The Wilmington Ten: A Struggle In History

By Guest Contributor Lamont Lilly

The Wilmington Ten. Standing (l-r): Wayne Moore, Anne Shepard, James McKoy, Willie Vereen, Marvin Patrick, Reginald Epps. Seated (l-r): Rev. Ben Chavis, Joe Wright, Connie Tindall, Jerry Jacobs

On Dec. 31, outgoing North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue pardoned the Wilmington 10, ending the prolonged national struggle for the 10 activists–nine black, one white–initially convicted in 1972. Perdue was forced to publicly admit that their sentences were “tainted by naked racism,” ending 2012 with justice finally being served for Rev. Benjamin Chavis, Connie Tindall, Marvin Patrick, Wayne Moore, Reginald Epps, Jerry Jacobs, James McKoy, Willie Earl Vereen, William Wright, Jr., and Ann Shepard.

“We are tremendously grateful to Gov. Perdue for her courage,” said Chavis, the group’s leader. “This is a historic day for North Carolina and the United States. People should be innocent until proven guilty, not persecuted for standing up for equal rights and justice.”

Background 
In 1971, racial outbursts in the city of Wilmington shocked the world. The political and social undercurrent of racism and bigotry were still festering in the aftermath of the signing of historic Civil Rights bills in 1964 and 1965. Police had murdered a black teenager, while two white security guards had been killed.

The National Guard was called to patrol the city, to protect its downtown and commercial district from a potential race war. All of the key players were in attendance: the Ku Klux Klan and their local support organization, The Rights of White People, while frustrated Black residents, including youth, towed the progressive side. Anyone who pressed for change and racial solidarity became a threat to social order and the complete reign of white supremacy. Though skin color was the major dividing line, Blacks weren’t the only targets. White allies who were seen as “trying to make integration work” were also targeted by the Klan. White southerner and superintendent of schools Hayward Bellamy was almost lynched to death in front of his family.

In the newly integrated schools, tensions from the classroom spilled over into the hallways, cafeteria, and common areas. Public education was in serious disarray. Black and white residents avoided the streets, while local congregations were in the heat of battle. Wilmington had recently failed at forced integration when Black students were discriminated against in the classroom, from participating in student government, and barred from the debate team and glee club. The city’s false brand of integration had blocked its newly arriving Black students from a good education.

In response, some youth decided to boycott the Wilmington school system and found themselves targeted by white supremacy. Though their influence was diminished from their peak, the Klan and the “Rights” were still quite active along the Carolina coast, vigorously rearing their ugly heads.

Rev. Benjamin Chavis speaks at a 1978 press conference following the sentence reduction for the Wilmington Ten.

Masked riders terrorized Wilmington’s downtown district. Black youth armed themselves in self-defense when a local minister was shot. Following the city’s central black neighborhood being sprayed with bullets over a two-night period, the ten activists were framed and then accused of firebombing a local grocery store.

In 1978, then-governor Jim Hunt reduced the sentences of the group but offered no pardon. In 1980, formal charges against the group were overturned but still on record. It was later reported that prosecutors had manufactured evidence and coerced witnesses. Three of the state’s key witnesses recanted their testimonies in 1980, admitting they had committed perjury. Most of the members of the 10 spent several years in jail. Before Perdue’s pardon, the state chapter of the NAACP revealed newly discovered documentation that prosecutors intentionally sabotaged the first trial to manipulate jury selection.

1898 – A Reign Of Racist Terror

New York Herald headline covering the Wilmington Race Riot of Nov. 11, 1898.

The experiences of The Wilmington Ten actually date back to the 1898 Wilmington Race Riot, to a time of overt racial oppression and forced inequality. These race riots marked a new era of racist reign just two years after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Jim Crow segregation through Plessy v. Ferguson. This gave the green light to many Black and progressive whites being forcibly evicted from their homes by white supremacists and southern elitists.

The first order of business for local Klansmen was to break the backs of Wilmington’s black working-class, to disenfranchise their economic stronghold, which by 1895 had just begun to thrive. At this time, Wilmington was the national symbol of Black hope. It was in Wilmington where Blacks owned land and openly participated in local politics.

In this small budding city on the outer banks of North Carolina, Blacks were crafts workers, tailors, and furniture makers. They were brick masons, teachers, and architects. They were plumbers, plasterers, and even owned a newspaper, The Daily Record. Blacks in Wilmington owned 20 of the city’s 22 barbershops and one of the city’s three real estate firms. As then the largest and most prominent city in NC, it also had a Black-majority population. At the close of the 19th century, Wilmington was one of the few cities in the U.S. were both Black and white people employed each other.

The second order of business was the white working class who had allied with local Blacks. The Klan was looking to intimidate anyone who supported an interracial new America. In 1898, armed white militia terrorized such social unity and achievements. Hatemongers burned down businesses and the headquarters of the Black-owned newspaper. Well-organized mobs targeted successful Black citizens and local leaders with direct violence, gunfire, and permanent banishment. The offices of Black politicians and city officials were raided and taken over. The riot in Wilmington that year was a critical turning point in the the South’s history, a crucial blow to the pursuit of freedom and equality for all.

Needless to say, Chavis and his group and the racial outburst of 1971 was merely a reflection of deep-rooted oppression from decades earlier–political and social conditions that restricted progress in Wilmington, forcing Black youth to take a stand in response to being fed up with the city’s 70-year status quo.

The Wilmington Ten are a testament to the spirit of true resistance, the epitome of people power, and the potential of interracial solidarity. As high school youth, they lived what we must embody today–the will of struggle in the face of hate. Their recent pardon was a big step forward in the struggle for justice, but the people must never forget. As the next wave of revolutionaries, we must borrow from their spirit. We must take their batons and continue to march on.

Lamont Lilly is a contributing editor with the Triangle Free Press, Human Rights Delegate with Witness for Peace, and organizer with Workers World Socialist Party. He resides in Durham, NC, as a freelance journalist. Follow him on Twitter.