Black Wilmington and the North Carolina Way: Portrait of a Community in the Era of Civil Rights Protest (Lanham, MD.: University Press of America, 2000)

Responding to the Critics:

North Carolina’s Recent History Uncovered







by John L. Godwin


Black Wilmington and the North Carolina Way, published in 2000 by University Press of America, remains an unusual book. The product of years of research, it brings together facts and perspective from newspapers, private and public collections of local activists, public records, the testimony of witnesses from court proceedings and trial documents in the case of the Wilmington Ten, with oral testimony from over one hundred interviews. In spite of its strengths, I have had to face the fact since 2000 that this book has for the most part been left on the sidelines and sometimes misinterpreted. Important truths contained in the book both about the African American experience and the consequent impact of the events on North Carolina have therefore remained obscure. But the truth is, there still as much to learn as ever about this important community and the controversies surrounding it that this book has done much to uncover.

As a scholarly work, BWNCW came into existence because of the need for answers to central questions about the experience in one of North Carolina’s most important cities. The 100-year centennial of the 1898 Wilmington Racial Massacre underscored the importance of Wilmington and led to a centennial conference and a spate of articles on the subject in 1998. BWNCW showed the impact of the 1898 white supremacy campaign, revealing the history of the community that emerged from it and the long struggle of African Americans to uncover the truth as they redefined their civic identity in the life of North Carolina and the city of Wilmington. Interpreted by historians in North Carolina as part of a “white revolution” well into the liberal era of civil rights reform, BWNCW shows how the campaign of 1898 resounded in the local history, defining the cultural reality of both races. From the time of Franklin D. Roosevelt to the post-World War II era, both races remained in its shadow, yet went forward with new assumptions shaped by the politics of liberalism, while the Cold War against Communism soon defined the U.S. approach to foreign relations. Through the presidencies of Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson, liberal assumptions in government helped to make possible an era of community achievement and activism on behalf of civil rights reform that brought forward a dynamic community leadership among African Americans, reaching its high point in the idealistic years of the 1960s. In the wake of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, with the Vietnam War providing a new source of generational and political division, the assumptions that defined the era were gradually worn away, culminating in a period of crisis in the years from 1968 to 1973.

The civil rights movement became history, providing a major watershed of activism and achievement for the South as for the nation—and the same was true in the city of Wilmington. African Americans in the port city campaigned for community schools, desegregated the police department, registered to vote, ran for public office, published newspapers, organized in churches, sat in and marched, participated in the 1963 March on Washington, and sued the county for the desegregation of hospitals and schools. In the age of the King-Gandhi movement that touched an entire generation of young Americans, it was a cultural high water mark that remains to this day. It was only after all this occurred that Black Nationalism made its major mark in Wilmington, achieving its impact in the internationally famous case of the Wilmington Ten. And it is here that the crucial question must be posed, one that establishes Wilmington as an important part of the debate about the black struggle for freedom in America. For a city in which Black Nationalism had had such resounding impact, I wanted to know what had happened to the civil rights movement, what had happened to its inspiring leaders, and how had it evolved during the later years of riots and mayhem even as a new and more racially enlightened America seemed to emerge? As a student of this history I began to focus on the community origins of civil rights activism in Wilmington and its response to the era of protest. This community was important especially because the case of the Wilmington Ten became a nationally and internationally recognized event that figured into the electoral politics of the 1970s and the diplomacy of the Jimmy Carter presidency. My research uncovered not only a rich and vibrant community leadership that produced major gains in the years between World War II and the 1970s, but also showed how conservatism altered its approach during the 1960s and engineered a change in direction that proved a lasting influence in American politics.

Today this remains a part of North Carolina’s buried history, as much as any of those romantic, ghostly pirate ships sunk long ago in its coastal waters. Despite the fact that BWNCW broke new ground in the exposure of some of the most crucial public events, revealing direct points of contact between postwar liberalism and civil rights achievements, it has not had much exposure to a general reading public. The book’s high price tag, the fact that scholarly journals and professional critics have chosen largely to ignore it, plus the fact that its publisher does not market directly to retail book sellers has left it in a scholarly limbo where its facts and perspectives have had small impact. The overwhelming response to Timothy Tyson’s emotion packed Blood Done Sign My Name (2004), an autobiographical work loaded with crime scenes and confrontation, has obscured the fact that Tyson’s work on Wilmington owed considerably to BWNCW, which had already probed much of the complex inner workings of this community. 

