The way he tells it, Kenneth Janken is not a multi-tasker.
“I don’t work well when I try to juggle two major research projects,” says Janken, UNC professor in the departments of African, African American, and Diaspora Studies, as well as director of the UNC Center for the Study of the American South. “When I complete one project, I like to give myself time carefully to consider what the next one will be.”
Except that while directing the center, he published his third book January, The Wilmington Ten: Violence, Injustice, and the Rise of Black Politics in the 1970s. He is promoting this book around the country. He is also teaching a course on the history of the Civil Rights movement.
The Wilmington Ten examines the events beginning 45 years ago this month, when, according to Janken in an interview with UNC Press: “In the first week of February 1971, African American high school students in the newly desegregated school system in Wilmington staged a school boycott to protest systematic mistreatment by the city’s education authorities, teachers, police who were called to campus, and white adult thugs who harassed them on school grounds. The students issued a list of demands and established a boycott headquarters at a church in town.”
The Wilmington Ten were nine young men and a woman, who were convicted of arson and conspiracy, and served many years in jail. Amnesty International took up the case in 1976. In 1980 in Chavis v. State of North Carolina, the convictions were overturned on the grounds that the prosecutor and the judge had violated the defendants’ constitutional rights.
This event was burdened by the legacy of race relations history in the city since the Wilmington Riots of 1898, says Janken. “Throughout the 1890s, there was a vigorous anti-elite struggle waged by disaffected blacks and whites, farmers, sharecroppers, small store owners, industrial workers.
Wilmington had a black majority and there were blacks in many positions of city government.
“And it was overthrown in (November) 1898,” says Janken. The city government “was punished severely.”
The legacy of that riot and the stories surrounding it lived on. “The wealth that African Americans had accumulated was stolen. African Americans were disfranchised and/or run out of town, and cowed into submission.”
He cites Bertha Todd, an African American high school librarian during the Wilmington Ten event, who understood this legacy. “She said that Wilmington suffered from an 1898 mentality that people are afraid to speak up.”
And this is why the Wilmington Ten served as a turning point, says Janken. “That violence in that February week of 1971 had a tonic effect. It certainly demonstrated to white vigilantes that they could not terrorize the black population without consequences. Soon after that, the white vigilantes stopped their wide-ranging assaults on the black community. Now, the legacy of fear continued.”
In both historical events, there was outrage from outside North Carolina. In the case of the Wilmington Riots, the New York Herald published a front-page story about it. In the 1970s, says Janken, “the campaign to free the Wilmington Ten was stronger outside of Wilmington,” most notably by Amnesty International.
“This reflects both the fear that people felt, but also the solidarity that was generated,” explains Janken. “Without it people are atomized.”
And how does this professor of Civil Rights history celebrate Black History Month?
“I speak a lot. This is the busiest month for me.”