“The Wilmington Ten” is a slim volume for so momentous a subject.
Still, author Kenneth Robert Janken gives us reason to pay attention to his account of one of the most harrowing episodes in the long and continuing struggle for racial justice in these United States.
The book, ostensibly about the 1971 fire bombing of Mike’s Grocery in Wilmington, and the nine black men and one white woman arrested, tried, convicted – and ultimately pardoned in 2012 – of arson and conspiracy, actually goes much further back in time.
In fact, as news reports about mass incarceration, gun violence, uneven sentencing, police brutality, educational disparity, American jurisprudence, resegregation and terrorist intimidation swirl in the media and on social platforms, one wonders just where and when the battle began and when, if ever, it will end.
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The helix for this fight unwinds at least as far back as 1898. That year a roving band of white vigilantes overthrew the duly elected government of Wilmington and sent large numbers of Wilmington’s best and brightest black population fleeing for their lives. That exodus turned Wilmington into a majority-white city and seriously depleted the evolving black middle class in the city. Even now, academics, documentarians, writers and reparations advocates are mining that coup for revelations.
Authority but lapses
Janken writes with authority (there are more than 40 pages of notes and footnotes) but with occasional lapses. The names of the pastor and church of one of Black Wilmington’s oldest institutions are rendered incorrectly. The Rev. B.H. Baskervill is served up as W.J. Baskerville and Chestnut Street Presbyterian Church as Chestnut United Presbyterian Church. The church is at 714 Chestnut Street, and the word “Street” is an essential part of its name.
And, Janken’s writing lacks the lyricism and immediacy of other Wilmington Ten accounts, for instance, “Triumphant Warrior: A Soul Survivor of the Wilmington Ten,” published in 2014 by Wayne Moore. No surprise there. Moore, of course, is one of the Wilmington Ten.
In 187 pages (five brief chapters plus a promising introduction and conclusion), Janken gingerly touches upon many of the ways in which a student-led grievance movement, grounded in morality, gave rise to demands and a new form of black politics. But that’s just it. Janken fails on depth. He raises issues and then almost immediately turns to other matters. He might have written so much more about the historical context of the struggle and the interconnections not just of groups and individuals, but also of thought and ideology. He might have more clearly done the genealogy of the movement that ultimately freed the Ten. Ripe for more attention are the alliances and separate workings among the United Church of Christ’s Commission on Racial Justice, National Black Assembly, National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, Black Panthers, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Amnesty International, elected black officials, Republic of New Afrika, labor activists, black nationalists, clergy of all stripes and ordinary folks.
I look around myself and see immersed in today’s Moral Monday movement, for example, some of the same persons who figured prominently in the Wilmington Ten case. What accretion of thought and action has kept Kojo Nantambu (a Wilmingtonian born Roderick Kirby) – to name one person – out front 4 1/2 decades after the events at Gregory Congregational Church, the focal space of the movement? Irv Joyner was on the scene then and remains so. What role has James Ferguson II played in the ensuing years to ensure fair treatment for all in the judicial system? Whither the politicians of the Carter Administration and its Department of Justice?
Janken takes us into deep waters and leaves us there to flounder, wondering when the next boat might sail by. Intriguing questions compete in my brain.
Does the 1898 mentality live on in 2016? Is there a sense of possibility now in the Port City? Or is Wilmington still “a symbol of all that is wrong and ugly in America”?
I want more, much more, for this is my town. These are my people. Though I had left the city and was beginning to make my way as an adult when most of the Wilmington Ten events occurred, I followed them closely from afar. My high school, Williston, was central to what went down. The house in which I grew up was less than a block from Gregory Congregational Church. (As a youngster, I attended Vacation Bible School there and civil rights rallies as a young teen). Some of the Ten were the brothers of my classmates or the relatives of members of my extended family. My pastor, teachers and our school librarian are called out as either conciliators or traitors in this story.
The undercurrents are there, but Janken has not written enough or analyzed sufficiently for us to understand how the demands of yesteryear flow into the 21st century struggles. Nor has he adequately explained how disparate elements came together between 1971 and 2012 to effect the Ten’s release and pardon when everything seemed stacked against them. The field is ripe for those who would delve more deeply into the case. The puzzle is that so few, even those most intimately involved, have tackled the subject with book-length treatments.
More please, dear author, on what you call “the catholicity of spirit” that birthed a movement that could raise questions and develop new, productive ways of action. You’ve named the names; now explain the games. Not just for the 1970s but for today.
Millicent Brown Fauntleroy, a native Wilmingtonian, is a retired editor who worked for daily newspapers for more than 40 years.
The Wilmington Ten: Violence, Injustice, and the Rise of Black Politics in the 1970s
By Kenneth Robert Janken
The University of North Carolina Press, 245 pages.
7 p.m., Jan. 21, Quail Ridge Books, Raleigh
7 p.m., Feb. 17, Johnson C. Smith University, Charlotte
3 p.m., Feb. 21, Durham County Public Library