Interview: Kenneth Robert Janken on The Wilmington Ten

Author Kenneth Robert Janken talks with Hannah Lohr-Pearson about his new book, The Wilmington Ten: Violence, Injustice, and the Rise of Black Politics in the 1970s.


Hannah Lohr-Pearson: Who are the Wilmington Ten and why are they important?

Kenneth Robert Janken: The Wilmington Ten were Ben Chavis, Reginald Epps, Jerry Jacobs, James McKoy, Wayne Moore, Marvin Patrick, Ann Shepard, Connie Tindall, Willie Earl Vereen, and Joe Wright. They were nine black men in their teens and early twenties, many of them still in high school, and a white woman in her thirties, who participated in conflict and protests over the desegregation of the public schools in Wilmington, North Carolina, and were punished with the full force of the law for standing against discrimination. 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.

HLP: What was the order of events?

KRJ: 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. They established an armed guard around the church’s perimeter. Some supporters, to this day unknown, burned a number of some nearby white-owned businesses, including a mom-and-pop store called Mike’s Grocery close to the church. (In the chaos, other instances of arson apparently were committed by business owners eager to collect insurance money.) At the same time Mike’s was going up in flames, police shot and killed a student leader who many claim was unarmed. The next morning, an armed white vigilante was shot and killed as he prepared to attack the church.

While city officials had greeted the massive violence against blacks with a yawning indifference, the death of a provocateur-cum-terrorist who was white stimulated a swift response. Wilmington’s mayor finally declared a curfew and the governor mobilized the National Guard, which raided and took control of the boycott headquarters. The authorities’ show of force reduced the level of violence in the city, but what calm did return felt sullen, as none of the black students’ and parents’ grievances had been addressed.

After the rebellion was suppressed, local white officials and the press called the police to task 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, who were slaughtered in their homes by American troops in Vietnam. The daily newspaper called protesters hoodlums. There were a few letters to the editor from sympathetic whites who called for understanding, but the loudest voices issued full-throated howls for retribution.

HLP: How was the case brought to trial?

janken_wilmingtonKRJ: A year later, in March 1972, smarting still from the uprising and wishing to exact payment for it, local and state authorities arrested seventeen persons on charges related to the week of violence—all of them involved with the protest, none from the ROWP. In September 1972, ten of them—the Wilmington Ten—were put on trial for burning Mike’s and conspiring to shoot at the police and firefighters who responded to the blaze. (An eleventh person, George Kirby, was to have been tried with the others, but he jumped bail and the trial proceeded without him.) During the trial, the judge bulldozed the defense, and the prosecutor produced witnesses who he knew would implicate the Ten by lying. With the judge’s active assent, the prosecutor illegally excluded most blacks from the jury. Given the legal machinations, after a few hours of deliberation, the Wilmington Ten, not surprisingly, were convicted on all counts and sentenced to a total of more than 280 years in prison.

HLP: Then what happened?

KRJ: In short order a widespread and worldwide campaign arose to free The Ten. Powered by the grassroots organizing of black nationalist organizations, it came to include adherents of other political ideologies, elected officials, elite public opinion makers, foreign governments, and Amnesty International, which designated the Wilmington Ten prisoners of conscience. In December 1980, faced with both a mobilized domestic and international public outcry and overwhelming evidence of judicial and prosecutorial misconduct, a federal appellate court overturned the convictions.

HLP: What made you want to write about the Ten?

KRJ: In 1980, not long after he had been released from prison, I heard Ben Chavis speak about political repression and the black freedom struggle. He was electrifying, and I held on to that memory.

In the early 2000s, a general assault on civil rights and civil liberties in North Carolina and elsewhere in the South and the country was underway. Public school systems began an accelerated process of resegregation. High-stakes testing became the latest fashion with the predictable result that poor children and minority children fared miserably. The tests basically revealed a strong link between socioeconomic status and success on the tests. But rather than conclude that we need to concentrate efforts on eliminating poverty, the ruling elites used the test results to weaken the public commitment to public education and to promote charter schools and vouchers for private for-profit and parochial schools. In North Carolina and elsewhere there were a series of high profile criminal trials in which defendants were wrongfully convicted, often abetted by prosecutorial misconduct. And there has been a gross overreach of domestic spying and law enforcement harassment of Muslim communities and political opponents of the status quo.

