Forty years ago in Wilmington, N.C., there was a serious struggle of Black Americans to end racial discrimination and violence over the manner in which public schools were desegregated. The NAACP, national and local, had won a series of important court battles in Wilmington and across America to desegregate public school systems. But, during the Nixon Administration in the early 1970’s, African Americans in the south, as well as in other regions of the nation, were being challenged with the systematic racial disparities involved in the details of how federal court-ordered school desegregation was being enforced.
We are grateful that at the recent 2011 Black Press Week in Washington, D.C., the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) committed to lead a national initiative to get a “Pardon of Innocence” for the Wilmington, N.C. Ten. The NNPA is a vital association of our nation’s leading newspapers that for 184 years have served the news and journalistic interests of the Black American community in the United States and throughout the Pan African world. While the specifics of case of the Wilmington Ten are unique, this case of political prisoners raised the broad issues and plight of the struggle for African American liberation and empowerment to a global level during the 1970’s.
Black students, parents, and community leaders made a decision in Wilmington in February 1971 that they would stand up and fight to protect and secure the “quality” education of African American students by attempting to preserve the high academic integrity and institutional legacy of African American public schools such as Williston Senior High School. The United Church of Christ, as a progressive mainline Protestant denomination of 1.7 million members, and its Commission for Racial Justice led by The Reverend Dr. Charles E. Cobb, decided to stand with the student-led coalition in Wilmington to demand fairness and equal justice. As a young civil rights activist, I was dispatched by the Commission for Racial Justice to give organizational assistance to our brothers and sisters in Wilmington.
Because we dared to speak out and to engage in non-violent street protests to the long, unprecedented history of racial violence and injustice in that port city, the African American community became the targets of a violent, paramilitary, anti-Black terror campaign led by the Ku Klux Klan and the Rights of White People (ROWP) organization. Our movement’s headquarters in Wilmington – Gregory Congregational United Church of Christ – and the surrounding African American community was placed in a state of siege by armed White vigilantes, who opposed racial justice and equality.
The Civil Rights Movement evolving from the 1950’s and 1960’s into the 1970’s had to grapple with the fact that the Nixon Administration took steps to counter and suppress the momentum and progress of the movement in the wake of the assassination of The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. Thus, what we faced in Wilmington, N.C. in 1971 was not only the vile of local racial hatred and violence, but also we later found out that right-wing law enforcement officials in the Nixon Administration aided and abetted the concerted frame-up, unjust conviction, and imprisonment of the Wilmington Ten.
We are the Wilmington Ten: Wayne Moore, William Joe Wright, Connie Tindall, Marvin Patrick, James McKoy, Ann Shepard, Willie Earl Vereen, Jerry Jacobs, Reginald Epps, and Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. Because of our involvement in the struggle in Wilmington in 1971, we were unjustly charged, arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to a combined maximum total of 282 years in prison in North Carolina in 1972. We all were completely innocent of the alleged charges of arson and conspiracy to assault. In 1978 , Amnesty International declared that we were “Political Prisoners.” We stayed in prison during most of the 1970’s while our case was on appeal. On December 4, 1980, the Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals overturned the unjust convictions of the Wilmington, Ten because of “prosecutorial misconduct” in the unconstitutional and unfair frame-up. Yet, to date there has not been an official “pardon of innocence” issued by the state of or by the federal government.
NNPA Chair, Danny J. Blakewell, Sr. affirmed, “We are going to tell the story of the Wilmington 10.” The story of the Wilmington 10 is the story of Black Americans speaking out and standing up for equal justice and basic fairness. We live in a world where we have to tell our own stories and remind ourselves that our struggle for justice and empowerment is not yet complete.
Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. is Senior Advisor to the Black Alliance for Educational Options and President of Education Online Services Corporation.