South Charlotte

Walk marks Freedom Riders' visit

On Aug. 27, the Union County Library will mark the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders' trip to Monroe with a presentation and commemorative walk around the courthouse.

Walkers can try to imagine Monroe's downtown filled with protesters, Ku Klux Klan members, rioting, shootings and racial assaults Aug. 27, 1961, the final day of picketing by a group of Freedom Riders and members of the Monroe Nonviolent Action Committee.

On that day, Monroe's streets were teeming with people. The crowd, many reportedly recruited from out of town by the KKK, numbered in the thousands. Tensions ran high on both sides and erupted into rioting.

The day ended in a kidnapping charge against local NAACP President Robert F. Williams, who took a white Marshville couple into his home on Boyte Street when they drove into his neighborhood and were surrounded by an angry mob.

Williams fled to Canada, and then to Cuba.

This is the best-known incident from the week, but there were other notable events and people to remember. Reference librarian Patricia Poland planned the commemorative program; she said it's important to learn the whole story.

"Do you merely accept a story without knowing the history behind it?" she asked. "Well, you shouldn't, and that's why I think it is important that this time be remembered.

"Know the history behind it. Know the small part that people of Monroe played in the civil rights movement. There were many small parts all over the country, all over the world. It took all of those small parts to bring it all forward, to make it happen, and Monroe was right there. Pretty cool, I think."

She said some mistakenly believe the Freedom Riders came to Monroe by bus, as they had in other cities. The 19 Freedom Riders may have ridden by bus into Charlotte, but they got other transportation into Monroe.

The commemorative walk will begin 2:30 p.m. Saturday, after a short program at 2 p.m. in the Monroe Library's Griffin Room.

"We'll circle the courthouse once and return," said Poland. "Along the way, I hope to point out three spots of interest: Where the sidewalk was torn up in front of the mayor's office to stop the picketers; where the jail was that housed the picketers; and where Jones Drugstore used to be," where Robert Williams conducted a sit-in before August 1961 and was arrested for trespassing.

Monroe's civil rights history has been the subject of songs, magazine and newspaper articles, books and documentaries. Those who'd like to know more should visit the exhibit currently on display outside the Griffin Room.