decision and now, everything's going to be just fine. And he went into the NAACP with that in mind. And most of those folks just either left, or when they joined they told they would join under a pseudonym, under an anonymous name, and "don't tell anybody that I belong." Even a mother who was a teacher and her daughter was a teacher. The mother didn't know that the daughter was a member. The daughter didn't know that the mother was a member because they were afraid of the economic pressure, you know. And I remember one black guy who was a janitor at one of the local places. And I don't remember what the place was. But he said that—. And he had been a member of the NAACP for a long time. And he was sweeping around and they were having a meeting, or he was in the room somehow. And he said he heard this, one of the fellows said, "I wouldn't have one of those nigger NAACP people working for me." And he had never spoken up, had had the job for twenty or thirty years, had never said anything. And he said he threw his broom down and said, "Well, goddamnit, you got one now." [Laughter] And he came and told Robert about it. And Robert said, "No, no, no, no. That was the wrong thing for you to do." And he said, "Robert, I couldn't help it. I just was fed up."
DAVID CECELSKI:
That was it.
MABEL WILLIAMS:
That was it. And after that, "I just couldn't help it. I just couldn't help it." He got fired, you know. And I don't remember what happened after that. But every time Robert would enroll somebody else in the NAACP he would warn them, "Don't tell anybody that you belong, especially the people that you work for, you know. You can tell your other friends. But don't tell the people that you work for that you've joined."
DAVID CECELSKI:
So all these people, the professional people leave and Robert's left—
MABEL WILLIAMS:
With hardly anybody and he just went and recruited among just ordinary common folks on the street. He liked to tell the fact that his first members came from the poolroom. He went into a pool hall. And his mother had been a very deeply religious woman, you know. Had warned him. She was always afraid that her children would turn out to be gamblers or drunkards. She would warn them to stay out of the pool hall because they gamble in the pool halls. So Robert didn't even play pool, you know. He didn't play any kind of cards. And he didn't hang around the pool halls and places. But he said he was passing one one day and he said, "Well I wonder if I can maybe get these fellows to join." He went in there and started talking to them. And he said he wrote up his first members on the pool table.
DAVID CECELSKI:
That's good.
MABEL WILLIAMS:
Yeah. So after—
DAVID CECELSKI:
[unclear]
MABEL WILLIAMS:
That's right. That's right. And I think that may have been a part of the militancy of that. Not only did he write up regular people, street people. He wrote up maids and cooks. And so we knew what was going on in a lot of the houses of the white power structure because they had maids and cooks in there who were members of the NAACP who'd come back and tell us. I remember one particular incident where Robert was going on trial for something. I don't know if that was the sit-in case or what it was. But the maid for the judge said that the judge came in that morning at breakfast and said, "Oh honey—" to his wife. "Oh honey, I'm going to be a big man today." And she said, "Why? What's going to happen?" He said, "I'm going to send that nigger Robert Williams to prison." And she came back and told us about what he had said. Now he had made his decision and the court hadn't even started. But he knew he was going to send Robert—he going to convict him already, you know.