Monroe, NC, had been in the national news since “The Kissing Case” of 1958. The most prominent Civil Rights leader in Monroe was a man named Robert Williams. Williams was different than other Civil Rights leaders at the time because he preached self-reliance, not non-violent direct action. Williams believed Black people needed to defend themselves from the white attacks. He had built a defense force in Monroe to repel the Ku Klux Klan attacks. Self-defense, also known as self-reliance, was necessary because the police would not defend Black residents. Not only did the police not protect Black residents, they often fought alongside Ku Klux Klan.
Those that believed in non-violent direct action (NVDA) wanted to prove the method worked in Monroe. Both Dr. King of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)and James Farmer of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) had taken an interest in having a demonstration to show that peaceful methods could convert the most belligerent of opponents. There was a rift beginning to form in the Civil Rights Movement between those who say NVDA as a way of life and saw it only as a tactic. Williams was the champion of those that only saw non-violence as a tactic. NVDA should be discarded once it was proven not to work in a specific situation.
Williams was planning to make a serious push for economic justice in Monroe. He would release a ten-point economic equality plan that included opening up jobs and government aid to Blacks. James Farmer decided to demonstrate in Monroe to test the waters by having his Freedom Riders protest at city hall.
The Freedom Riders arrived in Charlotte on August 17, 1961. The group created the Monroe Non-Violent Direct Action Committee in which members vow to stay non-violent even if Whites attack them. Robert Williams refused to join because he understood how viciousness of the White people of Monroe. If one advertised they would not fight back, the Whites would beat them mercilessly. Williams led a successful sit-in protest in Monroe months earlier. No one was spit on or attacked at the Monroe sit-in because Whites knew the protesters would fight back.
One of the Freedom Riders was Constance Lever from the London School of Economics. She stayed in the home of Robert Williams. The first demonstration happened at Monroe Courthouse Square on August 21, 1961. That day they also protested in front of the fire station run by father of the future Senator Jesse Helms. He threatened to shot the protesters. There was also a plan to protest in front of the mayor’s office. He had his sidewalk replaced to avoid an incident.
The protest at Monroe Courthouse Square continued for the rest of the workweek. On August 26, hundreds of counter-protesters come to intimidate the Freedom Riders. Weekend protests were often dangerous because more people were off of work. Many would come to counter-protests drunk and ready to start a fight. Monroe also made an ordinance that all protesters must keep 15 feet away from one another. This law was arbitrary and only used to arrest protesters. There were a few skirmishes between protesters and counter-protesters, but luckily a black man that lived close by came with a firearm. Once he fired in the air, the counter-protesters scattered. James Farmer got a police escort to follow the protesters home.
The protest continued on Sunday. This time with an even angrier mob out front. James Farmer arranged for a cab to pick the protesters up at 4:30 sharp. Most of the day was relatively peaceful until counter-protesters began to beat up two Freedom Riders, one of which was Constance Lever. Farmer grabs Lever and attempts to put her in the can and drive her to safety. That when a counter-protester pulled a gun on Farmer and said he was not getting in a car with a white woman. Another protester hit Farmer with the but of his shotgun, splattering blood on Farmer and Lever. Whites surrounded the car threatening to kill Farmer. A white police officer pushed both Lever and Farmer in the car and drove them to the police station to be arrested.
Police begin to arrest the rest of the protesters. The police would hold protesters while Whites beat them before the arrest. A black protester named Richard Griswold was jailed with a White man whose father was killed by a Black man. Griswold was beaten mercilessly in prison. Police refused to give medical aid to injured protesters.
That night gun battles ensued between Blacks and Whites. Novelist Julian Mayfield even provided cover fire for Blacks fleeing a white assault. White Supremacist conducted drive-by shootings in Black neighborhoods. A crowd of Black gathered in front of the home of Robert Williams. Many wanted to storm the jail and free the Freedom Riders. Others wanted revenge on Whites. The decisions of Robert Williams in the next 48 hours would change the course of history.