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The Broadside (Transcript): Robert F. Williams' bold history lesson

Anisa Khalifa: Open up a textbook, and you probably won’t find the name Robert F Williams. Even though his story is one of the most fascinating and unusual in American history.

Robert F. Williams: We will enforce our own laws. We will become our own judges, our own juries, our own executioners.

Anisa Khalifa: In the 1950s, Robert F. Williams led the small town of Monroe, North Carolina in protesting racism and segregation. But his approach to civil rights was unorthodox.

Robert F. Williams: They can depend on us here to meet violence with violence.

Unidentified Speaker: He believed in, if you come attack me, I'm gonna protect myself.

Anisa Khalifa: I'm Anisa Khalifa. This week on The Broadside, my colleague Charlie Shelton-Ormond joins me to explore the legacy of Robert F. Williams, and how we talk about people who don't neatly fit into dominant narratives of the civil rights movement. Hey Charlie.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Hey. How are you?

Anisa Khalifa: I'm doing good. Ready for this history lesson.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Let's do it.

Anisa Khalifa: So Charlie… Robert F. Williams. Who was he?

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Well, the one sentence answer is Robert Williams was a civil rights leader in Monroe, North Carolina in the 1950s.

Anisa Khalifa: And why do you want to talk about him today?

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Number one, his story is just fascinating. The ways he challenged segregation in a small southern town really caught my attention. And number two: I think his story challenges us today to rethink how we look at the civil rights movement overall.

Anisa Khalifa: Mm, okay. And just placing Monroe on the map, it's a town about 30 miles southeast of Charlotte.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: That’s right. And back in the 1950s — like a lot of towns in the Jim Crow South — it was steeped in segregation.

Robert F. Williams: Demonstrations in Monroe started early, in fact we had demonstrations before the whole sit-in movement had started.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: That’s Robert Williams speaking in 1985. In the late ‘50s, he was constantly disrupting a segregated status quo in town. He was the president of the local NAACP chapter at the time.

Anisa Khalifa: And what was the atmosphere in Monroe at the time?

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: The town’s segregated swimming pool was a flashpoint for several protests.

Robert F. Williams: Sometimes when we appeared on the scene, all the white swimmers would jump out of the pool and would start to run. So as a result, we kept them from doing business, and finally they just closed the pool.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Robert Williams also recalled unfair treatment from the police. And dangerous run-ins with the KKK.

Robert F. Williams: The Klansmen started to move in and they had had mass rallies wherein newspapers reported that they had had as many as seven thousand and five hundred people in fields for these mass rallies. And they were beginning to attack us.

Anisa Khalifa: Okay. Where are we gonna start?

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: To start, let's go back to the late 1950s — 1959 specifically.

Anisa Khalifa: Why do you want to start there?

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: That’s when the town was wrapped up in a tense court case. A white man had been charged with beating and attempting to rape a Black woman. Here’s Robert Williams talking about the trial.

Robert F. Williams: And the defense attorney turned to the judge and said, Judge, Your Honor, Mr. Medlin is not guilty of any crime, he was just drinking and having a little fun. You see this woman here, his wife? This is God's lovely creature, and God's greatest gift to man, the pure flower of life, this white woman, and do you think that he would leave God's greatest gift to man for that — talking about the Black woman — and made it appear that the Black woman was really on trial.

Anisa Khalifa: So Robert Williams is talking about some really ugly race-baiting there from the attorney.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Yeah. And ultimately the white man on trial was acquitted. It was a gut punch to Black folks in Monroe who were keeping up with the case.

Robert F. Williams: The Black women turned to me in the courtroom and they said, Now if it hadn't been for you these men would have been punished, and now you've opened the floodgates on us, that, they feel now they can do anything to us with impunity.

Anisa Khalifa: What does he mean when he says the women told him “if it hadn’t been for you”?

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Essentially, they were calling him out for kicking a hornet's nest. If he hadn’t upset the powers that be with all the protests, this wouldn’t have happened. But this acquittal really was a tipping point for lots of people in Monroe, including Robert Williams, who felt that enough was enough.

Robert F. Williams: So they said, well, what are you going to say now? And so I turned to them and I said from this day forward, we will meet violence with violence.

