The Wilmington Ten –– nine black men and one white woman –– were wrongly convicted of firebombing a Wilmington, N.C., grocery store in 1971 and sentenced to a combined 282 years in prison. While the convictions were overturned in 1980, Pardons of Innocence were withheld until New Year's Eve 2012, when then-Gov. Beverly Perdue issued them. Chavis, who had been sent to Gregory Congregational UCC in Wilmington by the UCC's Commission for Racial Justice to make sure that area schools were desegregated fairly, was part of the Ten.
"I want to thank the United Church of Christ," said Chavis, speaking to the Synod audience about the incident. "That wasn't just a victory for us [the Wilmington Ten] –– it was a victory for the United Church of Christ, for the National Council of Churches, and the World Council of Churches."
For the countless number of people who fought alongside the Wilmington 10 in their quest for justice, Saturday was an opportunity to be thankful together, and share the moment with Chavis, who urged the church to continue its quest for justice.
"I want us to stay vigilant, stay committed and keep pushing," he said. "We push from within to do what's right. Long live the United Church of Christ. Long live the Wilmington 10 spirit."
Four of the 10 are now deceased –– Jerry Jacobs, Ann Shepard, Connie Tindall and Joe Wright. The remaining survivors are Chavis, Reginald Epps, James McKoy, Wayne Moore, Marvin Patrick and Willie Earl Vereen.
Chavis' passionate speech was a reminder of the tireless efforts the church must pursue in the struggle for justice and peace, a reminder acknowledged by those sharing the stage with Chavis.
"When I became the executive director for the Commission for Racial Justice in 1993, the one thing I was very sure of was that I had very big shoes to fill," said the Rev. Bernice Powell Jackson, former executive director of the Commission of Racial Justice. Powell Jackson and the Rev. Yvonne Delk, former executive director of the Office for Church in Society, introduced Chavis.
"We are a church that witnesses to the belief that justice is a demand of the Gospel of Jesus Christ," Delk said. "That belief was manifested in our determination to stand with Ben Chavis and nine others in their fight for justice."
Always a leader in prophetic witness for peace with justice, the United Church of Christ has been at the forefront of human rights work since it was formed in 1957. Its General Synod is the main deliberative body of the denomination. In 1973, the Synod — outraged at the false charges and treatment of the prisoners — raised more than $1 million in bail to free the Wilmington Ten.