On March 6th, 2019 a group of students and faculty from Winston-Salem State University, a local HBCU, as well as pastors and other community activists (including a writer from Struggle for a New World), traveled an hour and a half to the state capitol to protest the continued incarceration of Ronnie Long by the state of North Carolina. The recently elected Attorney General is the son of a longtime civil rights lawyer, and many people had hoped his election would lead to a long-overdue reevaluation of the Ronnie Long case. However, in a case coming up later this month, the state will argue against the introduction of new evidence that the defense believes will definitively prove his innocence.
In 1976, then 21-year-old Ronnie Long, an Afro-American man, was arrested and charged with raping the wealthy white widow of an executive at Cannon Mills, a textile company that had bought an old plantation to build its plant into what was still effectively a company town. The prosecution’s evidence was his identification by the victim based solely on a leather jacket, a footprint that “could” have matched his shoes and the testimony of the lead detective (who was later found to have lied under oath). The defense presented numerous alibis for his activities the night of the crime and pointed out inconsistencies in the scant physical evidence the prosecution provided. An all-white jury, four of whom either worked for Cannon Mills or had a spouse who did, deliberated for approximately half an hour and delivered a guilty verdict to a racially segregated courtroom, which nearly sparked a riot. Ronnie Long has spent the 43 years since in prison, maintaining his innocence, and after decades of legal effort and periods of street protests on his behalf, his lawyers have forced the state to slowly release forensic evidence that had been hidden from the defense during the initial trial. This new evidence, collected by the SBI, shows there were no DNA matches, no hair matches, no fingerprints – in a word, no physical evidence implicating Ronnie Long.
The largely Afro-American group of protesters gathered outside the NC Department of Justice, but before the protest could begin officials from the Attorney General’s office invited the group inside. Several people from our group spoke, older faculty members as well as younger student organizers, about the egregious miscarriages of justice involved in Ronnie Long’s 43-year incarceration. Then the state officials responded, with the empty platitudes typical of officialdom about how “conflicted” they felt that they were “forced” to argue in court for his continued incarceration. There were tense moments when the students interrupted, or Ronnie’s wife Ashleigh Long snapped back at their evasions, and several of the older protesters tried to calm them down. Several students spoke again to express their displeasure that the so-called Department of Justice felt it had no choice, and to emphasize that they did have a choice. Then the officials spoke again, trying to placate the protesters’ objections without offering any concrete concessions. One white official asked us to “remember who makes these laws,” pointing off into the distance to reference the NC General Assembly a few blocks down the road, and many in the room voiced agreement. The meeting concluded with one of the older faculty emphasizing that, while the meeting inside was appreciated, we still fully intended to hold our rally out in the cold and make our voices heard in the streets.
We filtered outside and stood on the steps and did a few chants. The idea of marching to the State Legislative Building had taken hold in several of the lead organizers, and when proposed to the group was met with enthusiasm. We marched on the sidewalk the couple of blocks to the NC General Assembly, where we were quickly but discreetly surrounded by capitol police. Two of the older faculty stepped into the building while the rest of the protesters stood outside, chanting and holding the space. The police tried to make us leave, but when we pushed them for clarification admitted that we were allowed to protest so long as we “didn’t block the entrance,” a rule they proceeded to enforce more or less at whim. The typical chant of “No Justice, No Peace” evolved into “No Justice, No Vote,” until the representatives from our district emerged to speak to the crowd.
Our district’s representative and senator both spoke briefly, saying little and promising less. When pushed by the students on whether they were willing to use their influence to help the case they both hesitated to make concrete statements. The older activists spoke out to try to reassure the younger generation that these politicians were “on our side,” which received a cool reception. Many in the crowd used the opportunity of the circle to pass out flyers to capitol visitors, and then decided to march back to where we had started. We marched back down the sidewalk and reassembled on the steps of the Department of Justice to close out the rally, remind people of the appeal hearing on the 20th, and pile back into the vans to head home.
Though the case against the state’s unjust conviction has been fought for far longer than most of these students have been alive, they nonetheless saw their own possible futures – and for many, their own family members’ present – in Ronnie Long’s incarceration. Though older activists maintain leadership roles and try to smooth over their harsh words as they deem expedient, the young Afro-American students were by and large uninterested in listening to well-dressed officials and politicians in positions of power wring their hands about how powerless they were. The students of WSSU want justice. They have been organizing for justice, and they will continue to do so. With luck they will reach out to other HBCUs in the state to join the rally for Ronnie Long’s appeal hearing. It will take much more than luck, however, to reach the white activist community. Despite a number of predominantly white socialist groups in both cities, the author was one of only four white activists in attendance. A weekday event at noon will limit the ability of many to attend, especially non-students, but this single observation is very much symptomatic of a trend. Socialist organizations that wish to expand their membership beyond the “organic” growth that reproduces the South’s continued de facto segregation must look to the struggles already being fought in Afro-American communities and find ways to join them without overtaking them and colonizing the Afro-American freedom struggle.
More information about Ronnie Long’s struggle can be found here, including an email to contact the campaign as well as the petition for his release. You can write to Ronnie Long to express solidarity at:
PO Box 460
Badin, NC 28009
You can also write to the NC Attorney General’s Office to demand they cease prosecuting an innocent man and release him as soon as possible at:
Attorney General’s Office 9001 Mail Service Center Raleigh, NC 27699-9001