Flight of Robert Williams as Racial Tensions Rise in Monroe, 1961

A headline in the Statesville Record and Landmark announcing the violence in Monroe. Image from UNC-Chapel Hill.On August 27, 1961, civil rights protests in Monroe escalated into a riot, leading to local NAACP leader Robert Williams being charged with kidnapping and fleeing across state lines.

In late August 1961, Freedom Riders and members of other civil rights organizations traveled to Monroe where they hoped to assist Williams. He aimed to press charges against a Ku Klux Klansman who had assaulted him the previous year. They planned to carry out peaceful demonstrations to protest the injustice.

Despite the group’s nonviolent discipline, confrontations escalated, and on August 27, as the crowd at the courthouse grew unruly, the police line collapsed and a white mob attacked some of the activists. The remaining picketers were loaded into cars and taken into custody. Gunfire was heard around Monroe for hours, and a policeman was wounded.

The FBI’s “Wanted” poster for Williams. Image from the FBI.Shortly thereafter, a white couple made a wrong turn onto the street where Williams lived. Williams’s supporters forcibly removed the couple from their car and took them to Williams’s house where they were held by armed individuals before being released unharmed.

Before learning of the kidnapping charges against him, Williams escaped with his family to Cuba where, by 1963, he was broadcasting a radio program called Radio Free Dixie.

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