The case of the Wilmington Ten occurred at a point in history that differs significantly from our own. Yet it contains important lessons that bear upon our times, in particular the holistic ways the organizations of the black freedom struggle developed and fought back against repression.

HLP: Why was the prosecutor so determined to frame the Ten?

KRJ: It was not only the prosecutor who wanted to frame the Wilmington Ten. A range of officials were determined that someone should pay for the unrest in Wilmington in 1971. The judge Robert Martin, the State Attorney General Robert Morgan, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, all played their part in conjunction with the prosecutor to put Ben Chavis, perhaps North Carolina’s most effective black radical organizer, in prison. BATF agent William Walden had been pursuing Chavis for years as Inspector Javert tracked Jean Valjean. Walden and prosecutor Jay Stroud were central to the fabrication of Allen Hall’s perjured testimony. In order to ensnare Chavis, the state and federal authorities were willing to round up any number of other individuals and ruin their lives. The prosecutor’s role was an important and highly visible one, but it is important to state that he was operating within the context of an aggressively repressive criminal justice system.

HLP: There were many people fiercely dedicated to freeing the Ten. Talk about their efforts.

KRJ: In large measure, the people who led the fight to free the Wilmington Ten succeeded because they connected the injustices the Ten experienced with other injustices in North Carolina, the South, and the nation. They brought a wide array of support to the cause and compelled the authorities to address and eventually redress the wrongs. The Commission for Racial Justice (CRJ) stood by the Ten without wavering. The CRJ did heroic work like writing and visiting the Ten when they were in prison, conducting vigils and picket lines, and demonstrating that this miscarriage of justice was symptomatic of the legal repression of the black freedom struggle. The organization educated the public about, and tirelessly fought for reform of, the criminal justice system. The CRJ was joined in these efforts by the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression (NAARPR), which brought to bear its considerable contacts in the U.S. labor movement and networks of left-of-center politicians across the country. Somewhat later, the Workers Viewpoint Organization, which was a multiracial formation comprised of participants in the black student and anti-Vietnam War movements who sought answers to systematic repression and exploitation in Marxism, led the building of the North Carolina Coalition to Free the Wilmington Ten. This coalition connected people from across the state who were involved in labor, education, and criminal justice issues to demand the Ten be freed. Separately and together, these groups created public opinion that forced the U.S. government and the federal courts to take action that resulted in the convictions being overturned.

HLP: What evidence came to light to exonerate the Ten?

KRJ: At the time of their trial and conviction, it was abundantly clear that the prosecution’s case was a sham, that the Ten were convicted because the state wanted to punish them for political activity. Dogged and skillful lawyering during the appeals process and excellent and savvy political organizing on the part of the CRJ, NAARPR, Workers Viewpoint Organization, and a Washington-based organization named the National Wilmington 10 Defense Committee eventually compelled a reversal of the verdicts—the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit all but said the Ten were convicted because the prosecutor lied, abetted perjury, and withheld evidence.

In late 2012, the prosecutor’s notes during the jury selection process surfaced. These notes made clear that the prosecutor illegally excluded blacks from the Wilmington Ten jury and tried to pack it with people with white-supremacist leanings, including members of the Ku Klux Klan. Given such prosecutorial misconduct, the Governor of North Carolina Bev Perdue issued pardons of innocence to the Ten that December.

HLP: What can be learned from the Ten about American society at the time?

KRJ: The student protests of the early 1970s in Wilmington, their suppression by the police and white vigilantes, the frame-up of the Wilmington Ten, and the movement to free them capture important trends and processes in African American politics in the 1960s and 1970s. Three immediately come to mind.