Anisa Khalifa: Meet violence with violence. I can imagine that’s going to raise some eyebrows. It’s a big statement coming from Monroe’s NAACP president. Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Definitely, that alone will cause some attention. But there’s another big piece to this that adds weight to Robert Williams’ declaration here. Along with the NAACP, he actually led another group… a local charter of the NRA.

Anisa Khalifa: Oh, wow.

Mabel Williams: We organized a rifle club. And got a charter through the American Rifle Association.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: That’s Mabel Williams, Robert Williams' wife. This is her in 1999, talking with a historian for the Southern Oral History Program

Mabel Williams: We practiced shooting. We were all members. I was a member as well.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Now, Robert Williams had served in the military as a marine.

Anisa Khalifa: So he knew his way around a firearm.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Yeah, and he brought other Black veterans into this group to help teach folks how to use their guns. He called the group the Black Armed Guard.

Mabel Williams: We got our charter. We'd have our little meetings. And that was the backbone of our defense group.

Anisa Khalifa: The backbone of their defense group.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Yeah, that’s definitely important to emphasize. Their stance was rooted in what Robert Williams called quote “armed self-reliance.” Here's Mabel Williams again.

Mabel Williams: He was the ultimate teacher, always. And 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.

Anisa Khalifa: So hearing Robert and Mabel Williams, it makes me think of the overlaps with the Black Panther Party and the Black Power movement in the 60s and 70s.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Definitely, but Robert Williams was casting out this message in the late 50s — years before the Black Power Movement really got going on a national stage.

Anisa Khalifa: So a forebear to that cause in a way. But this is the 1950s. And he gets the green light to start a NRA chapter? I mean we have the Second Amendment, but I can’t imagine the people in charge would be thrilled to allow a Black man into their ranks.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Yeah well… not if they don’t know about it! When he applied for the charter, he didn’t put down that he was Black.

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. I’m sure they would have.

Anisa Khalifa: Wow! So how then did this statement go over in 1959, when Robert Williams talked about meeting violence with violence?

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Not too well. Just hours after he said it, Robert Williams got a message from Roy Wilkins at the NAACP head office. It was to inform Williams that unless he apologized, he’d be suspended as president of the local chapter.

Robert F. Williams: And I told him that I’d only go on television or any place else and apologize to white people after first they had apologized to us for what they’d done to us in this country.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: But Robert Williams continued to fight for civil rights in North Carolina, and people still looked to him for leadership — even after he was ousted from his role as president.

Anisa Khalifa: Meanwhile, we’re getting into the early 60s and protests are ramping up all across the South. How’d that play out in Monroe?

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Yeah, the summer of 1961 was a pivotal time for the town. There were more heated incidents at the segregated swimming pool. And in August that year, a group of Freedom Riders came into town — to protest segregation.

Robert Heath: So they were here… they were a mix of white and Black.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: This is Robert Heath. He grew up in Monroe and lives there today. I met up with him last summer to chat more about being a teenager there in the 50s and 60s. He and I met at the town square — where clashes between protesters and counter-protesters went down.

Robert Heath: And one of the Freedom Riders was thrown off the steps right here…. right from the courthouse.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Protests continued in town for a couple weeks — and once again, it put Monroe in the national spotlight.


Pete Seeger: Let me take you to a corner / Of this world that we call free / It’s Monroe, North Carolina / Where the Klan rules by decree

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: This is Pete Seeger a couple years later — in 1963. The song is called “The Ballad of Old Monroe.”

Pete Seeger: Eighteen Freedom Riders came / In August '61 / At the call of young Rob Williams / To see what could be done.

Anisa Khalifa: How involved was Robert Williams in all this?

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: He wasn’t really a part of the crowd protesting. With Monroe feeling more and more like a powder keg, he knew there was a target on his back.

