OF THE WILMINGTON JOURNAL
Editor’s Note – On April 5, the National Newspaper Publishers Association – CashWorks HD Productions documentary, “Pardons of Innocence: The Wilmington Ten,” will premiere at UNC – Wilmington’s Kenan Auditorium, commemorating the April 4th, 1968 46th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.. The event is free and open to the public, however seating is limited.
In honor of that event, The Carolinian and Wilmington Journal newspapers will publish stories leading up to the premiere dealing with important aspects of the Wilmington Ten story not dealt with in the film.
“It could have been us years ago.”
Upon reflection of what he considers to have been the “tragedy” that beset the Wilmington Ten over 40 years ago, Joseph McNeil says their false imprisonment and decades-long wait to be finally declared innocent of any crimes, is something that should never be forgotten, and could have easily happened to others standing up for racial equality during that time.
McNeil should know. He was one of the Greensboro Four – the four black NC A&T University students who courageously, on Feb. 1, 1960, walked into a downtown Greensboro F. W. Woolworth store, and ordered food at the “Whites Only” lunch counter in open defiance to public segregation laws.
In an interview for the new documentary, “Pardons of Innocence: The Wilmington Ten,” McNeil says he and the other three students – Ezell Blair, Jr., Franklin McCain and David Richmond – had no idea what would happen next, or how the police would react. But they were all, just like the thousands of other college students across the South who subsequently followed their example, and jumpstarted a civil rights movement that would change the world, determined to take a stand against racial injustice.
Just like the Wilmington Ten, most of whom were black students protesting racial bias in the New Hanover County Public School System when they were later falsely arrested, charged and convicted of firebombing a white-owned grocery store amid racial violence.
“[I have] an appreciation of the students taking on the educational infrastructure,” McNeil, a Wilmington native says, remembering what he was told about the 1971 black student boycott of New Hanover County schools.
McNeil graduated from Williston Senior High School in 1959, the all-black high school alums dearly cherish even to this day, before the predominately-white New Hanover Board of Education unceremoniously closed it in 1968, under federal pressure to desegregate its schools.
Over the next three years, black students transferred to predominately-white New Hanover High and John T. Hoggard High Schools were met with violence, threats and overall disrespect. It came to a head during the first week in February, 1971, when boycotting black students came under violent attack in Gregory Congregational Church by a white supremacist group. Two people were killed.
It was a year later when, in an effort to quell black militancy, authorities targeted eight of the students, a white female community activist, and the fiery black organizer, Rev. Benjamin Chavis, who helped guide them.
In Sept. 1972, they were all tried, falsely convicted and sentenced to a total 282 years in prison, only to be officially declared innocent 40 years later by Gov. Beverly Perdue in Dec. 2012 after four of the Wilmington Ten had died.
“We now know that there was a massive culture to subvert the law, and that many injustices occurred in the aftermath of the student protests,” Joseph McNeil says.
“It could have been us (the Greensboro Four) many years ago,” McNeil, who graduated NC A&T University, and went on to a career in the US Air Force, business , and the Federal Air Administration, contemplates.
Even though he and the rest of the Four carefully planned their strategy to go to the Woolworth store to force a peaceful confrontation, they still had no idea what to expect ultimately. They could have been attacked, beaten and then arrested, tried and imprisoned as well, something that didn’t happen because the white store management and authorities were so stunned initially, they didn’t know what to do.
That inaction opened the door for more and more college students, black and white, to then come to the store demanding an end to segregated service. It wasn’t long before Woolworth dropped its segregation policy.
“Back in the early days perhaps the element of surprise worked in our favor,” McNeil recalls. “We used to get nightly phone calls from the [Ku Klux] Klan. It became a game. The question was who was going to blink – the students or the infrastructure?”
Eleven years later, when the black students, some from McNeil’s Williston Senior High alma mater, marched and boycotted the New Hanover school system, Wilmington’s mayor, police chief and the county board of education openly made clear they would not give in, and in fact, held the students responsible for the violence that had spread across the city, though those young people had nothing to do with it.
The rest, Joseph McNeil says, is tragic history.
“One of the interesting things that takes place in the aftermath of these events, is the fact that sometimes from a historical perspective, [they] are embraced, and become “our’ sit-ins, for example; “our” Wilmington Ten,” McNeil says.
“We need to never forget the fact that this was a tragedy…in many senses of the word. It could have happened to anyone who was involved in the thought of trying to do something that people thought was subversive. So we need not let that get lost, and take something from this tragedy in a positive way.”
McNeil continued, “We [should] never forget. We go back and give the Wilmington Ten the attention that is due by telling the story. It’s part of our history…[and] maybe we learn something. We need to get with the business of learning to live together as brothers, or die together as fools. That’s still our challenge.”