She fought back | SPECIAL: Black Culture 2004 | Indy Week
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She fought back 

Mabel Williams, North Carolina's black power heroine, returns home to screen a documentary about her husband, Robert F. Williams

One June afternoon in 1961, Mabel Williams was at her home in Monroe, a town near Charlotte. She was watching her two young boys while her husband, Robert, was out delivering copies of The Crusader, the Williams' home-published newsletter that urged Southern blacks to wage armed resistance against white supremacy. When Robert's car suddenly came careening into the yard with two cars hot on its tail, Mabel went straight for the family's 12-gauge shotgun.

The story is told in Timothy B. Tyson's biography, Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power. "I thought it was the Klan coming," Mabel recalled in the book. "So I grabbed the gun and said, 'This is it.'" The men chasing her husband weren't Klansmen, though--instead they were two white police officers, and Robert was convinced they planned to kill him.

No matter who they were, no one was taking Robert from Mabel without a fight. "The police came up behind him with their guns drawn," she remembered. "And I just put that gun on them and said, 'What is going on?'" After exchanging some words with the officers, she laid down the law. "You better get out of here," she said. "I was scared and nervous and I am sure they saw that. And they knew that I was going to shoot them. They got in their cars and took off again, tires squealing. And they never did come back."

It was one of many daunting standoffs that Mabel and Robert Williams survived together. As two early and prominent proponents of militant self-defense against racial injustice, the couple battled not only the Klan and the cops, but also institutional racism wherever they encountered it--from the courthouse to the workplace to the public swimming pool.

In the late 1950s, Robert served as president of the Union County branch of the NAACP, until the group's national leadership ousted him for his pledge to meet violence with violence. But that didn't stop him from organizing his neighbors into self-defense squads, and waging high-profile racial justice campaigns in Monroe and elsewhere around the country. Along the way, he developed strong ties to Cuba's revolutionary government and became a key player in the Fair Play for Cuba Committee.

The international connections would prove crucial for Robert and Mabel in August 1961, when the cauldron of racial problems in Monroe boiled over and they were forced to flee the country. On the run from the FBI, they went underground and soon resurfaced in Havana. There they were granted safe haven and became the voices of Radio Free Dixie, a black power broadcast from Cuban transmitters. The weekly program, which was widely available on the AM dial in the American South, featured the latest blues and jazz, along with Robert's impassioned pleas for blacks to defend their homes and families with force when necessary.

After a few years, the Williams family moved on to China, before finally returning to the United States in 1969. Settling in Michigan, they faded out of the spotlight as Robert retired from the front lines of the black power movement. (He did, however, remain an inspiration to the Black Panther Party and other like-minded groups.) Over the years, the Williams' story began to fade as well, as mainstream histories of the civil rights movement focused on the tactics of nonviolent civil disobedience practiced by Martin Luther King Jr. and other activists, excluding the accounts of those who took more drastic measures.

Robert Williams died in 1996 from Hodgkin's disease. Three years later, his story was at last given its due in Tyson's biography, Radio Free Dixie, which salvaged and celebrated the lost history of Robert and Mabel's battles in North Carolina. Now that history is set to reach an even greater audience, thanks to a new documentary, Negroes with Guns: Rob Williams and Black Power.

The film is the work of the University of Florida at Gainesville's Documentary Institute, which has produced several noted historical and political documentaries that have aired on PBS. The title takes the name from a book Robert wrote shortly after fleeing North Carolina.

Negroes with Guns revisits a little-understood place and time in black history, one in which fighting the good fight sometimes actually meant fighting. It shows that while some North Carolina blacks were sitting down at "whites only" lunch counters--a brave and risky act to be sure--others were staging life-and-death gun battles against a resurgent KKK.

Drawing on rich but previously overlooked historical resources, the documentary is a veritable time capsule, featuring clips of early television reports about Robert's exploits, Radio Free Dixie broadcasts and speeches he gave throughout his career. Contemporary interviews with people who worked with the black power pioneer offer reminders of just how audacious he had been to take on the white power structure with the force of arms.

Above all, as Monroe resident Phil Bazemore recalls in the film, Williams was a man of action who was unwilling to wait for justice that had already been too long deferred. "Impatient. I don't know any other word you could use--he was impatient," says Bazemore. "He wanted to do it today and not have to wait until tomorrow. He wanted everything to change overnight."

Many of the most vivid recollections are shared by Mabel Williams, who is now 72, and her continued vitality is evident in her many appearances in the documentary. "She seems to have found the fountain of youth somewhere," says the Documentary Institute's Sandra Dickson, who worked closely with Mabel while writing the screenplay.

It's fitting that Mabel has such a central presence in the documentary. As Tyson stresses in his book, the armed black men of Monroe were backed by armed black women, and passion for the fight for equal rights knew no gender line. And while it was Robert who was most often in the headlines, Mabel pitched in during every stage of the struggle. She wrote columns and drew illustrations for The Crusader, worked long hours on Radio Free Dixie and helped Robert shepherd their family through years of uncertain exile in far-away foreign capitals.

Last week, Mabel returned to North Carolina to help introduce screenings of the documentary in Charlotte and Monroe. During the Thursday evening presentation to a packed house at Charlotte's Afro-American Cultural Center, she spoke of what it means to her to bring Robert's story back to the Williams' home state. "We never really intended to leave home," she said. "And Rob always made clear, wherever we went, that our struggle was right here in the United States and not somewhere else." Praising the filmmakers for "bringing forth this history, the real history, the other side of history," she then spoke of new struggles in the days to come. "Our future, and the future of the world, is dependent on people like these who are not afraid to tell the truth." EndBlock

Negroes with Guns is presently debuting with a small series of screenings in Florida, North Carolina and New York. As yet, no showing has been arranged in the Triangle, but the producers are planning for wider distribution of the documentary soon. For more information, see the Documentary Institute's Web site: www.jou.ufl.edu/news/robwilliams.asp

More by Jon Elliston

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