The Campaign to Free the Wilmington 10 Holds the Key to Successful Activism TodayRoundup
tags: African American history, North Carolina, radicalism, Protest
Kenneth Janken is a professor of African American and diaspora studies at the University of North Carolina and the author of The Wilmington Ten: Violence, Injustice, and the Rise of Black Politics in the 1970s (UNC Press 2016).
Fifty years ago this month, protests convulsed Wilmington, N.C., with extensive property damage, vigilante violence and death. Black citizens had been protesting their mistreatment in the city’s schools as they underwent desegregation, and White supremacists responded by patrolling the streets. The events of February 1971 became immortalized thanks to the case of the Wilmington 10 — nine Black men in their teens and early 20s, many of them still in high school, and a White woman in her 30s — participants in the protests who were punished with the full force of the law for standing against discrimination.
The case amounted to one of the most egregious instances of injustice and political repression from the post-World War II Black freedom struggle. It represented a high-profile attempt by federal and North Carolina authorities to stanch an increasingly radical African American freedom movement. Only a years-long, concerted effort by activists righted the wrong. The callous, corrupt and abusive prosecution has lost none of its power to shock a half-century after the fact. Less understood, but just as important, the efforts to free the Wilmington 10 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 Wilmington school system 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 spread, the armed Rights of White People (ROWP) launched violent attacks on the church and the students. After enduring several days of drive-by shootings and receiving no police protection, the boycotters and their supporters established an armed guard around the church’s perimeter.
Some boycott supporters, to this day unknown, firebombed nearby White-owned businesses, including a mom-and-pop store called Mike’s Grocery. While Mike’s was burning, police shot and killed a student leader who many claimed was unarmed. The next morning, an armed White man was shot and killed as he prepared to attack the church.
With the man’s death, Wilmington’s mayor finally declared a curfew, and the governor mobilized the National Guard to suppress the boycott. Local officials and the press criticized the police for not being aggressive enough against the boycott. One judge stated from the bench that he would have treated protesters as Lt. William Calley had treated the villagers of My Lai, whose slaughter by American troops in Vietnam was still a fresh memory. The loudest voices in the public square howled for retribution.
A year later, in March 1972, local and state authorities arrested 17 protesters on charges related to the week of violence — but no one from the ROWP. In September 1972, 10 people — the Wilmington 10 — were put on trial, accused of burning Mike’s and conspiring to shoot at the police and firefighters who responded to the blaze. During the trial, the judge allowed the exclusion of most Blacks from the jury and denied defense motions and objections. After being treated unusually well by law enforcement officials, prosecutors’ key witness lied on the stand. The prosecutor also withheld evidence from the defense, including that this witness lied. After a few hours of deliberation, the jury convicted the Wilmington 10 on all counts and sentenced them to a total of more than 280 years in prison.