First, we can see a new assertiveness of African Americans around a clearly developing radical critique of American society. We also can plainly see the repressive lengths the federal and state authorities were willing to go to in order to punish those who dared to directly challenge the government and its repressive apparatuses. Second, in the activity of the African American organizations with disparate agendas that coalesced to free the Wilmington Ten, we can discern a new Left-led black politics. This politics, which drew moderates and those who aspired to elected officialdom into the orbit of a nascent revolutionary left, flourished into the early 1980s, at which time the American political elite devised various reform and repressive measures to neutralize that leadership. Third, the worldwide outcry organized by the movement to free the Ten illustrates the continuing importance of international affairs to gains for the black freedom struggle. To paraphrase Malcolm X, who was one of the movement’s guiding spirits, the domestic civil rights struggle had to be transformed into an international battle for human rights.

HLP: What about today? How is the Ten’s work still relevant?

KRJ: Since this century began, the state of North Carolina has pulsed with struggle over the types of issues that characterized the conflicts of the 1970s. Public schools have resegregated and the state government’s support for quality education for all has been hijacked by a mania for systems of charter and privatized for-profit schools. People fighting for the reform of the criminal justice system have brought to light many other cases of wrongful conviction, including people serving time on death row. Police misconduct, including excessive violence and deaths, bubble to the surface, as they have in Ferguson, Missouri; Prairie View, Texas; New York City; Cleveland; Baltimore; and elsewhere. This and more has brought forth in North Carolina collective efforts to find solutions, including the broad-based Moral Monday movement, which in the summer of 2013 led weekly protests at the state legislature that resulted in the unlawful arrests of nearly a thousand demonstrators. The point here is not to celebrate a heroic age of struggle or erect a totem for justice-seeking people of today to venerate. Rather, I wrote this book to contribute to an understanding of a major episode in the black freedom movement, of the circumstances surrounding it, and an analysis of why and how it succeeded.

HLP: Where are the Ten today?

KRJ: Sadly, four of the Wilmington Ten died before their time: Jerry Jacobs (1989), Joe Wright (1990), Ann Shepard (2011), and Connie Tindall (2012). Ben Chavis continues to participate and influence the struggle and currently is the head of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, the trade organization of African American-owned newspapers. James McKoy, Willie Earl Vereen, and Marvin Patrick live quietly in Wilmington. Reginald Epps lives out of the spotlight in Raleigh. Wayne Moore lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he became a unionized electrician, and in 2014 he published a memoir. For the most part, the members of the Wilmington Ten have kept low profiles and been circumspect in the public retelling of their stories.

HLP: What was your strategy when you were looking for information about them?

KRJ: My strategy was to collect evidence from as wide a variety of sources as possible. I interviewed nearly three dozen people with knowledge of the Ten, including some of the Ten themselves. I used the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to pry loose transcripts of the trials as well as FBI files on many organizations and individuals involved in the events. Once hidden in the National Archives, because of my FOIA requests they are now declassified and available for inspection by the public. I tracked down and was among the first to do research in several organizations’ records. I visited or otherwise accessed material from archives located in six states and the District of Columbia. I consulted lawyers, who helped me understand the mysteries of legal writing. And I did a lot of cold calling, asking people who had dedicated good portions of their lives to the struggle to share their memories and perspectives with me. And far more often than not I was rewarded with generous and frank conversation.

HLP: What surprised you most in your research?

KRJ: Prosecutor Jay Stroud’s jury selection notes and handwritten thoughts on getting a mistrial—really, all of Stroud’s trial material. The hubris and corruption these documents display have lost none of their sting after more than forty years and tell a still fresh and relevant cautionary tale about political repression and the criminal justice system.

Kenneth Robert Janken is professor of African American and diaspora studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and director of the UNC Center for the Study of the American South. The Wilmington Ten: Violence, Injustice, and the Rise of Black Politics in the 1970s is now available. Janken’s previous books include Walter White: Mr. NAACP and Rayford W. Logan and the Dilemma of the African-American Intellectual.