Robert Heath: It was a very serious situation at the time for Rob.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: But despite his goal to lay low, Robert Williams couldn’t avoid attracting some unwanted attention one particular night, one that would end up shaping the rest of his life…


Unidentified Anchor: According to Mrs. Stegall, she and her husband drove to Monroe Sunday afternoon to visit her mother. They heard about the disturbances in town but weren’t involved until they took a shortcut to their destination.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: When protests in downtown Monroe were at their peak, a white couple named the Stegalls drove through a predominantly Black neighborhood in town. It was where Robert and Mabel Williams lived. This is a report from a news station in Charlotte.

Unidentified Anchor: Then on Winchester Street passing through a Negro neighborhood, a crowd blocked their path.

Robert F. Williams: And so I could tell that the crowd was becoming too tense. And I got into the crowd around the Stegalls and started pushing the crowd away from them.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Robert Williams says he offered the Stegalls a place to stay in the neighborhood while things cooled off. After a few hours, they went about their way, safely driving out of the neighborhood. But later that evening, Robert Williams learned there was an order out for his arrest.

Robert F. Williams: And they said to me that, Robert, you’ve caused a lot of trouble in this town and now state troopers are on the way and in thirty minutes you’ll be hanging in the courthouse square.

Anisa Khalifa: So what were the charges?

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Authorities wanted to charge him and several others for kidnapping the white couple.

Anisa Khalifa: Which, considering everything else going on, sounds a little suspicious.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Yeah, Robert Williams was adamant that the authorities were using the Stegalls as a set up to have him arrested.

Robert F. Williams: So I told my wife that we’d have to leave.

Anisa Khalifa: When we come back, the Williams family looks for safety in the one place they knew they couldn’t be arrested. That’s after a short break. We’re back with the Broadside. Okay Charlie, we left Robert and Mabel Williams with the authorities hot on their trail. So where did they escape to?

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Okay, real quick, just remember that this is in August of 1961. The Cold War has gotten intense. But despite that, the Williams flee the US and seek refuge in Cuba.

Anisa Khalifa: Cuba?! How’d they swing that?

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Robert Williams had actually traveled to Cuba before and had a good relationship with its government. And once he came back with his family in 1961, he didn’t go off the map and try to disappear. Just the opposite.


Unidentified Anchor: From Havana, Cuba, free territory of the Americas, Radio Free Dixie invites you to listen to the free voice of the South. Stay with us for music, news, and commentary by Robert F. Williams.

Robert F. Williams: Let our people take to the streets in fierce numbers. Meet violence with violence. And let our battle cry be heard around the world. Freedom! Freedom! Freedom now or death.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Robert Williams hosted a radio show that could be heard in parts of the US, letting people know he was still out there broadcasting his opinions. And remember, this is the early 60s — the Cuban Missile Crisis happened during this period — so anything connected to Cuba is going to be contentious.

Anisa Khalifa: So did they settle down in Cuba for a while?

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Just for a few years, then they headed over to the People’s Republic of China.

Anisa Khalifa: From one communist government to another.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: That's right. And then eventually, at the end of the 1960s, Robert Williams was able to safely come back to the United States. He worked it out with the US government to return in exchange for his knowledge about China.

Anisa Khalifa: Back to North Carolina?

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: No, not back to North Carolina. Things weren’t safe enough to return there, so the Williams family settled in Michigan. And in the mid 70s the U.S. government officially dropped all charges against him.

Mabel Williams: From the time I married him until the time that we returned from China, I believe that he had a basic belief that there had to be good people in this government that were going to stand up for what was right.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Robert Williams continued to live in Michigan until his death in 1996. His funeral took place in Monroe, where he’s buried. Among those in attendance was Rosa Parks, who gave a eulogy sharing her admiration for the man. And ten years ago, in 2014, Mabel Williams was laid to rest right next to her husband.

Mabel Williams: He always wanted to stand up for the right thing. And he felt like other people would join in, good people.

Anisa Khalifa: Charlie, we talked at the beginning about how Robert F Williams isn’t in many history books. What about people in Monroe? Do they know about him?

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: He’s not a household name, but people in town are starting to know about him more and more.

Unidentified singer: They say that freedom is a constant struggle…

Anisa Khalifa: Whoa, who is that singing?

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: That’s Mary D. Williams, she’s a gospel singer and historian here in North Carolina.

Anisa Khalifa: Mary D. Williams — any relation to Robert Williams?

