The Wilmington Ten: Violence, Injustice, and the Rise of Black Politics in the 1970s

The Wilmington Ten: Violence, Injustice, and the Rise of Black Politics in the 1970s

The Wilmington Ten: Violence, Injustice, and the Rise of Black Politics in the 1970s

The Wilmington Ten: Violence, Injustice, and the Rise of Black Politics in the 1970s

Synopsis

In February 1971, racial tension surrounding school desegregation in Wilmington, North Carolina, culminated in four days of violence and skirmishes between white vigilantes and black residents. The turmoil resulted in two deaths, six injuries, more than $500,000 in damage, and the firebombing of a white-owned store, before the National Guard restored uneasy peace. Despite glaring irregularities in the subsequent trial, ten young persons were convicted of arson and conspiracy and then sentenced to a total of 282 years in prison. They became known internationally as the Wilmington Ten. A powerful movement arose within North Carolina and beyond to demand their freedom, and after several witnesses admitted to perjury, a federal appeals court, also citing prosecutorial misconduct, overturned the convictions in 1980.

Kenneth Janken narrates the dramatic story of the Ten, connecting their story to a larger arc of Black Power and the transformation of post-Civil Rights era political organizing. Grounded in extensive interviews, newly declassified government documents, and archival research, this book thoroughly examines the 1971 events and the subsequent movement for justice that strongly influenced the wider African American freedom struggle.

Excerpt

The case of the Wilmington Ten amounts to one of the most egregious instances of injustice and political repression from the post–World War II black freedom struggle. It took legions of people working over the course of the 1970s to right the wrong. Like the political killings of George Jackson and Fred Hampton, the legal frame-up of Angela Davis, and the suppression of the Attica Prison rebellion, the Wilmington Ten was a high-profile attempt by federal and North Carolina authorities to stanch the increasingly radical African American freedom movement. The facts of the callous, corrupt, and abusive prosecution of the Wilmington Ten have lost none of their power to shock more than forty years after the fact, even given today’s epidemic of prosecutorial misconduct. Less understood but just as important, the efforts to free the Wilmington Ten helped define an important moment in African American politics, in which an increasingly variegated movement coordinated its efforts under the leadership of a vital radical Left.

In the first week of February 1971, African American high school students in the newly desegregated school system in Wilmington, North Carolina, staged a school boycott to protest systematic mistreatment by the city’s education authorities, teachers, police who were called to campus, and white adult thugs who harassed them on school grounds. The students issued a list of demands and established a boycott headquarters at a church in town.

As news of the boycott was disseminated through the local media, the homegrown paramilitary Rights of White People (ROWP) organization launched violent attacks on the church and the students gathered there. Enduring drive-by shootings and receiving no police protection, the boycotters and their supporters fought back, establishing an armed guard around the church’s perimeter. Some supporters, to this day unknown, burned a number of nearby white-owned businesses, including a momand-pop store called Mike’s Grocery close to the church. (In the chaos, other instances of arson apparently were committed by business owners . . .

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