Buried in the avalanche of critical acclaim in the mainstream press in response to Tyson’s book, BWNCW generated only a few reviews and comments from the critics. Wilmington Star News reviewer, Ben Steelmanon August 20, 2000, included it among a small handful of important books, designated as “an indispensable reference on the history of the Lower Cape Fear.” Yet Steelman also described BWNCW as a book about the Wilmington Ten, a book that was generally offensive to most readers, while ignoring its treatment of the achievements of African Americans during the liberal era. Herbert Shapiro of the University of Cincinnati in a review published in Choice, a scholarly journal published by the Association of College and Research Libraries, in the April 2001 issue, described it as a “useful” book about the civil rights struggle. But while Shapiro, like so many other scholars across North Carolina, was certainly schooled in the developments of the age, he chose to ignore what BWNCW has to say about the black community and its institutions, the importance of formerly all-black Williston Senior High School in the history of the local civil rights endeavor, the story of its leaders and their efforts during the era of Sixties protest. And he chose to dismiss as unfounded, the book’s well-documented account of the role of Ben Chavis in the public school boycott of 1971, and the electoral victory of Jesse Helms in the 1972 U.S. Senate race as the trial of the Wilmington Ten made its first headlines.

No critic has to date written in depth about Black Wilmington and the North Carolina Way. But among the more important statements about it was the one offered by none other than Timothy Tyson, who observed that it “contains much helpful information but is an ideologically driven liberal interpretation, grounded in a defense of Wilmington.”(BDSMN, 342)

Tyson’s scholarly reputation was established in Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power, a book that I reviewed for North Carolina Libraries shortly after it came out in 1999. His perspective, along with a group of scholars that includes William Chafe, Robert Norrell, and perhaps David Cecelski, among others, tends to view the civil rights movement together with Black Nationalism as part of a wider, seamless, black liberation struggle in which ideological differences, methods and leadership values reduced to a common denominator. Above all, for Tyson, it was Robert Williams of Monroe, North Carolina, in the years from 1959 to 1964 who defined the mainstream values of Black America in the age of civil rights protest. This is because, for Tyson, Williams represented an indigenous black community tradition of militancy that involved the willingness to use force in the defense of “home and community”. William’s advocacy of “armed self-reliance”, his flight to Cuba to join forces with Fidel Castro and his later foray into Communist China, according to Tyson, explain how Williams became the forerunner and one of the primary influences that shaped the later activism of Black Nationalists such as Stokely Carmichael, Huey P. Newton, Albert Cleage, and Louis Farrakhan—leaders who, for Tyson, worked in a tradition that remained as American as apple pie and of course fully consistent with the American Revolution. Though he does not assert it directly, Tyson even suggests unconvincingly that Williams, in terms of authenticity, effectuality and ultimate influence, was more important even than Martin Luther King, Jr. in the wider picture of the black movement. (RFD, 198; 215-218; 308; BDSMN, 318)

Having won prestigious awards for virtually everything he has done so far, few historians ever manage to enjoy as much success as Timothy Tyson, still in the early stages of his career. The impact of his work owes certainly to his ability to write about the experiences of African Americans in a way that is both evocative and compelling. Published by Crown Press, N.Y., a division of Random House, Tyson’s memoire was immediately hailed as a true history, garnering numerous awards, and made into a popular motion picture of the same title. But there are reasons why Tyson’s work, in spite of its obvious successes, should be viewed with some detachment, while BWNCW should receive a reading long overdue. After writing two scholarly historical works on the history of North Carolina, Tyson chose to write an autobiographical narrative rather than an investigative study of the events in Oxford and Wilmington through these crucial years. This is perhaps partly because Tyson, who lived in Oxford, was an eye-witness to the burning of the town’s tobacco warehouse as an eleven year old boy in 1970, along with a variety of other episodes vividly related. Tyson moved to Wilmington that same year, where his father became pastor of a Methodist Church, where he experienced public school integration during the same years of crisis and mayhem. Generally defensive of Ben Chavis, a Black Power advocate in the tradition of Williams, whom he compares to his own father, Tyson is also critical of liberal whites as generally of “little help” to African Americans in the North Carolina freedom struggle (BDSMN, 248). 

The intimate terms in which Tyson rejects such liberal figures in the civil rights era as Terry Sanford, Luther Hodges, John F. Kennedy, Martin L. King, Jr. and so on, becomes more clear as he expands on the comparison between Ben Chavis and his father, who as a clergyman was a civil rights advocate in the 1960s. Says Tyson, “As a white liberal, my father’s unconscious white supremacy tempted him to feel that he knew what was best for the black freedom struggle.” His father’s basic problem according to Tyson, like that of all Sixties liberals, was that out of his naïve, unjustified hope, he “thought the important thing was to persuade those who feared racial equality to examine the question… He believed that progress depended on dialogue, which depended on civility and communication.”(RFD, 266-267) On the basis of such comments, it is easy to see why Tyson finds it unnecessary to examine the role of Ben Chavis in Wilmington's public school boycott. Though he insists that Chavis remained non-violent, clearly the implication is that if indeed Chavis had employed the methods of Castro, Mao and Lenin in Wilmington in 1971, this would have been perfectly justified. Given his willingness to embrace a “black revolution” that is effectively ambiguous, Tyson is then equally at a loss to explain how the black revolution—if such may be observed, led to the betterment of African Americans through the election of Richard Nixon and Jesse Helms in 1972.

