This is part 4 of my Black History Month look at treasures from the National Museum of African American History & Culture that speak to North Carolina’s coastal history.
Some of the museum’s artifacts are very small but hold a lot of meaning. This little pinback button is a good example. The button highlights another important moment in the civil rights movement on the North Carolina coast– the campaign to free the Wilmington 10.
The button features one of “The Ten,” the Rev. Benjamin Chavis, behind bars, as well as silhouettes of the nine other members of “The Ten.”
For me this little button is evocative of so much of what happened in the civil rights movement in Wilmington and countless other towns and cities in North Carolina between roughly 1968 and 1971 or ’72– it was an era of a powerful and often violent white backlash against the civil rights gains of the early 1960s, as well as an era of a new black militancy.
In a way, that historical moment started with the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, an event that broke so many hearts, brought forth so many tears and led to so much disillusionment– and ignited riots in many of North Carolina’s towns and cities.
The button also reminds me of the racial clashes that spread throughout the state’s schools between 1968 and the early 1970s.
Under pressure from the federal courts and the U.S. Dept. of Justice, most North Carolina school districts finally ended the dual school system– one for white children, one for black children, sometimes another one for Indian children– between 1968 and 1971.
Fire bombings, school boycotts, vandalism, more riots and seemingly endless arrests and expulsions– all of those things marked those years. National Guard troops were sent into schools across the state.
And of course the button reminds me of the Wilmington 10: on February 6, 1971, unknown persons firebombed Mike’s Grocery, a white-owned, mom-and-pop store in Wilmington.
At that time, downtown Wilmington had come to resemble a war zone. The turmoil had begun innocently enough, with black high school students protesting racial injustices concerning the Williston School, a historically black high school.
Led by the Rev. Chavis, a former high school teacher from Oxford, N.C. then working with the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice, black high school students had launched a boycott of classes late that January.
After the local school board rejected the students’ demands, white supremacist groups began to launch attacks against the church that was the headquarters for the local civil rights movement.
The Ku Klux Klan prowled the city’s streets. It’s hard to believe now, but at that time the local sheriff referred to the Klan as “a moderating influence.” And in an odd way, he may have been right: a local rightwing group of extremists called the Rights of White People was even more violent than the Klan.
Of course, I should probably mention that, as I noted in my series “The Klan Next Time,” New Hanover County’s sheriff and five of his deputies had been members of the KKK in the mid-1960s.
To defend black communities against groups such as the KKK and the Rights of White People, a cadre of black activists armed themselves and took to the streets, too.
Some of them were Vietnam veterans trained and experienced in combat– as were the some of the leaders of the Rights of White People.
There were drive-by shootings and repeated acts of arson, and the sounds of gunfire echoed through downtown streets nightly. Police killed a student protestor, and a sniper, presumably one of the black activists, shot and killed a white supremacist as he took aim at the church.
Roughly a year later, local and state authorities arrested the Rev. Chavis, eight black high school students and a white anti-poverty worker for the burning of Mike’s Grocery. No real evidence tied them to the incident, but the prosecutor obtained a guilty verdict by excluding blacks from the jury and using what was later revealed to be perjured testimony.
The judge sentenced “The Ten” to a combined 282 years in prison.
The story of the Wilmington 10 spread around the world. Amnesty International labeled the convicted ten “political prisoners,” and investigations by CBS’s “Sixty Minutes” and the New York Times, among others, pointed to the strong possibility of the prosecutor having used fabricated evidence.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit overturned the convictions of the Wilmington 10 in 1980.
As a side note, many believe that the campaign to free the Wilmington Ten helped to reawaken public interest in another critical moment in North Carolina’s history that at that time had largely been forgotten: the Wilmington coup d’etat and racial massacre of 1898.
Larry Reni Thomas is one of those people. A Wilmington native, Larry was one of the first scholars to look critically at those events in Wilmington when he was a graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill in the 1970s.
When I saw Larry at a showing of Chris Everett’s wonderful documentary film “Wilmington on Fire” a couple weeks ago, he argued that historians and others would never have taken such an interest in Wilmington in 1898 if we had not yearned so deeply to understand the historic roots of the racial divisions and resentments that exploded in 1971.
In subsequent years, many historians, journalists, filmmakers, novelists and musicians have examined what happened in Wilmington in 1898, including me, Tim Tyson, Glenda Gilmore, H. Leon Prather and others in Democracy Betrayed: The Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 and Its Legacy. In a way, Larry argues, the Wilmington 10 sparked all of those efforts.