The Wilmington Ten: Black Politics in the 1970s and Today

The state was a petri dish of alternatives to the staid nonviolent direct action groups that we have come to associate with the civil rights movement. There were both religious and secular black nationalists; groups that embraced Marxism and sought to make the United States a socialist country; and people who tried to grab the levers of power through the ballot box and traditional electoral politics. These were markedly different trends. But in large part because of the extreme repression of the black freedom struggle in the 1960s and early 1970s, they found ways to cooperate, to influence and be influenced by each other. Importantly, the left offered both valuable social and political critiques and excellent organizing skills. Without these the movement would not have gotten anywhere near as far as it did.

Lecture Description

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 damage, and the firebombing of a white-owned store, before the National Guard restored 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 address 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? How did a movement develop to deliver them justice, and what was the significance of that movement for our understanding of the African American freedom struggle, both retrospectively and prospectively?


African American Civil Rights

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