Published Feb 26, 2009
By Jeanette Merrill and Rosemary Neidenberg
Mae Mallory was a leading figure in the movement for Black liberation
in the 1960s, and especially known as a proponent of the right of
Black people to armed self-defense.
Once recalling conditions at her children's school in Harlem, Mallory
wrote: "I represented the Parents Association in Albany and spoke
about the miserable condition of P.S. 10. They were not prepared for
this angry Black woman. Brand new toilets were put in immediately.
"We needed a new school. Getting that school gave me so much
confidence that you can fight City Hall and win. ... We finally
boiled down to nine that stuck all the way. We were known as the
Harlem Nine." ("Letters from Prison," by Mae Mallory. Monroe Defense
Committee, circa 1962).
Students researching her life and her contributions still ask to go
through Workers World's archives to learn the true history of this
heroic Black woman warrior.
Of all her life's battles, before her death in 2007, the hardest one
established Mallory's political role. It began with her support and
fundraising for Rob Williams, a leading advocate of armed
self-defense for Black people in the fight against violent racism.
From Monroe, N.C., in 1961, came Williams' decisive call to Mallory
in New York: "Mabel and I need you down here."
Rob Williams had come home to Klan-infested Monroe from the U.S.
Marines. He recruited Black WW II veterans into a working-class
chapter of the NAACP. They fought to desegregate the local swimming pool.
Some in the civil rights movement at that time advocated nonviolent
civil disobedience. Williams, however, organized armed pickets, who
withdrew only when the city closed the pool. Faced with increasing
threats and deadly violence, Williams and his self-defense guards
protected the resisting Black community. In the newsletter named "The
Crusader," which Williams printed on a mimeograph machine, Williams
called on all Black communities to do the same.
In one confrontation, racists forced Williams' car off the road. One
held a gun to his head. One of Williams' young supporters jammed his
gun against the skull of the would-be killer. His bold action saved
When 17 Freedom Riders came to Monroe to support Williams, a dramatic
debate developed between the ideologies of passive resistancewhich
the Freedom Riders supportedand Williams' armed self-defense.
Williams warned the brave young idealists that racists would confront
passive resisters with violence.
In "Negroes with Guns," a pamphlet published originally by Workers
World, Williams described brutal beatings and shooting attacks on the
Freedom Riders. At the peak of the battle between Black people and
the racists in Monroe there were thousands of armed people menacing each other.
When the tension was greatest, in August 1961, an elderly white
couple, the Steagalls, drove into the neighborhood. To protect them
from the possible wrath of the community, Williams offered shelter in
his home where he, Mabel Williams and Mae Mallory were preparing food
for the Freedom Riders. The Steagalls gratefully accepted his offer.
After two hours the neighborhood was less tense and the Steagalls
left. Later this same couple testified that they had been held
against their will. The state brought indictments of kidnapping
against Mallory and Williams and charges of complicity against three others.
Facing what they knew would be an unfair, racist trial if not a
lynching, Rob Williams and Mabel Williams escaped to young socialist
Cuba. Mae Mallory went to Cleveland and found "justice" Northern style.
1961Oct. 12: Arrested by FBI agents and imprisoned in Cuyahoga
County Jail. Oct. 18:Released on $7,500 bail. Workers World Party
members Frances Dostal and Ted Dostal used their house as collateral
for the bail.
1962March 11: Bail revoked. Oct. 4: Ohio State Supreme Court refuses
attorney Walter Haffner's plea to stop extradition.
1963Dec. 2: U.S. Supreme Court turns down appeal by attorneys Len
Holt and Walter Haffner to stop extradition.
1964January: Extradited to North Carolina.
The Monroe Defense Committee
Mallory's 1961 call from jail to Workers World Party resulted in the
establishment of a Monroe Defense Committee office in Harlem and one
in Cleveland, where rotating teams of Workers World Party members
maintained an office/apartment. Young Audrey Proctor Seniors worked
in a coffee shop patronized by MDC members and enthusiastically
agreed to receive mail, shielding it from the FBI. She took telephone
messages to bypass the office tap.
MDC Chairperson Clarence Seniors, Vera Spruill, Ruth Stone, Frances
Dostal and others kept the office open. They organized demonstration
after demonstration, large and small, always loud, always
imaginative. Aided by the New York MDC, they raised the money needed
to maintain the offices, for legal expenses and bail, and succeeded
in building national and worldwide interest.
Among the MDC supporters were Bertrand Russell, James Baldwin,
Cleveland CORE, James Foreman, Julian Mayfield, the National Lawyers
Guild, the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Humanist
Association, Dick Gregory, the Ghana Evening News, Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis.
Mae Mallory's prison writings bristle with rebellion and
condemnations of the racist system and the top-of-the-heap racists.
Caged though she was for most of the Cleveland years, her
unquenchable spirit and voice were huge assets to the campaign for
her own freedom and that of the other defendants.
A Monroe Defense Committee undated leaflet commented on the
hard-fought campaign to keep Mallory out of Monroe, where her life
would unquestionably have been in danger: "On many occasions she was
offered all kinds of deals if she would renounce her militant
approach and disassociate herself from Rob Williams. ... She and the
other collaborators with Williams refused. ... It was Mrs. Mallory's
passionate advocacy of these ideas in her writings, letters and
speeches over two-and-a-half years which made [the extradition] inevitable."
On trial in Monroe; chronology
1964January: Extradited from Ohio. Sheriff drives Mallory to Monroe.
MDC sets up in Monroe. Jan. 18: Len Holt posts $10,000 bail releasing
Mallory from Union County jail. Feb. 27: After deliberating 32
minutes, a white jury finds Mae Mallory, Richard Crowder and Harold
Reape guilty, sentencing Mallory to 16-20 years. Crowder and Reape,
who had been present at the Steagall incident, were given lesser
sentences. Back to Union County jail.
March 16: MDC raises Mae's $10,000 cash bail and smaller amounts for
other defendants. April 30: At Columbia University, New York City,
Mallory supports the tactic of stalling the ways to protest racism at
the World's Fair. Soon after, she attends a meeting of U.S. activists
addressed by Che Guevara, who was representing Cuba at the United Nations.
1965Jan. 29: Because the jury list for the trial was segregated, the
Supreme Court of North Carolina throws out the Monroe court's
verdict. Mallory is free.
Malcolm X and Tanzania
After this victory, Mallory addressed thousands of people in many
cities and at many colleges, always advocating for armed defense as
practiced by Rob Williams and the Louisiana-based Deacons for Defense.
On Feb. 21, 1965, Mallory witnessed the assassination of Malcolm X
from a front row in the Audubon Ballroom. Later, speaking in Buffalo,
N.Y., she said, "A Black hand pulled the trigger, but it had a white
CIA brain behind it."
Her view extended well beyond the U.S. In April 1965, she played a
key role in a protest in Times Square in New York of the U.S.
military intervention in the Dominican Republic. On Aug. 8, 1966,
speaking before tens of thousands at an anti-Vietnam War rally,
Mallory said, "We are inspired by and salute the great People's
Republic of China."
Mallory always had a great love for and interest in Africa. When she
told a comrade that she was going to Tanzaniawhere she remained for
five yearsshe said, "I'm going home."