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 a campaign across North Carolina, the nation, and the world to free them. This movement attracted support from religious institutions, black nationalists, leftists, and civil libertarians. It garnered the involvement of Amnesty International and successfully pressured the administration of President Jimmy Carter to take action, too. The movement forced Governor Jim Hunt to reduce their sentences in 1978, which freed most of them after five years’ imprisonment. In 1980 a federal appeals court overturned their convictions, and the state did not retry them.
Embedded in the story of the Wilmington Ten are imbricated themes that both define the timeline of the incident and its aftermath and were central to the transformation of black protest and insurgent action into the more recognizable black politics of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. The conflict in the Port City grew from the demands of African American students for an equal and relevant education. In the early 1930s, the great attorney and legal strategist Charles Hamilton Houston identified segregated education as a concentrated expression of all the ills and indignities suffered by African Americans. Following this observation, blacks in Wilmington went to federal court several times in the second half of the 1960s to force the school system to desegregate. But for the high school students of the 1970s, occupying common space with white students was no gift. They insisted on equal access to sympathetic principals, counselors, and teachers. This core issue of educational equality touched off numerous confrontations in North Carolina and elsewhere in the 1970s and continues to do so. The outward forms of the conflicts vary—contestation over ending busing, the diversion of public monies to support vouchers and a proliferation of charter schools, continuing efforts to privatize the public schools, the criminalization of disruptive conduct of minority students while similar behavior by white students is treated as simply a school matter, to identify four that have dominated the news in the early 2000s—but the constant is the continued denial of an equal education to African Americans and other ethnic minorities.
The students who struggled for a decent education in Wilmington’s high schools had to craft their own way forward. The city’s traditional and established African American leaders were hat-in-hand gradualists. Their recipes for change amounted to acting with rectitude, being patient, and waiting for change to occur. Students who wanted to force change received no help from them. Sensing the shifting national spirit, the students improvised on what they had learned from the Black Panther Party and nationalist and anticolonial ideas. The students’ search for protest strategies, tactics, and organization fortuitously met rapidly evolving black nationalist trends in North Carolina, which was a leader in this respect.
With these connections made, local Wilmington activists took up the concerns not just of students but of disenfranchised blacks generally and disseminated an eclectic mix of revolutionary and pragmatic black nationalism. There was a reciprocal effect as well. As the leading black nationalist and revolutionary organizations championed the cause of the struggle in the Port City, the Wilmington Ten became one of the most publicized cases of racial and political injustice. In the 1970s in North Carolina especially but also throughout the United States, women and men who wished to take part in and lead the black freedom struggle had to address this case. Because revolutionaries and black nationalists were guiding the struggle, aspiring African American politicians and race leaders were obliged to join the radicals in a united front. The Wilmington Ten became a prominent example of a new, Left-leaning black politics, one that was concerned with the substantive redistribution of power in America and not merely with a shuffling and reshuffling of names of officeholders. This energetic united front approach held sway into the 1980s, when it was overwhelmed by internal divisions, external repression, and the appearance of the “race leader” from the chrysalis of mass struggle.
African Americans who participated in the Wilmington events or observed them say that the racial trouble in the high schools began in 1968, when Williston, the high school for blacks, was closed down at the end of the school year. As elsewhere in North Carolina and the South, the New Hanover County public schools were under a federal court order to desegregate. But rather than send black and white students to all three of the district’s high schools, the New Hanover County Board of Education, over the vigorous objections of the black community, shut down a critical black institution and dispersed African American students to New Hanover and John T. Hoggard High Schools, which had until that point been exclusively white. Community feelings ran high, leading to intensified distrust of the school system. School board chairman Emsley Laney asserted without much explanation that
we felt it would be very difficult to integrate Williston High School and send white students there. It was in a black neighborhood, and this was never discussed a great deal, but we felt that for the benefit of the community as a whole and the school system, the best thing to do was take the black students from Williston and split them between the two white high schools. . . . Williston was a long-time all-black school, so in the process of integration, we deemed it best to change it, and we felt the best thing to do was to send the black students to all-white senior high schools.
In other words, the community good was defined by what was acceptable to whites.
From The Wilmington Ten: Violence, Injustice, and the Rise of Black Politics in the 1970s. Copyright © 2016 by Kenneth Robert Janken.
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. He is author of The Wilmington Ten: Violence, Injustice, and the Rise of Black Politics in the 1970s and Walter White: Mr. NAACP.
- “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.↩
- On the role of the BATF, see Lani Guinier to Drew S. Days III, memo, 28 April 1978, box 52, and Guinier to Days, memo, 12 May 1978, box 53, Civil Rights Division. Guinier was the special assistant to Assistant Attorney for Civil Rights Drew Days III; she was charged with reviewing the Wilmington Ten case and making recommendations for intervention by the Justice Department in the appeals process.↩
- Applebome, Dixie Rising, 210–36; Godwin, Black Wilmington and the North Carolina Way, 222–27.↩
- Emsley Laney interview, 14 June 1995, Lower Cape Fear Historical Society, Wilmington, N.C.↩