The Story Of The Wilmington 10
Who are the Wilmington Ten and what were the charges and sentences?
The Wilmington Ten were the first group of prison inmates in the United States of America to be officially declared “political prisoners” by Amnesty International in 1978. This conclusion by Amnesty International was published and distributed worldwide. The civil rights case concerning public school desegregation arose during the Nixon Administration in 1971-1972. Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan had to deal with the unjust arrest, trials, and imprisonment of the Wilmington Ten as well as the subsequent international campaign to free the Wilmington Ten.
A “political prisoner” is a person that has been unjustly imprisoned not because of a criminal act or violation of the law, but rather is imprisoned because of political activism, descent, and opposition to injustice. Such was the case of the Wilmington Ten in North Carolina where state and some federal officials conspired together to unjustly frame, arrest, try, imprison, and repress members of the Wilmington Ten who were actively protesting the institutionalized racial discrimination and hostilities surrounding the forced, court-ordered desegregation of the public school system in New Hanover County and Wilmington, North Carolina from 1968-1971.
At the time as a minister and civil rights community organizer for the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice, I was sent to Wilmington, North Carolina in February of 1971 to assist Reverend Eugene Templeton and the Gregory Congregational United Church of Christ that had become the central meeting place for the local civil rights protests to get racial justice and fairness in the manner in which the local public schools in Wilmington were being desegregated.
The members of the Wilmington Ten, nine black men and one white woman, were unjustly sentenced to a combined total of 282 maximum years in prison in October of 1972 after a frame-up conviction of alleged arson, assault and rioting charges:
Although we were totally innocent of the charges, it took almost a decade of court appeals, state-witnesses recanting, federal re-investigations, years of unjust imprisonment and cruel punishment before the Wilmington Ten had our unjust convictions overturned, names cleared and a return to the ongoing Civil Rights Movement and emerging hip-hop movement of the early 1980’s.
Who spoke out against your treatment?
In addition to Amnesty International, there were millions of supporters of the Wilmington Ten during the 1970’s and early 1980’s. Most notably was the strong support from the Commission for Racial Justice of the United Church of Christ under the leadership of Reverend Dr. Charles E. Cobb Sr. In fact the majority of the 1.7 million members of the United Church of Christ denomination supported the campaign to free the Wilmington Ten.
Angela Davis, Charlene Mitchell, Maria Ramos and the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression helped greatly to galvanize the worldwide campaign to free the Wilmington Ten.
Imani Kazana and the National Wilmington Ten Defense Committee worked tirelessly to help free the Wilmington Ten.
Attorney James E. Ferguson Sr and the entire Julius Chambers Law Firm in Charlotte, NC supported by Attorney Margaret Burnham, Attorney Reginald F. Lewis, and a host of other civil rights attorneys helped to win our landmark case that exposed the systematic wrongs of “prosecutorial misconduct” to be unconstitutional and unjust.
The National Council of Churches in the USA and the World Council of Churches supported the freedom of the Wilmington Ten.
On January 23, 1980, 55 members of the Congress of the United States through the Arnold and Porter Law Firm in Washington, DC filed an “Amici Curiae” brief before the Fourth Circuit US Court of Appeals on behalf of the Wilmington Ten.
On December 4, 1980, the Fourth Circuit US Court of Appeals overturned the unjust convictions of the Wilmington Ten.
What was life in prison like for you?
Life in the five different North Carolina maximum, medium and later minimum security prisons where I was imprisoned in 1972, 1976, 1977,1978, and throughout 1979 were the years that I personally experienced what millions on prisoners in the United States are made to endure. I was not a “celebrity” inmate. I got the same dehumanizing and degrading treatment that the average prisoner received.
I learned to stay focus on not just my individual rights or to focus only on the Wilmington Ten case, but just as importantly, I spent most of my prison time advocating for the rights of prisoners in US and in particular the rights of all US political prisoners. Keep in mind during the Carter Administration, the US foreign policy was in part based on “human rights” advocacy for the release of political prisoners in the Soviet Union and in other Eastern-block countries.
In 1978, from prison at the McCain State Prison in McCain, NC, I wrote An American Political Prisoner Appeals for Human Rights. The United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice printed and published this booklet that appealed to the 1978 International Human Rights Conference in Helsinki, Findland on behalf of US political prisoners. The Helsinki Human Rights Accords (The Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe) was actually signed by the US, Canada and 33 other European nations in 1975. The international conference in 1978 was the follow-up conference to ascertain if the signatories of the Helsinki Accords were implementing the commitments to respect human rights. My appeal put pressure on the US to admit that there were in fact persons that had been sent to jail unjustly and unfairly to satisfy the racial and political prejudice of local and some federal law enforcement officials.
What was your motivation to recover and go on and be successful?
I have several motivations. First, the members of the Wilmington Ten were innocent of the unjust charges. Secondly, my faith in God, family and the freedom struggle kept me going in a positive state of mind even though I was in the midst of death threats and plots while in prison. Thirdly, I was motivated by the courage and determination of my young co-defendants who also stayed strong, even though at times the prison officials kept us in separate state prisons.
Finally I kept my “spirit” strong. One of the objects of political incarceration is to break the spirit of the political prisoner. I came out of prison stronger and more committed to the struggle for freedom, justice and equality.
How did that chapter in your life shape who you are today?
The Wilmington Ten case, struggle and eventual victory had a tremendous impact in helping to shape who I am today. I was 23 years-old when the incident in Wilmington happened, but by that age, I was already an eleven year veteran of the Civil Rights Movement. We were imprisoned when I was 24 years-old. What I later accomplished in my 30’s, 40’s and 50’s was certainly impacted and shaped by the Wilmington Ten chapter of my life.
Today, I am still a “freedom fighter.”http://triumphantwarriors.ning.com/
Glad to hear from you. Prayers with you and others. You lead a mighty battle. And now it is going back a 100 years. My family was here since 1700's and the fight remains. Now we got "turn coats" calling Al Sharpton, Obama and Jesse Jackson Uncle Toms. Stupid, ignorant folk. What the hell does Glenn Beck and Sara Palin know about Civil Rights and the struggles of Black people? And one on FB saying Uncle Tom was a hero??????? A Black dude name Tony McGee-ignorant sucker. I am fit to be tied. I know what happened. I tried to get there me and others but, parents cut us off and it was one night that made me cry. Some got there and left. But, those that stayed were in more than just a fight but God was in the midst and you still stand while the other side is like the wind they rode in on-full of hot air.
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