The NAACP National Board of Directors has unanimously passed a resolution calling on Gov. Beverly Perdue of North Carolina to grant full pardons to 10 young people wrongfully imprisoned in Wilmington, N.C., in 1972.
The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, president of the state’s NAACP, says that “the National NAACP’s support for full pardons for the Wilmington 10 adds great weight to the growing movement for some measure of justice for these 10 freedom fighters and their families. They were locked up for the best years of their lives because they stood up for the oppressed and marginalized portions of our society.”
In 1970, Wilmington’s Black community was still feeling the pain caused by the coup d’etat of 1898, when the White Citizens’ Committee and the Ku Klux Klan declared “White Independence.”
During Reconstruction, North Carolina had one of the most successful fusion governments in the South. Black officials were elected to both local and state governments, including nine city offices in Wilmington. But the white supremacists were outraged at losing their complete economic, political and social power over Wilmington.
A mob of whites, led by a former Confederate general, invaded Wilmington’s Black section and firebombed many buildings, including the only Black-owned newspaper in the state. They killed at least 11 Black people, wounded 25 more, and chased hundreds of families out of town.
The struggle in Wilmington today is also a continuation of the Black freedom struggle of the late 1960s. After the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the uprising in Wilmington was reportedly the largest in the South. Then came demands to end racist suspensions and expulsions of Black students and the closing of majority Black public schools. The community struggled for the creation of Black studies programs, Black political power and democratic rights.
Many of the state’s Black schools were closed, including Second Ward High School in Charlotte, Mary Potter High School in Oxford and Williston High School in Wilmington.
According to “The True Story Behind the Wilmington 10” by Larry Reni Thomas, a former New Hanover High School student in Wilmington, “We had almost daily mini-riots in 1970.” One such incident involved an altercation between a white woman and student Roderick Kirby, now known as the Rev. Kojo Nantambu, the current president of the Charlotte NAACP. This ignited more student unrest, resulting in more repression and arrests of Black students.
Black students organized a boycott of the public schools to begin on Dr. King’s birthday in January 1971. Another student rebellion happened on Jan. 22, 1971.
The early 1970s also saw the re-emergence of the Ku Klux Klan, which often operated in collusion with local police and federal agents. The KKK and a white supremacist group called Rights of White People sent members to Wilmington “to intimidate the moderate white school superintendent — cutting his phone line and hanging him in effigy in his front yard — and to send armed patrols through black neighborhoods.” (News and Observer, May 19)
At this point, student and church leaders called on Ben Chavis Jr. of Oxford, N.C., who had led a mass campaign after the racist murder of a young Black Vietnam War veteran.
Chavis, then 24, arrived in Wilmington on Feb. 1, 1971, and began organizing high school students. After violent attacks on the protesters by white supremacists, many sought shelter in Gregory Congregational Church. When a white-owned store was firebombed, firefighters who attempted to put out the fire were shot at. Many police returned fire on the church, resulting in over 5,000 bullet holes in its façade.
This resulted in a full-on rebellion across Wilmington. Two people were killed and several injured during the battle that night and the next day. On Feb. 8, National Guard troops forced their way into the church, only to find it empty.
The Wilmington 10 were young African Americans, all under age 24 and mostly teenagers, and one white woman. All had been active in the movement for racial justice. They were framed up and convicted of conspiracy and arson.
A judge sentenced them to a combined 242 years in prison, but they were released on bail as the case went through state and federal appeals courts. Their case garnered worldwide attention. The Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the case after a key prosecution witness was deemed mentally unstable: he changed his statements to prosecutors at least 15 times before the trial began. (News and Observer, May 19)
Fast forward to 2010, when local governments in North Carolina continued their pursuit of segregated schools and began attacking all public services, attacks which disproportionately affect Black and poor people. These issues and many more highlight the need for a massive movement that can challenge the root causes of all these racist, anti-worker practices. Such a movement is being forged by the NAACP in building the Historic Thousands on Jones Street Coalition. The Rev. Kojo Nantambu and the Charlotte NAACP recently challenged the closing of Black schools, resulting in civil disobedience and arrests that slowed down this racist attack.
Young people, workers, civil rights leaders, immigrants and others across the state, the U.S. South and the entire country will be marching on Wall Street South in Charlotte prior to the Democratic National Convention, to put a spotlight on this history and the current situation. They are calling on the movement to “Join us in Charlotte on September 2! Join us to demand: Pardon the Wilmington 10! Free all political prisoners! Defend public education and make the banks pay for their crisis!”