Civil rights activist Mabel Williams laid to rest in Monroe

Her controversial husband made most of the headlines, but Monroe native Mabel Robinson Williams was recalled Monday as a force for African-Americans since the early days of the civil rights movement.

Williams, the widow of Robert Franklin Williams, died April 19 in Detroit after battling breast cancer. She was buried Monday alongside her husband at Hillcrest Cemetery in Monroe, down the street from their old home. She was 82.

In the mid-20th century, the Monroe area had a Ku Klux Klan presence and remained heavily segregated, from lunch counters to swimming pools.

Robert Williams, who ran the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, received national attention in 1959 for urging the black community to meet “violence with violence” to defend themselves as a last resort. He later detailed his story in a book called “Negroes with Guns” and remained a divisive figure in the civil rights movement, as prominent leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. preached nonviolence.

The couple’s son, Detroit pastor John Williams, told the Observer before the service that his mother supported his father every step of the way. “It’s impossible to accurately tell Robert Williams’ story without Mabel Williams. She was right there.”

She never hesitated to arm herself to protect her family, her son said. And he never heard her say anything bad about her husband of nearly half a century.

At the graveside service attended by more than 60 people, Mabel Williams was recalled as a generous woman who cared deeply about her family and her race.

Her cousin, the Rev. Haywood Redfern, officiated and said God had called the Williamses to do great things. “One thing I want you to know, Robert and Mabel have always been our heroes.”

Elaine E. Steele was a longtime friend of Mabel Williams and civil rights leader Rosa Parks. Steele said Mabel Williams was a lot like Parks. “She was the embodiment of pride, dignity and courage,” she said. “She was a warrior for freedom in her own right.”

Life in exile

In 1961, the Williams family fled Monroe and later the country after Robert Williams was accused of kidnapping a white couple in the midst of a race-related riot. He maintained he was trying to protect them from a crowd he couldn’t control.

The charges landed him on the FBI’s most wanted list, and the family made their way to Cuba, and later Asia.

Robert Williams hosted “Radio Free Dixie” over shortwave radio from Havana, offering commentary on the civil rights movement. During their exile, the couple met the likes of Fidel Castro, North Vietnam leader Ho Chi Minh and Mao Zedong.

They returned to the United States in 1969 and settled in Michigan. The kidnapping charges ultimately were dismissed, and Robert Williams died in 1996. Parks spoke admiringly of him at his funeral.

During a 2004 event sponsored by Freedom Archives, which puts recordings of the social justice movement online, Williams was asked if she minded being in her husband’s shadow.

“We are fighting together for the rights of our people,” she said. “I don’t care if my name ever gets out there. If we make moves forward for our children, then that’s what we’re all about. That’s what the struggle is about.”

Fighting for their rights

About an hour before Monday’s service, Monroe resident Michael Eddie stopped by the cemetery. He knew the couple in the 1950s when he was a boy.

“This is another step of history,” Eddie said. “In the black community, we don’t have the fighters we had back then. ... There’s no one like Robert and Miss Mabel.”

During the service, Jonathan Blount, who lived near the Williams family in Monroe, recalled when the police chased Robert Williams into his yard. “Mabel came out with a shotgun and said, ‘I will blow your head off.’ What black woman does that?” asked Blount, one of the founders of Essence magazine.

He said it was important that the community protects the Williamses’ legacy.