As part of our June focus on criminal justice reform, we sat down with Dr. Kenneth Janken, UNC professor of African, African American and Diaspora Studies, and author of Walter White: Mr. NAACP and The Wilmington Ten for this month’s episode of “This Is What Democracy Looks Like”.
In much of the south, the pressure of desegregation largely placed the burden on black students to integrate, while some white administrators made it as burdensome as possible for them. In 1971, students in Wilmington, NC boycotted their school in protest of the second-class education and treatment for African American students. Their list of demands were concrete, including adding the teaching of Black History to the curriculum. With the help seasoned organizer, Ben Chavis, the white minister of a largely black congregation Eugene Templeton, and other organizations, the students were able to sustain not only a boycott but also a largely movement that became very important in their own exoneration after being falsely convicted of arson and other charges.
For the Wilmington Ten, it was the organizational elements that sustained the movement and eventually freed them, but it was the same such organizational elements that made them a target in the first place. From shoddy police work, an aggressive prosecutor who solicited perjured testimony against them, a judiciary, and so on, it was ultimately the state that encourage the framing of the Wilmington Ten- somebody had to stop Ben Chavis from fomenting a black political movement and somebody had to pay for the damage done during the week of violence in 1971.
It’s a tough story, and it’s even tougher when you consider how much hasn’t changed in the intervening years. Movements like Black Lives Matter have kept the need in the news and on people’s minds. Movements like Moral Monday and The Poor People’s Campaign are doing what worked for leaders like Ben Chavis in connecting the issues from the Fight for 15 to healthcare to education to fully repealing the discriminatory HB2 law. We encourage each of us to consider where our struggles are aligned with others. We do not have to be the same to want the same things, especially fair treatment in the courts.
The need for criminal justice reform is not new, but we can renew our commitment to it.
You can watch the full episode here: