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Case of the Wilmington Ten gives rise to new Black political landscape

Wilmington Morning Star
The student boycott committee holds a press conference in 1971 at Gregory Congregational Church in Wilmington.

Saturday, February 6th, marks the 50th anniversary of the firebombing of Mike’s Grocery Store in Wilmington, North Carolina.  That 1971 event was part of four days of violence in the port city that led to the wrongful convictions of those known as the Wilmington Ten. 


Why did racial violence in one small corner of the state gain international attention?


In February 1971, white vigilantes attacked Black student activists seeking equal rights and equal education.  

Nine men, all Black.  One woman, white.  Wrongly convicted in 1972 of arson and conspiracy after a judicial process riddled with prosecutorial misconduct. 


Under political pressure, North Carolina Governor Jim Hunt shortened the prison sentences of the Ten in 1978 but refused pardons.  By 1980, a federal court overturned the convictions. 


But it took another 32 years for Governor Bev Perdue to issue pardons. The plight of the Ten drew the attention of human rights advocates around the world.  

UNC Professor Kenneth Janken says the case also caused disparate political organizations to coalesce – giving rise to a new generation of Black elected officials.

"You see the election of black mayors and, black representatives and black city council members, things like that... The campaign to free the Wilmington Ten drew into its orbit all of these new politicians, you know, political activists who wanted to become politicians who wanted to become elected politicians."

Janken cites former state representative Mickey Michaux as one high-profile example.


The movement to free the Wilmington Ten also birthed the vision of a new society without a racial hierarchy. 


But those gains of the 70s, says Janken, sustained heavy damage by the early 1980s and have not yet been rebuilt.  



Rachel hosts and produces CoastLine, an award-winning hourlong conversation featuring artists, humanitarians, scholars, and innovators in North Carolina. The show airs Wednesdays at noon and Sundays at 2 pm on 91.3 FM WHQR Public Media. It's also available as a podcast; just search CoastLine WHQR. You can reach her at rachellh@whqr.org.