By Richette L. Haywood
There has been considerable progress made in America during the four decades since the Wilmington 10 became the international cause celebre for injustice to those activists involved in the civil rights movement. That was evident earlier this year when the City of Wilmington, North Carolina presented proclamations to the nine Black men and one White woman — who became the focus of one of the longest and most controversial civil rights cases in U.S. history.
But, Black newspaper publishers attending the National Newspaper Publishers Association Foundation’s Black Press Week, in Washington, D.C., last week, do not believe the apology comes close to righting the wrong done to the young men and woman convicted of arson and sentenced to a total of 282 years for burning down a White-owned neighborhood grocery story in 1971. The National Newspapers Publishers Association (NNPA) Chair, Danny J. Bakewell, Sr., announced, the more than 200 member trade group will collectively fight to get a pardon.
“We are going to tell the story of the Wilmington 10,” said Bakewell, during his message on the Power of the Black Press. “And, we think it is incumbent for us to fight for a pardon for those 10 people… justice to this day has not been served.” Although, there was never proof any of the 10 young people charged were involved in the burning down of the store, which occurred when court ordered school desegregation in the southern city was met with resistance when the all Black high school was shut down while the White high school remained open. It took nearly a decade after their imprisonment for arson before a federal appeals court would overturn the convictions in 1980.
“It was just an amazing time in the history of our community, an ugly time,” said Wilmington, N.C. Mayor Bill Saffo, recalling the events in February 1971, reported the Star News, last month during the 40th anniversary ceremony commemorating the incident. The 10 – mostly African American teenagers involved in a boycott of the county school system – were “done a tremendous injustice,” Saffo said.
Bakewell said justice will only be accomplished with a pardon of the Wilmington 10, the first case to be officially declared as political prisoners by Amnesty International. To that end, he said the association, which has been among the organizations fighting for justice for those men and women since the early years of the case, will continue to push for a full pardon. “Not a pardon of forgiveness, but a pardon of innocence,” he said.
Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr., the most well-known of the group, was in attendance at the announcement. Still an activist, working with young people, Chavis, told the Black publishers “I never lost hope. All these things were done to break our spirit… But, I never lost hope.”
Hoping to use his experience to encourage youth, Chavis said he has always been a strong supporter of the Black Press. “The pen is powerful,” said Chavis, who is a columnist for the NNPA. “I am very concerned about young people. Because we have a brother in the White House, (people are saying) we ought to just chill. I refuse to let those who would distract us or take us out win.”