The Wilmington Ten: nine men and one woman – wrongly accused and convicted of arson and conspiracy. Each of the ten serving substantial prison time for crimes they did not commit. The nine men were African-American. The woman was white. The violence that erupted in Wilmington fifty years ago, in early February 1971, was fomented by racial tension, desegregation, and active white supremacist groups facing off against black activists who were demanding equal rights and equal educational opportunities.
After four days of clashes in the Port City, two people were dead, six were injured, and more than half-a-million dollars in damage was done. Mike’s Grocery, a white-owned store in a Black neighborhood, had been fire-bombed. It took the National Guard to put an end to the conflict.
The people held responsible for the violence became known as the Wilmington Ten, gaining international attention as they fought for their freedom, after enduring a judicial process driven by prosecutorial misconduct.
Their convictions were overturned after nearly a decade, in 1980, but actual pardons did not come until 2012, more than three decades later, courtesy of then-North Carolina Governor Bev Perdue. By then, two of the ten had died.
Our discussion on this edition is more than a re-visitation of the events in Wilmington fifty years ago, although there is merit in that alone. We also explore how these ten wrongful convictions in the fight for equal rights led to a new Black political landscape.
Kenneth Janken, Professor of African American and Diaspora studies at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill; member, UNC Commission on History, Race, and a Way Forward; Author, The Wilmington Ten: Violence, Injustice, and the Rise of Black Politics in the 1970s