Commentary: Pardon the Wilmington 10
Written by Rev. M. Linda Jaramillo
May 28, 2012

If we think that we live in a "post-racial" America, we need only be reminded of continuing evidence that racism is alive and well.  Some say that we should put the pain of racism behind us.  In order to do so, we must admit the injustice of our social systems and repair the breach – known as reparation.  Granting pardon in the case of the Wilmington 10 is once such opportunity toward righting a tragic wrong. 

In 1971 during the peak of the civil rights movement, the Wilmington 10 was a group of activists (9 of whom were African American) convicted in Wilmington, North Carolina of arson, conspiracy and an array of other charges.  Despite the fact that the accused had alibis for their whereabouts when a firebombing of a grocery store took place in Wilmington, they were convicted.  Even when witnesses later recanted their stories and admitted that they had been intimidated and even paid off for their testimonies, the convictions still held.  It was not until 1980 that an appellate court, citing constitutional rights violations, overturned the convictions.  Never has the court admitted that the accused were innocent.  Today, over 40 years later, members of the Wilmington 10 (some now deceased) have appealed for pardon in order to clear their names and reputations.  Considering this injustice of the justice system, it does not seem too much to ask. 

Sadly, the issues that activists like the Wilmington 10 were rising over 40 years ago are markedly similar to those today.  Examples like the re-segregation of public schools, unequal access to health care and adequate housing, and the overwhelming numbers of African Americans caught in the web of poverty and the prison industrial complex continue to loom in our society.  This breach in our society cannot continue if we expect to claim a "post racial" country. 

This is not just a 40 year history.  We cannot forget the stories that are 40 years old anymore than those that are 140 years old.  It reminds me of Ms. Princella Garrett.  We know just a little about Ms. Princella; we do know that she was an African woman enslaved by a plantation owner in North Carolina over a century ago.  We know this because she is listed on an 1857 deed of sale as black female.  Princella Garret's name, as it was assigned to her, does not appear on the U.S. Census Rolls until 1880. 

Princella Garrett is one among the cloud of witnesses and saints that worked the soil to produce an agricultural economy that sustained this nation.  We know not whether she was a Christian woman – but most surely she was a resilient woman of deep faith in God because there was no way she could have endured otherwise.  Many of us can only imagine what went through Ms. Garrett's mind as she was liberated from the chains of slavery only to find that this nation was not ready to truly release her from bondage.  What followed were state laws that limited her opportunities and imposed oppressive conditions that continued for decades – even 40 years ago -- even today. 

No one is alive today with a firsthand recollection of the stories told by those of Ms. Garrett's era.  However, history has a way of repeating itself.  We are alive now to listen to today's story and that of the Wilmington 10 some 40 years ago.  The United Church of Christ stood with them 40 years ago, and we stand with them today as we appeal for their pardon of innocence.  We hope you will join us.

Please contact North Carolina Governor Beverly Perdue at Office of the Governor, 116 West Jones Street, Raleigh, NC 27603. A petition is also available.

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