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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 >>

African-American activists defend their home against violent attacks

Williams remembers the threats that white segregationists made against her family, and when Robert and others helped defend the house of a black physician, accused of giving a white woman an abortion. The defenders "had trenches and sandbags," and made Molotov cocktails to use against the cars they expected. This defense effort spurred the creation of a rifle club Monroe's African Americans used to train themselves in self-defense. Robert concealed the group's racial identity and secured recognition from the National Rifle Association. Williams believes that the gun was an equalizing tool for black Americans.

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

MABEL WILLIAMS:
It was early on after Robert became the president of the NAACP. And he was becoming known in town as the president of the NAACP. Other people who were on jobs and who were members of the NAACP would tell us that, you know, these folks were saying they're going to do this to you. They're going to do that to you. They're going to wipe out the family. They're going to kill Rob, you know, and all that kind of stuff. And then we began to get telephone threats, telephone threats. And at that time I started to realize that this is serious business. These folks mean business. They do to.
DAVID CECELSKI:
They would call and talk to Rob or—?
MABEL WILLIAMS:
They would call and talk to whomever answered the phone and threaten to do us harm, you know. They would talk to children, to the children, or Daddy John or me or whomever.
DAVID CECELSKI:
And they'd say, "If Rob keeps doing this we're going to kill you or do you—."
MABEL WILLIAMS:
We're going to kill you or blow up your house, and all that kind of stuff. So, Daddy John, who was Rob's father, always kept a twelve-gauge shotgun in his house at the door. And I remember he didn't always keep it at the door. He had one and he kept it in his room in his closet. But I remember one day when he pulled that twelve-gauge shotgun out and said, "We're going to keep this at the front door because if the bastards come over here after us, we're going to—we may have to use it." Well that was—by that time Robert was going down to help protect Dr. Perry's house, whom they had threatened that they were coming in and going to blow him away.
DAVID CECELSKI:
Because [unclear] .
MABEL WILLIAMS:
Yes.
DAVID CECELSKI:
Because—.
MABEL WILLIAMS:
Because he had been accused of doing an abortion on a white woman. And had been, not only accused, but they convicted him of doing an abortion even without a fetus to prove that there was an abortion. And even though he was a Catholic who had refused to do abortions even for local black people or anybody else. And, who usually, generally, did not even serve white customers. But because this woman had no—so little money, and needed medical attention he let down his guard and let her in there. And then she was—. They were able to use her as a tool against him, and against our struggle. So—
DAVID CECELSKI:
How did Rob [unclear] ? Like why were they going—why would they go after Robert because of Perry?
MABEL WILLIAMS:
Dr. Perry was—. Rob was the president of the NAACP, and Dr. Perry was the vice-president. So whenever official protests went out to the city council or whomever, it went out as Rob Williams, president, Dr. Albert E. Perry as vice-president. And so Dr. Perry, he was just a part of our movement. And everybody thought—not everybody—. Most of the white people thought that because Dr. Perry was a doctor that he was the one who was the brains behind the protest movement. At one time a man wrote a letter to the editor in the Monroe Enquirer Journal, and said, "What we ought to do is get that Robert Williams, bring him downtown and lock him up and make him write something." Because they didn't believe Robert had the capability of writing the articles with the depth that he was writing. Some people said, "Well, that J. Ray Shoot is the one that's writing all the articles." You know. And they're saying that he was writing and hiding behind Robert or some white man, or maybe Dr. Perry. So anyway, they saw the two of them as a threat and so.
DAVID CECELSKI:
That's when y'all started to have things about [unclear] .
MABEL WILLIAMS:
Yes, yes, yes, yes. The Klan made a run or two it seems to me. I'm trying to remember. It seems to me that they made a run past Dr. Perry's house and shot—some shots were fired. And that's what made the men organize to go to defend Dr. Perry's home.
DAVID CECELSKI:
And what did they do?
MABEL WILLIAMS:
The trenches and stayed up all night—and in the trenches they had sandbags. And our friend, Father MacAvoy would come and stay all night. He was a great friend of Dr. Perry's, too. In fact, Dr. Perry was the one who introduced Robert, I think, to Father MacAvoy. He said, "You all do the shooting and I'll do the praying." And he'd stay up all night and read scripture and walk around, and bring coffee to the fellows.
DAVID CECELSKI:
This wasn't just one night.
MABEL WILLIAMS:
Oh no. This went on for weeks on end. And he would be there, you know.
DAVID CECELSKI:
Dug trenches?
MABEL WILLIAMS:
Yeah. They had trenches and sandbags. And made Malotov cocktails that they were going to use against any vehicles that people would come in, you know.
DAVID CECELSKI:
And the Klan was fairly strong in Monroe?
MABEL WILLIAMS:
