Following desegregation, racial tensions were simmering in Wilmington, North Carolina, as white paramilitaries harassed black protesters with seeming impunity. That tension boiled over in early February, 1971, when shots were fired at firefighters responding to the burning of a white-owned grocery store.
The incident was blamed on the black youths headquartered at Gregory Congregational United Church of Christ next door. Aided by activist Ben Chavis, they were in the midst of a high school boycott stemming from unfair treatment by the administration and law enforcement officers. The next morning, a white supremacist passed through a police barricade and tried to open fire on the church before he was shot dead by an unknown assailant. Gov. Robert Scott called in the National Guard, who forcibly removed the suspects from the church.
Eight black high school students, Chavis and white anti-poverty activist Ann Shepherd were sentenced to prison on trumped-up charges of arson and conspiracy. A national movement secured their freedom after about 10 years, but it was not until 2012 that they were officially pardoned. The Wilmington Ten, as the accused came to be known, were victims of a racially and politically motivated legal imbroglio, complete with solicited and perjured testimony. This had more to do with white America's need to maintain the status quo than justice, as UNC-Chapel Hill professor and undergraduate studies director Kenneth Janken shows in his new book, The Wilmington Ten: Violence, Injustice, and the Rise of Black Politics in the 1970s, which he discusses at Quail Ridge Books on Jan. 21.
The INDY recently spoke with Janken about the framing and freeing of the Wilmington Ten and the organizational lessons for today's racial justice movements.
INDY: Reading about the Wilmington Ten, Bob Dylan's song "Hurricane" came to mind, with the legal system failing and the case being taken to the court of public opinion. Did the state fail in this case?
KENNETH JANKEN: It certainly did. The Wilmington Ten were convicted and sentenced to a total of 282 years in prison. They exhausted all appeals, lost every step of the way. Those mechanisms of justice failed. It was non-state actors that got President Carter's attention and got Andrew Young, then secretary of state, to admit that the U.S. had dozens of political prisoners. Amnesty International involved people from all over the globe.
Some political theories suggest that it was partially the church infrastructure that led to the efficacy of the civil rights movement in the South. Was that true here?
The [boycotters] were looking for a headquarters. They went to African-American churches, the Boys Club and the local NAACP, and were turned down at each. The only person who helped them was Eugene Templeton, a white minister who led a mostly black congregation at Gregory Congregational Church. Templeton called others in the church hierarchy, including the Commission for Racial Justice, and Ben Chavis was sent to help organizers. The church was very important, and the United Church of Christ and the CRJ continue to play a very important role in the struggle, but the students were not looking for religious leadership.
What was the impact of that joint effort, and what might the lesson be for movements today, like Black Lives Matter?
The leadership didn't treat the arrest and conviction of the Wilmington Ten as a unique miscarriage of justice; they linked it to the criminal justice system, police repression, labor laws and the exclusion of African-Americans from the political system. For the people who were concerned with those things but hadn't heard of the Wilmington Ten, they created connectors. They were able to bring in a variety of people who were far more moderate. Congressmen were involved in freeing the Wilmington Ten. That was unique because, today, most of those center or moderate politicians run away from anything radical.
Was the prosecution largely symbolic, operating within the framework of what society and the system wanted?
A major point of the frame-up of the Wilmington Ten was to get Ben Chavis. He was charismatic, effective, practical, could connect the specific to the general and mobilize people. North Carolina was a very important state in revolutionary nationalist and Black Power movements, and [the state] was interested in getting rid of radical, revolutionary nationalists like Chavis. What [prosecutor] Jay Stroud did was not unique.
In all your research, what affected you most?
I couldn't get away from the audacity of the government to ruin the lives of nine innocent people to get one person. One of the Wilmington Ten said, "There was no Wilmington Ten." All 10 didn't know each other. They were not a group; they didn't hang out together. The Wilmington Ten was a creation of the state to trash a movement. Another thing that really affected me was the solidarity the 10 exhibited. None of them gave testimony against Chavis or each other. That's very, very heroic. Looking through the trial transcripts, how the state lied and justified its lies was so angering. And the dedication of the defense attorneys, like James Ferguson, blew my mind.
What do you want the average person to take away from reading this book?
The story of the judicial misconduct. The state was willing to go to just about any lengths to smash an insurgent movement. It's important to look at the trial, the jury selection, the judge and the systematic attempts to crush the appeals. But the other side prevailed. This was part of a movement in North Carolina from the late 1960s to early 1980s that was built on insurgent politics and an effective organizing style that united left and center, linking specific grievances to larger systemic inequalities. There are lessons for how to organize if you look at that time period.
This article appeared in print with the headline "When a fire starts to burn "