In contrast to Tyson’s emotionally intense autobiography, Black Wilmington and the North Carolina Way is a carefully constructed historical study that includes demographic, economic, and political statistics showing how the structure of the local society, economy, and politics evolved over a forty year period from 1950 to 1990. BWNCW argues that the African American community in Wilmington was changing dramatically in the 1960s, as much due to the many successes of black leadership along with the influence of federal, state and local government. It shows, contrary to any simplistic “defense” of the city in liberal terms, that black community leaders with the support of state and federal laws did successfully challenged white racism, and that better thinking white civic leaders in Wilmington responded to the Sixties by struggling to implement reforms and limit the influence of organized racist and extremist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, and later the ROWP (Rights of White People). It shows that the cultural achievements of African Americans in Wilmington during the years from 1898 through the 1950s were significant signs of their social advancement; that a black educational tradition was also vibrant and rich, resulting not only from the efforts of local blacks, but also from the progressive culture of North Carolina which did much to encourage black education. And it shows precisely how the black educational tradition figured so heavily into the community discourse of civil rights throughout the 1960s and during the crisis period of school integration itself.

Affirming the successes of Wilmington’s moderate and community minded civic leaders who acted responsibly in the face of repeated instances of intimidation, provocation and denial, BWNCW shows that African Americans in Wilmington worked for social progress in the spirit of the democratic reforms of the Kennedy and Johnson years and celebrated the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act as a milestone. But when the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, it had less meaning for black Wilmington, where the vote was not obstructed, and where blacks had already exerted a major influence on the Democratic Party. Desegregation in employment, law enforcement, in health care and in education did become major concerns as the Sixties unfolded. Intensely devoted to Williston Senior High, black Wilmington had already won significant victories for its improvement and remained deeply divided over the question of its fate as public school integration dramatically altered the political frame of reference.

With federally ordered school integration according to racial balance under way by the fall of 1968, Wilmington entered a period of crisis lasting until 1973, years that paralleled the unfolding of tragedy in U.S. foreign policy as a result of the Vietnam War. The rhetoric of “the North Carolina Way” which promised moderation and a distinctive North Carolina approach to civil rights was abandoned as the circumstances of the age made it an outmoded brand of discourse. While Tyson’s BDSMN follows BWNCW in a number of important details, from the involvement of Sheriff Marion Millis in the Ku Klux Klan to the denunciation of Ben Chavis by The Black Panther, the official publication of the Black Panther Party, (BDSMN, 134, 258) only BWNCW both details and documents the major developments of Chavis’s role in Wilmington.(BWNCW, 191-195, 230) But where BDSMN lionizes Chavis as an authentic black hero, which may have been true enough in the town of Oxford, BWNCW constructively debunks Chavis for his role in Wilmington as a misleader who contributed little to the process. Often at odds with local community leaders, Chavis effectively undercut a non-violent school boycott that was attempted by Golden Frinks of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). His actions thus were not so much about salvaging a black tradition in education as they were about chalking up gains in the realm of politics. The election of 1972, one of the most corrupt in the history of U.S. politics, then bore a striking similarity to the election of 1898 in North Carolina: race and racial violence were exploited as means to achieve conservative victory, sending Jesse Helms to the United States Senate even as Watergate unfolded on the national level.

While critical of Chavis and disparaging of Black Nationalism as an influence, BWNCW remains optimistic about Black Wilmington and its role as a community. It demonstrates how and why ideological differences among African American leaders were important, indicating why Black Nationalist assumptions have been both destructive and short-lived. It confirms the work of other scholars who have argued for the crucial importance of traditional black schools through the process of school integration, yet goes farther by highlighting the distinctive qualities of North Carolina civic and political culture and its impact during the years of Kennedy and Johnson. And we will never fully understand the potential that was lost in 1960s until we have understood the impact of the politics and transformations wrought in communities like Wilmington as the era of Kennedy and Johnson gave way to the era of Nixon. Equally important, BWNCW demonstrates that as tamers of the whirlwind through the years of crisis, Wilmington’s black community leaders deserved praise, struggling to preserve the gains of the civil rights era in new era of conservatism. Yet BWNCW shows that black Wilmington was never an ideal folk community of kinship and social solidarity in the sense that was both sought and extolled by Black Nationalists, but remained intensely fractured by ideology, faction, and class. Black Wilmingtonians often shared the assumptions of the North Carolina civic culture, even as they joined in efforts to “free the Wilmington Ten” in response to the basic injustices of the convictions. In a lengthy postscript filled with facts about the locality, BWNCW shows how the community struggled to adapt in a new era of conservatism. Fully complex in its make up, Black Wilmington was above all a community of interests that collected diverse social and economic components, including both labor and business, gender and race, often as much at odds over institutions, public policies, and strategies of advancement as it had ever been in the days before the sit ins, the freedom rides, and impassioned speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. did so much to rouse and inform the local movement.

It has been said before that books have lives of their own. Black Wilmington and the North Carolina Way is a serious scholarly work that deserves to be considered on the basis of its merits. At the very least, one may suggest that it may one day be discovered by a more sympathetic reading public, at which time its contents may become better known.





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