The case of the Wilmington Ten was one of the most egregious instances of injustice and political repression from the post-World War II black freedom struggle.
“The struggle around the Wilmington Ten succeeded because movement organizations stressed mass education, critiqued all aspects of the system and openly debated strategy and tactics.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Kenneth Janken. Janken is Professor of African American and Diaspora studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His book is The Wilmington Ten: Violence, Injustice, and the Rise of Black Politics in the 1970s.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Kenneth Janken: Understanding the history of the Wilmington Ten reveals the importance of building a Left movement to sustain the spontaneous eruptions of discontent and rebellion that are all around us. Without such a movement to lend perspective, education and organizing skills, uprisings tend to burn themselves out. 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, in 1971 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 almost fifty 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.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
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 new-communist 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.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
Not directly, no. But I did want to offer a realistic study of mass struggle that avoids clichés and nostalgia about unity and people rising up. The struggle around the Wilmington Ten succeeded because movement organizations stressed mass education, critiqued all aspects of the system and openly debated strategy and tactics. They organized all manner of actions to tap the masses’ varying levels of commitment: large demonstrations, picket lines, teach-ins, community and church meetings, leafleting, letter-writing, and so on – and they followed up with people and encouraged them to make more of a commitment to the cause. The everyday work did not yield results every day – one of the movement leaders, the Rev. Leon White commented that some days it felt as if he was being nailed to the cross – but over the long run that work accumulated radical forces. In other words, people did not come out because of an inspirational speech; they came out because of the movement’s careful organizing and educational work.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
Four who have had an enormous impact on me through their prodigious scholarship and wide-ranging interests and their relentless efforts to research and uncover the truth are David Levering Lewis, Trudier Harris, Nell Painter and Gerald Horne. In the course of writing The Wilmington Ten I found Michael Dawson’s work on the history and future of African Americans and the Left and Adolph Reed’s writing on the emergence of a post-segregation African American managerial/political class whose aim is to contain and moderate African American resistance especially generative.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
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.
“The worldwide outcry to free the Ten illustrates the continuing importance of international affairs to gains for the black freedom struggle.”
Since this century began, the U.S. has pulsed with struggle over the types of issues that characterized the conflicts of the 1970s. Public schools have resegregated, and government 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; Sacramento; Charlotte, North Carolina, and elsewhere. This and more brought forth collective efforts to find solutions, such as 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.
Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA. He is co-author, with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong, of the new book, American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
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