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: No. No relation. But she is one of several historians in the area who are spreading the word about Robert Williams – educating folks about this history. And when she starts singing, I mean… it can stop you right in your tracks.

Mary D. Williams: They say that freedom is a constant struggle…

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: This was at a community event in Monroe at the end of last summer recognizing Robert F Williams.

Anisa Khalifa: Listening to Mary D. Williams sing, it makes me think about the different ways we interact with these kinds of histories.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Absolutely. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all method for sharing a story, right?

Anisa Khalifa: Especially for a topic like the Civil Rights Movement.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: With that, we should shout out historian Tim Tyson — he’s written a lot of great things on Robert F. Williams over the years, including a biography. He says Robert Williams challenges the narrative of our quote, "cinematic civil rights movement."

Anisa Khalifa: That’s a great phrase. So he’s talking about this idealized version of the movement, one that primarily praises successful campaigns of nonviolence.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Yeah, and Robert F. Williams doesn’t really gel into that cinematic ideal. So where does he fit?

Anisa Khalifa: Yeah. And what changes when we bring him back into the narrative? So going to an event like this, and hearing Mary D. Williams perform — it’s going to give you a kind of education that is very different from reading about somebody in a textbook. And often the people who were there, and lived it, will tell you things that aren't in the books.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Yeah, that’s where people like Robert Heath come in. He gives historical tours of Monroe in his spare time. I was able to get a VIP tour with him last summer…

Robert Heath: Yeah, let’s go, I’m parked right here.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Okay great, I’ll climb in the passenger seat.

Robert Heath: This is where the people came down. This is where the couple claimed they got lost, the white couple….

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Now, Robert Heath is all about spotlighting local stories, but he says what we call capital-H History can be really dependent on who is telling it.

Robert Heath: Write a new book, and call it Our Story. Forget the word history. Our story because you don’t know, you don’t know what happened back then.

Anisa Khalifa: I can imagine Robert Heath’s tour around Monroe is going to be really different from anybody else’s.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Definitely, he’s got specific spots he wants to show people as part of the town’s story. Like I said earlier, he was a teenager in Monroe when all the protests were ramping up in the 50s and 60s.

Robert Heath: Putting green is right there. Yeah, that was the swimming pool. Okay. There are lotta pictures in the library about that.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Speaking of which… Anisa, do you want to go to the library next?

Anisa Khalifa: You know I'm a library kid — I always want to go to the library.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Hey, hi.

Patricia Poland: Hi, I'm Patricia Poland.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Nice to meet you, thanks for taking the time,

Patricia Poland: Have y'all signed in?

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: After our tour around town, Robert Heath introduced me to Patricia Poland. She’s the retired local history librarian at the Union County Library.

Patricia Poland: It is a job that I sort of fell into. And I feel very blessed that I did. My role now is, people keep asking me questions.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Patricia is steeped in Monroe’s history. We met in a room full of local artifacts and documents, and talked for a long time about the town and Robert Williams. And she said something off the bat about him that caught my attention.

Patricia Poland: Now, when I first started working in here, which would have been part time in 2003, I wouldn't have touched Robert Williams with a 10-foot pole

Anisa Khalifa: Oh, interesting… why’s that?

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: As a white woman, she says she felt a little out of her depth. She recalled an early conversation with a supervisor about the protests in 1961.

Patricia Poland: I said, Gosh if my grandmother had lived here, you know, in town, I can imagine how terrified she would have been. And she looked at me. She goes, Why? And I said, you know, because of the riot. And she said, Don't talk about things you don't know anything about.

Anisa Khalifa: Mm. So what changed her perspective?

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: She says it happened gradually as more people came into the library asking for stuff on Robert Williams. It stirred an interest for her to spend more time learning about him. And a recognition that…

Patricia Poland: You never learn everything. Yeah, that's one of the first things you have to accept too, there will always be something new to learn, somebody else will always know something that you never knew. And that was kind of what I started leading towards.

Anisa Khalifa: So Patricia is helping people like Robert Heath educate folks in Monroe about their shared local history. What about those on the receiving end of this — how has Patricia seen people in Monroe respond to Robert Williams' story?

