After a night of interracial gunfights, a group of concerned Black people gathered at the home of Robert Williams. Many wanted to storm the jail and free the Freedom Riders who had not received medical attention. Others wanted revenge for years of assault from the White community.
Williams understood how volatile the situation was and wanted to keep everyone busy. He instructed members to erect barricades around the Black section in Newton. He ordered those he felt has the best judgment to act as guards. Williams anticipated Whites would attack his home as they did Dr. Albert Perry a few years earlier.
A machine gun positioned itself outside William’s home. A dog house in William’s backyard served as a marker for a box of dynamite. Williams dug the box up and distributed sticks to various members of the defense force. After all the proper precautions were made in anticipation of an attack, Williams felt it best to remind his followers why they were here. He gave a speech reminding people that they were here only for self-defense. In no way would they take revenge on all White people.
Mabel Williams, Robert’s wife, did everything she could to prevent the coming attack. She called Governor Terry Sanford that he deploy state troopers to keep the peace. Little did she know Sanford had already asked for troops. It was the opinion of Sanford that Williams was trying to provoke an assault. Years later, in an interview, Sanford admitted he wanted to find a way to remove Robert Williams from Monroe without killing him. There was no intention of improving the life of Blacks in Monroe.
State Troopers barricaded the border of Newton, NC. However, a White couple Bruce and Mabel Stegall “accidentally” wander into Newton close to the home of Robert Williams around 6:00 PM on August 27, 1961. A crowd formed around the car and held them at gunpoint. Both Bruce and Mabel were pulled from their car. Many in the group recognized the car as the one that bore a sign that said “Open Season on Coons” a week prior. The mob brought the Stegalls to the home of Robert Williams.
When they brought the couple to Robert Williams house they wanted him to lead in the lynching. Williams refused and reinforced the idea they were fighting for self-defense, not revenge. The Stegalls pleaded with Williams to save them, and he replied that he did believe the Stegalls were there to spy on Newton’s defenses. It is unclear what happens next. In Williams’s autobiography, he said the Stegalls followed him in the house. The police said the Stegalls were drug into the house. Either way, had Stegalls stayed in the front lawn, they would have been lynched on Williams’s property.
At this time, Williams decided to call Police Chief Mauney to see if the Freedom Riders had received medical attention. The Police Chief told Williams that he had caused much racial trouble, and he would be hanging from the courthouse square in thirty minutes. The Chief also warned Williams not to hurt the Stegalls. Never fearful Williams fired back that if protesters did not receive care soon, he would march on the jail and free them himself.
After getting off the phone with the police Williams realized he could be accused of kidnapping the Stegalls. The threat of harm to the Stegalls motivated the police to get medical treatment for James Farmer and the Freedom Riders. William will find this out later. After two hours in Williams’s home, the Stegalls were snuck out and went back home. After the immediate danger had left, Williams realized what a mess he had on his hands.
Williams and his defense force were ready to repel a Ku Klux Klan attack. He was not ready to fight state troopers and national guard. Several unmarked caravans were pulling into the neighboring county of Monroe. Williams senses there would be a bloodbath. To save himself and his family, he decided to flee through the woods. He had an escape plan ready, and Julian Mayfield picked him up at a disclosed location. They drove to Harlem.
The FBI put out a warrant against Williams for kidnapping because he held the Stegalls for two hours. He found a safe house in Harlem but understood he needed to flee the country. He was able to use his “Fair Play for Cuba” and Socialist Workers Party connections to get to Canada. Canada had an extradition treaty with the United States, so the Royal Mounted Police also hunted for him. Once in Canada, he was able to sneak on a plane to Mexico, then to his final destination of Cuba.
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