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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 assertiveness unites the black community in Monroe

Her family lived under the constant threat of violence, Williams remembers. When threats came, she and members of the rifle club slept at their house in shifts. Robert's assertiveness united factions of the black community against white supremacists, helping protect Robert and educating the community in the process.

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:
Do you have to— [unclear] just having a rifle club today. People know how to shoot. Did you have to take greater and greater measures to protect yourself.
MABEL WILLIAMS:
Oh yes. Some nights we were fortunate if we were able to get four hours sleep. And we slept in shifts at home because the threats—the telephone threats, the hate mail—stuff would come through the mail saying what they were going to do. People on the street—. I remember one time a little boy—his name was Prentice Robinson, I believe, was beaten up by some white men. They thought he was Rob's son. They beat him up downtown. Our kids had to—. We had to restrict their activities. They couldn't go to the movies anymore. And they couldn't go out with the kids and play on Saturdays and play like other kids did because that was after the—. It was known that Rob had kids and that they were in danger. We had applied for them to go to what is now East Elementary School. And the boys—. We talked it over with the boys and they agreed to do it. And so we tried to get them into that school. And that in itself is a real experience that I will never forget. Sitting in the school board meeting and the superintendent who was a white superintendent. Always the superintendent was white. Kirkman. Never will forget, Kirkman. And that was the first time I had seen a white man and a black man go toe-to-toe, and that was Robert and Kirkman. And Robert stood up to him in such a way that Kirkman was almost in tears at the end of that meeting. He was so angry and so—. I think he was in a state of shock. Robert told him about the times he would come into our black school with his hat on and call our black teachers by their first names. And have them trembling and shaking and so afraid. And telling the children, "Be quiet, sups in the building. Sups in the building. Shh." And Robert remembered all of that. And when he brought it out in that board meeting and Kirkman tried to deny it. Rob said, "You know you're lying. You know you did that", you know. "And how intimidated you had all the teachers. And how intimidated you had all of us as children. And you're going to tell me that our school is as good as your school. Did you do that to the white teachers, you know, calling them by their first names? Never a Miss this or a Mrs. that, you know." And I remember somebody saying, "Before there would be integration in Monroe blood would run in the street knee-deep" at that board meeting. And I was scared to death. I was scared. And I'm sure Robert had some fear in him. But he just stood up and he did all the talking. And I just sat there. And they asked me, you know, and I said, "Yes. Yes, you know. That's what we want." But—
DAVID CECELSKI:
What he said.
MABEL WILLIAMS:
Yeah. Whatever he said, that's it, you know. But—
DAVID CECELSKI:
So you really had to almost fortify the house.
MABEL WILLIAMS:
Um-hmm, yes. And people would come after threats that we would think that might be—they might be really coming. We'd call and people would come from our rifle club group and sit up with us. Take turns, sleep on the floor, sleep on the couch. But somebody would stand guard on the porch. So, yeah, we went through a period when that was going on all the time. And at one time we got calls around the clock. Just nuisance, you know, just to keep you awake and to disturb you. And you'd answer and they wouldn't say anything, you know, whatever. So all those kinds of things were going on.
DAVID CECELSKI:
But did the Klan ever come into the neighborhood?
MABEL WILLIAMS:
Oh yeah. They came into the neighborhood on several occasions. I remember one night they came—some of them came into the neighborhood. And the fellows got out into the street and shot above the cars. And you could hear cars screeching and flying everywhere. And they went out of the neighborhood. And I don't recall them ever coming back again after that. Yeah, yeah. We had lots of support of the neighbors in the community because they were very proud of the fact that Robert was standing up. And he was getting the young people to stand up with him. We had a youth group that the ones who were picketing the pool, who wanted to see a change, those young boys and girls, mostly the young boys, had been fighting each other before they got involved in the civil rights movement. They had the Quality Hill Gang fighting against the Green Street Gang. And them against the New Town Gang. But when they got involved in civil rights they all started working together and having good relations. And the gang stuff went down. The older fellows taught them how to shoot but also taught them that they, hopefully, would never have to shoot. But they taught them how to use guns safely and what guns are for. And so that was good. So the young people grew a lot mentally, intellectually during the movement because the older men and the women were taking the time to talk to them and to listen to them, and see what was going on.
DAVID CECELSKI:
What were the big [unclear] during the movement during those years, before y'all left. Survival was a big one.
MABEL WILLIAMS:
Yes, that was the big one. That was the big one.
DAVID CECELSKI:
But if you had to [unclear] .
MABEL WILLIAMS:
I think the biggest thing was the educating of the people, the black people. And the raising of the awareness of the need to struggle even though we didn't have a lot of victory victories at that time that you could say, "Oh well, we won the right to do this. Well we won the right to go the library because the mayor said he didn't read anyway." Or didn't use the library anyway. So little things like that. But I think the biggest impact was the fact that people began to say, "Yes, we do need to stand up. Yes. We do need to struggle."