On Dec. 31, outgoing North Carolina governor, Beverly Perdue, pardoned the Wilmington 10 — the Rev. Benjamin Chavis, Connie Tindall, Marvin Patrick, Wayne Moore, Reginald Epps, Jerry Jacobs, James McKoy, Willie Earl Vereen, William Wright, Jr. and Ann Shepard — who had sentences ranging from 15 to 34 years following their convictions in 1972. Perdue was forced to publicly admit that their sentences were “tainted by naked racism.” (CNN, Jan. 1) A prolonged national and international struggle emerged in efforts to free the nine African Americans and one white member of the 10.
In 1978, then North Carolina governor, Jim Hunt, had reduced the sentences of the 10 but offered no pardon. In 1980, formal charges against the 10 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 NAACP North Carolina chapter revealed newly discovered documentation that prosecutors intentionally sabotaged the first trial in order to manipulate jury selection.
Background on the case
In 1971, racial outbursts in the city of Wilmington shocked the world. The political and social undercurrents 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 Wilmington, 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 line, Blacks weren’t the only target. White allies who were seen as “trying to make integration work” were also targeted by the Ku Klux 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 classrooms spilled over into the hallways, cafeterias 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 classrooms, prevented from participating in student government, and barred from the debate teams and glee clubs. The city’s 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 supremacists. As formerly the most powerful political organizations on the Carolina coast, the Ku Klux Klan and the Rights of White People were still quite active and reared their ugly heads. Masked nightriders patrolled Wilmington’s downtown district. Black youth armed themselves in self-defense and a local minister was shot. Following the city’s central Black neighborhood being sprayed with bullets over a two-night period, the Wilmington 10 were framed and then accused of firebombing a local grocery store.
1898—a reign of racist terror
The experiences of the Wilmington 10 actually dated back to the “1898 Wilmington Race Riots,” to a time of overt racial oppression and forced inequality. These race riots marked a new era of racist reign two years after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Jim Crow segregation in the South with the Plessy vs. Ferguson decision. 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 disenfranchise Wilmington’s Black working class, 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 naked coast of North Carolina, Blacks were crafts workers, sought-after tailors and furniture makers. They were architects and jewelry makers. They were plumbers, plasterers and one 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 North Carolina, 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. where both Black and white people employed each other. The second order of business was the white working class that had allied with local Blacks.
The Ku Klux Klan was looking to intimidate anyone who supported an interracial society. In 1898, an armed white militia terrorized such social unity and achievements. Hate mongers 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. Wilmington’s 1898 Race Riot was a critical turning point in the history of the South, a crucial blow to the pursuit of freedom and equality for all.
Needless to say, The Wilmington 10 and the racial outburst of 1971 were 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.
Public forum on Wilmington 10
On August 4, the Durham branch of Workers World Party sponsored a public forum including a panel of local activists deeply entrenched in the history of the 1898 Wilmington Race Riots. The purpose of this forum was to sound the alarm to then governor, Beverly Perdue. The branch advocated for justice and an official pardon of the Wilmington 10. The panel included North Carolina Central University law professor, Irv Joyner; Larry Reni Thomas, author of “The True Story of the Wilmington 10”; and the Rev. Curtis Gatewood, North Carolina’s first vice president of the NAACP.
As Larry Reni Thomas stated at the forum: “So many people were killed in 1898. The Cape Fear River ran red with blood. Dead bodies were lying around for two weeks. Black folks in Wilmington never forgot that.”
The Wilmington 10 are a testament to the spirit of true revolution, the epitome of people power, and the potential of interracial solidarity. As high school youth, the Wilmington 10 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. Power to the people! And long live the Wilmington 10!
The writer is a member of the Durham, N.C., branch of Workers World Party.