Oh, yes. The Klan was very strong. The Klan was having rallies all over. Catfish Cove was on the rise. Catfish Cove was, oh, he was having all kinds of rallies around Monroe. One rally they reported that they had five thousand people out at the rally. And Rob and Dr. Perry and a few of the other fellows went out to some of those Klan rallies. And were there on the scene and I think it kind of unnerved the Klan people when they did. But, that was what kind of brought on the rifle club. We organized a rifle club. And got a charter through the American Rifle Association.
DAVID CECELSKI:
What did the rifle club do?
MABEL WILLIAMS:
We practiced shooting. We were all members. I was a member as well. We taught the kids how to shoot. We'd—we got our charter. We'd have our little meetings. And that was the backbone of our defense group.
DAVID CECELSKI:
And it was like a NRA type thing.
MABEL WILLIAMS:
It was affiliated. It was a branch of the National Rifle Association.
DAVID CECELSKI:
That [unclear] to white people.
MABEL WILLIAMS:
They didn't know for sure because when Robert sent off for the charter he had himself as an author. He had Dr. Perry as a doctor. He had some of the—. Oh, he had one of our officers, McDowell, as a businessman. He had, I think, the women he put down housewives. And he put construction, contractor for the construction workers. And we got our first charter like that. And it's really fun. The year that Rob passed away, the National Rifle Association wanted him to come to Texas to speak about how we survived in the south with guns.
DAVID CECELSKI:
[unclear] to do it.
MABEL WILLIAMS:
He was going to but his cancer got the better of him and he was unable to go. But he sent a message to them, which they read. And I have a tape that they—. At their anniversary celebration they talked about Robert Williams and how his rifle club allowed them to survive in the racist state of North Carolina. [Laughter]
DAVID CECELSKI:
I bet it did.
MABEL WILLIAMS:
Oh yeah. And we were just tickled to death that they did that.
DAVID CECELSKI:
I like that.
MABEL WILLIAMS:
I'm sure when we joined and the years after then, had they known we were a black group, they would have revoked our charter.
DAVID CECELSKI:
I think they would have too.
MABEL WILLIAMS:
I'm sure they would have. But in the later years when they were under such attack for guns, they came up with the fact that they were proud of the fact that, "Well, if it hadn't been for guns in North Carolina, that man would have been dead", you know. [Laughter]
DAVID CECELSKI:
That's great.
MABEL WILLIAMS:
"If he hadn't been affiliated with the rifle association." [Laughter] And that's true. But the ironic part that I want people to know is that although we had an association with guns, we knew how to use guns. We trained other people how to use guns, our children included. We never had the occasion to have to shoot anybody. And that if, you know. That's remarkable because a lot of people, when they think about having guns, they think about killing folks. And Robert always—. He was the ultimate teacher, always. He always taught the other people and us that a gun is a weapon that can do terrible damage to people. And the only reason you would ever pick up a gun is for self-defense and not for anything aggressive or not to scare off anybody, and not to play with anybody. But it was serious business when you really had to pick up a gun.
DAVID CECELSKI:
[unclear] But why would it be considered—why would it upset white southerners so much for blacks to have a rifle? I mean the right to bear arms and that kind of thing. Why was that so upsetting in 1956 or 1959?
MABEL WILLIAMS:
Because they knew that black people were at the point where they were demanding their equal rights. They were at the point of requesting but actually struggling to get the equal rights. And they knew that if a large number of black people should take up arms that they would either have to officially come down and that it may lead to a civil, kind of civil war. And they didn't want to—that to happen. So they were going to do everything that they could. First of all, they didn't want to give in and give the rights up. But they knew much better than we did that all of that political power had to be backed up. They were backing their political power up with guns. And the only thing that was going to take it away from them, or threaten, threaten it, was the fact if black people took up guns, too. So, I think that was the reason they were so afraid, you know. So they were going to nip that in the bud if they possibly could. And keep black people from even thinking about resorting to resistance, not even, nothing aggressive, just resisting what they were doing keeping that power through the gun that they had. They had control of the police department and of the state troopers, the National Guard. And they didn't intend to release that power. And they felt that that was a threat to the power.
DAVID CECELSKI:
Do you think that men were more threatened than by those guns than by the non-violent protest—
MABEL WILLIAMS:
Oh yes.
DAVID CECELSKI:
Including y'all's, I mean. There was something about blacks and guns that—
MABEL WILLIAMS:
That's right. That's right. They felt more threatened by that because that would mean that they would have to meet black men on an equal basis because that gun would equalize you, you know. And they weren't about—they weren't ready to face that on an equal basis, no. So, yes, they were much more threatened by that than they were by the non-violent protests.