In February 1971, racial tension surrounding school desegregation in Wilmington, North Carolina, culminated in four days of violence and skirmishes between white vigilantes and black residents. The turmoil resulted in two deaths, six injuries, more than $500,000 in property damage, and the firebombing of a white-owned corner grocery store, before the National Guard restored an uneasy peace. Despite glaring irregularities in the subsequent trial, ten young persons were convicted of arson and conspiracy and then sentenced to a total of 282 years in prison. They became known internationally as the Wilmington Ten.
This lecture addresses three general questions: What occurred in Wilmington in 1971 that climaxed in civil unrest and acts of violence? Why were ten individuals, most of them high school students, framed for crimes emanating from those disturbances? And how did a movement develop to deliver them justice, what was the significance of that movement for our understanding of the African American freedom struggle, and how might such an understanding inform thought and actions today to build an equal society?
Kenneth Janken – Kenny to his friends – is an American historian and professor of African American studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where he has taught since 1991. His research focuses on 20th-century African American history, and his most recent book is The Wilmington Ten: Violence, Injustice, and the Rise of Black Politics in the 1970s (2015), which won the Clarendon Award from the Lower Cape Fear Historical Society for outstanding book on that region.