JUSTICE DELAYED, JUSTICE DENIED: In 1980, the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit overturned the false convictions of the Wilmington Ten, a group of civil rights activists charged with firebombing a white-owned grocery store in North Carolina in 1971. But for the next few decades, they remained felons in the eyes of the state—until Governor Beverly Perdue pardoned all ten on January 2. The monumental decision came more than forty years after the young organizers were framed for the crime. Four of them—Jerry Jacobs, Ann Shepard, Connie Tindall and Joe Wright—died waiting for their names to be cleared and their access to educational and job opportunities restored.
Their conviction was overturned after three key witnesses admitted in 1977 that prosecutors bribed them to give false testimony against the defendants. But it was the notes of prosecutor Jay Stroud, discovered by historian Timothy Tyson last year, that led to the long-overdue pardon. Next to the names of potential jurors, Stroud had scribbled phrases like “Probably KKK!!” and “sensible; Uncle Tom type.” Governor Perdue said the evidence was proof “these convictions were tainted by naked racism.”
“The integrity of the court system was threatened by the Wilmington Ten,” said North Carolina NAACP president Reverend William Barber II. The pardon “is a fresh call for us to be vigilant and keep fighting for…equal protection under the law.” Especially since the pardon system itself shows a pattern of racial inequality: a recent study by ProPublica found that with presidential pardons, white applicants were nearly four times more likely to receive one than people of color. CHRISTIE THOMPSON
AL JAZEERA’S NEW PROJECT: The news came out of nowhere shortly after New Year’s Day: Al Jazeera, which has long sought a bigger footprint in this country, would buy—and shut down—struggling Current TV, founded in 2005 by Al Gore and partners, and launch its own major cable operation in the United States, reaching a potential 40 million new viewers. The price was reportedly half a billion dollars, with Gore netting 20 percent, and the new channel will be called Al Jazeera America. Both Al Jazeera and Al Jazeera English have had enormous difficulties getting picked up by cable systems here, and their offerings are viewed by Americans almost completely online.
Questions arose immediately concerning Al Jazeera’s independence (it is financed by the government of Qatar) and supposed anti-Americanism. Charges that the network has terrorist links have continued despite the increasing respect it has won around the globe in media and official circles for its coverage of the Arab Spring and other issues.
Time Warner Cable responded to the sale by dropping Current TV (and suggesting it might reject Al Jazeera America), but after an outcry—MSNBC host (and Nation editor at large) Chris Hayes called the move “cowardly and offensive”—said it was “open” to carrying the new channel. However, Al Jazeera might have to go the route set by Rupert Murdoch when he was trying to get Fox News off the ground: charging cable companies little or nothing—or even paying them—to get a foothold in their lineup. GREG MITCHELL
CANADA’S FIRST NATIONS FIGHT BACK: In early January, Chief Theresa Spence was hungry. The Attawapiskat First Nation leader had started a fast in December to draw public attention to Canada’s Bill C-45, which critics say will compromise indigenous sovereignty and negatively affect the ways land and water are protected. Her pledge was to continue with the hunger strike until she won a meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper to discuss the legislation.
Located in Ontario’s northernmost region and edging the Hudson Bay, Attawapiskat is a remote area plagued by unemployment and inadequate housing. The only real employer is a De Beers open-pit diamond mine, about an hour’s drive from where most of the people live. Spence is aligned with Idle No More, a movement that has sparked international solidarity for Canada’s First Nations. Started in November by four Native and non-Native women, Idle No More has helped people realize the disproportionate ways environmental degradation affects Native peoples. In Canada alone, there are currently ten bills that specifically concern First Nations.
Internationally, Natives and non-Natives in Asia, Europe and New Zealand have gathered to show mutual support. In the United States, solidarity flash mobs have taken place from New York to Los Angeles. These actions are important in changing the perceptions among Americans, who often think of Natives as a group comprising people of color (while many Natives identify that way, others do not). Natives also have a unique connection to the US government, which recognizes more than 500 tribes or nations and conducts nation-to-nation relationships with them. That recognition allows for a degree of autonomy and self-determination that simply does not apply to other groups. By showing images of Natives reclaiming public spaces, Idle No More has also challenged the stereotypes still prevalent in popular culture.
In Ottawa, where the low temperature hovers at five degrees during this time of year, Chief Spence spent time sipping water, tea and fish broth. Nearly a month after she declared her fast, Harper finally agreed to a meeting with the Assembly of First Nations, including Spence. AURA BOGADO
LIVING TO TELL THE TALE: When Gerda Lerner was imprisoned as an 18-year-old Viennese Jew in 1938, the Nazis denied her adequate food—so the non-Jewish women jailed for anti-fascist activism shared their rations with her. Lerner survived her ordeal, came to the United States, and resolved to tell the stories of women, which were often neglected in official histories. After focusing on the struggles of African-American women, Lerner created the first graduate program in women’s history at Sarah Lawrence and a model PhD program in the subject at the University of Wisconsin. She also co-founded the National Organization for Women and would later serve as a groundbreaking president of the Organization of American Historians.
Lerner, who died on January 2 at the age of 92, fought hard against the myth that history is something made only by powerful white men. “I was part of the invisible—first in the underground as an anti-fascist, then as an immigrant, then as a left-wing radical,” she once said. “My life experience was counter to the mythology.” JOHN NICHOLS
Greg Mitchell, Aura Bogoda and John Nichols blog regularly at TheNation.com.