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.
In the following excerpt from The Wilmington Ten: Violence, Injustice, and the Rise of Black Politics in the 1970s (pp. 11-14), Janken examines the sequence of interracial conflicts that kick-started a decade-long struggle between ten individuals and the powerful structures of racial and political injustice in Wilmington, North Carolina during the 1970s.
The events surrounding what would become known as the Wilmington Ten began on Monday, 25 January 1971. A fight between black and white students from New Hanover High School in Wilmington, North Carolina, broke out during school hours at the Wildcat, a student hangout about a block from campus. It spilled over to the campus before being broken up by the police. Several students were injured, including Barbara Swain, an African American tenth grader who was cut with a knife by an unidentified white male student. But when Swain reported her injury to the school principal, he showed no interest in identifying the assailant, instead suspending her and four other black students. This incident capped a month of interracial conflict in Wilmington’s high schools. Three days later, one hundred African American students from the city’s two high schools assembled at Gregory Congregational Church to discuss their grievances. For instance, school administrators punished black students for fighting while letting whites go scot-free. The principal permitted adult-age white toughs to loiter on campus and assault black students. White male teachers harassed black students, and in one case a coach beat a black student over the head. They also demanded the establishment of a black studies curriculum and the commemoration of Martin Luther King’s birthday. Connie Tindall, one of the student leaders, declared Friday, 29 January, “Liberation Day” and announced a boycott of school until the school board addressed their grievances. “We’re not getting an education anyway,” said another student, “so why shouldn’t we stay out?”
The boycott, which continued through the first week of February, was met with white Wilmington’s iron fist. The school board clamped down with suspensions and expulsions. The paramilitary Rights of White People group, aided and abetted by the police and the mayor, attacked the boycotters’ headquarters at Gregory Congregational Church in nighttime drive-by shootings. In response, students and community members, many of them veterans or active-duty soldiers from nearby military bases, established an armed defense of the church. Other blacks in Wilmington retaliated with arson, and property damage over the week of violence was estimated at hundreds of thousands of dollars. The violence culminated during the overnight hours of 6–7 February, when Mike’s, a grocery store near Gregory Church, was burned: the police shot and killed student leader Steve Mitchell, who had gone to check on it, and church defenders shot and killed Harvey Cumber, a white man who made it through police lines, parked his truck in front of the church, and pulled out a gun. On Sunday, 7 February, the North Carolina National Guard occupied Wilmington and imposed some level of order, though racial clashes persisted in the schools and struggles for justice continued in the streets.
The case of the Wilmington Ten emerged out of the events of February 1971. In an effort to lay blame for the violence and remove the effective and popular organizer Benjamin Chavis, the Wilmington police and state prosecutor—assisted by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF)—concocted a case against Chavis, eight other black men (five of them high school students), and one white woman. Arrested more than a year after the disturbances, they were charged with conspiracy, burning Mike’s Grocery, and shooting at the firefighters and police who responded to the fire. (Ann Shepard was charged only with conspiracy.) The prosecutor, with the assent of the presiding judge, illegally excluded blacks from the jury. He solicited perjured testimony from his main witnesses to convict the Ten, who were sentenced to a total of 282 years in prison. Their convictions sparked Continue reading ‘Excerpt: The Wilmington Ten, by Kenneth Robert Janken’ »
-  “5 Students Suspended for Fight,” Wilmington Morning Star, 26 January 1971, 20; “Black Student Group to Boycott Schools,” ibid., 29 January 1971, 2; Eugene Templeton, “Five Questions about Gregory’s Involvement in the New Hanover School Crisis—1971” [before June 1971], Heyward C. Bellamy Papers, box 16, folder 1, William M. Randall Library Special Collections, University of North Carolina at Wilmington. ↩