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Yeah, that's a good question. Here’s what she had to say on that.

Patricia Poland: You know, if you mentioned his name to — and I'm just gonna say it — a white person who had been here, a funny look would get on their face. No. Nobody liked him. He was terrible. He was terrible, you know. But I think as time has gone on, it's shown that — what I used to say was, he did what he had to do. Change was coming. If he didn't do it, eventually, someone else would have.But you know, what would our town have been like if there had been no Robert Williams?

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Would you say, you know, from your experience as a historian, that we like to fit our historical figures neatly into these narratives that we create for them?

Patricia Poland: Yep. We do. Especially when they're our heroes. Yes, I believe we decide what we want to know. And we make up our mind about the story or the narrative. And many people flat won't budge. Even if you showed them proof, they won't accept it. You know, this is, this is how it is, this is what I was told. I'm not gonna believe you.

Robert Heath: And sometimes stories get mixed up. We don’t know, I tell people we can listen to someone and go back and write two different things we just heard.

Patricia Poland: You need to listen to many voices in order to get the full story. But you put all those stories together to get a better picture of what happened, you know, and it's up to all of us, all of us have a part in our community's history. It's a collective experience, and it shouldn't be ignored.

Anisa Khalifa: So we’ve chatted about the different ways to tap into this history — a tour around town, old artifacts in a library, a special concert. Last but certainly not least, oral histories. But I keep thinking that those are all things somebody would have to seek out if they were interested in learning more about Robert Williams.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: You’re totally right. And so, there’s actually one more thing I want to tell you about…


Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Back to last summer… after the event with Mary D Williams had wrapped up, a group of folks ventured outside in the middle of a hot and humid August afternoon. On the side of a highway, with cars rolling by, they unveiled a new historical marker for Robert Williams.

Crowd: Robert! Robert! Robert!

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: This marker is a big deal for Monroe. It’s the town’s first public recognition of Robert Williams as an influential civil rights leader.

Unidentified Speaker: Remembering the past so that we can honor, learn, and build in our present and our future.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Making it happen took diligence from folks like Patricia Poland and Robert Heath. They worked with the state government to get it approved, along with Monroe native and Durham high school teacher Ormand Moore.

Ormand Moore: My father, who wanted to be here today but he passed this summer, but he and I talked a lot about it in his last weeks actually. This isn’t the part of Monroe where I’m from, but my dad told me about this history that a lot of other people didn’t know so to participate in this and see this side of my county I never knew growing up has been a beautiful thing that I'm thankful for.

Anisa Khalifa: So with this highway marker, somebody could in theory be passing by and stop to learn more about this person they otherwise hadn’t heard of before.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Yeah, the highway it's on is busy, so you’d have to really slow down to check it out. But even if you miss it driving by, just the fact that it’s there is evidence of how far Robert William’s story has come in Monroe. Before I melted from the heat, I was able to catch up with Robert Heath one more time.

Robert Heath: I just hope people read more about this history to our younger folks, and if they do that I’ll be happy. And the name still has that villain and hero, but maybe it's leveled off now, evening out.

Anisa Khalifa: Charlie, we’ve been talking about Robert F Williams, but this conversation really just scratches the surface on a much bigger part of American history. There are so many of these stories about where we live that a. we don't know and b. don't fit neatly into the mainstream narrative.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Absolutely, there’s a lot we didn’t get to in this — and I feel like Robert Heath said it best right then, encouraging folks to use this as a springboard to read more about Robert Williams, and in general about civil rights history in small towns across the South. Because, like you said, it's definitely there.

Anisa Khalifa: This was great, thank you.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Yeah, thanks Anisa.

Anisa Khalifa: Of course.

This episode of The Broadside was produced by Charlie Shelton-Ormond. Our editor is Jerad Walker. Special thanks to the Julian Edison Department of Special Collections at Washington University Libraries. Also thanks to the Southern Oral History Program at UNC-Chapel Hill, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, and WBTV in Charlotte.

The Broadside is a production of WUNC–North Carolina Public Radio. You can email us at If you enjoyed the show, leave us a rating, a review, or share it with a friend! Thanks for listening y'all. We'll be back next week.