Written by Anthony Moujaes
It took 40 years, but the stain of a false conviction has finally been lifted. The Wilmington Ten, justice activists who became political prisoners in North Carolina in 1972 for a crime they didn’t commit, got their pardon from the state’s governor. After decades of persistence, UCC leaders past and present now say, finally, justice has prevailed.
"[The announcement was] breathtaking news to me and surely to many around the nation and the world," said Avery Post, who was president of the UCC from 1977 to 1989. "My guess is that others, like me, went suddenly quiet with gratitude for the courage and persistence of those who worked over 40 years for this extraordinary moment of justice."
North Carolina’s outgoing governor, Beverly Perdue, issued the pardons on Monday, Dec. 31, citing new evidence in the case.
The Wilmington Ten, the name by which the group of nine black men and one white woman became known, was wrongly convicted four decades ago in a Civil Rights-era case of firebombing a Wilmington, N.C., grocery store in 1971. One of the members, Benjamin F. Chavis, was a UCC justice worker.
After an evening of citywide protests and unrest, the Wilmington Ten were arrested and convicted of the charges — despite their pleas of innocence — related to the firebombing. The group included Chavis, then minister and civil rights community organizer for the UCC’s Commission for Racial Justice. Chavis was sent to help leaders meeting at Gregory Congregational UCC in Wilmington organize protests to ensure the area's schools were desegregated fairly.
Post continued, "I saw in that moment the long imprinted images of that racially tense time in Wilmington in 1971, the fire event in the grocery store in town leading to the false accusation of nine men and one woman, the providential presence in that scene of Ben Chavis, a United Church of Christ minister and [former head of] the UCC's Commission for Racial Justice and ultimately one of the accused."
Attorneys for the Wilmington Ten petitioned the state May 17 asking for a full pardon from Gov. Perdue. Three witnesses for the prosecution recanted their testimony in 1976, and NAACP members in November said they discovered notes about how the prosecutor tried to keep blacks off the jury. Perdue said in a statement she decided to grant the pardons "because the more facts I have learned about the Wilmington Ten, the more appalled I have become about the manner in which their convictions were obtained."
The Ten, ages 19 to 35 at the time of the 1971 trial, were sentenced to a combined 282 years in prison. Their sentences were commuted in 1978 by then-Gov. Jim Hunt, but he withheld a pardon. The Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the convictions in 1980 because of perjury and legal misconduct.
The case and the effort to prove the innocence of the Wilmington 10 was a galvanizing moment for the UCC’s racial justice efforts, Post said. Executive Council meetings and General Synod assemblies became affirmations of those efforts and expressions of solidarity, and in those gatherings the funding for legal assistance of the case took shape.
"Defending the Wilmington Ten became a corporate effort in the whole church, with faithful church-wide communication regarding the trials, the imprisonment of the Ten, the dreadful sentences of 25 and 35 years," Post said.
The Rev. Davida Foy Crabtree, a member of the UCC’s Executive Council at the time and a former Connecticut Conference Minister, remembers the leadership Post provided.
"His insistence that we invest ourselves in justice for all 10, that we provide what ended up being about $500,000 to gain their freedom, and that we name the racism in their arrest and trial and imprisonment stands for me as a contemporary example of Christ-led ministry," she said.
Four of the 10 are now deceased (Jerry Jacobs, Ann Shepard, Connie Tindall and Joe Wright), and many of the six surviving members (Chavis, Reginald Epps, James McKoy, Wayne Moore, Marvin Patrick and Willie Earl Vereen) are older and in failing health.
The Rev. M. Linda Jaramillo, executive minister for the UCC’s Justice and Witness Ministries, said the news of the pardon is "a relief and certainly long overdue." She wrote an editorial in May calling on North Carolina to issue a pardon.
"The governor’s action finally comes after over 40 years of efforts to prove that this tragic case was a terrible miscarriage of justice," Jaramillo said. "We honor the names of the Wilmington Ten, including the former Executive Director of the UCC Commission for Racial Justice, Benjamin Chavis. Today, we lift in prayer all who suffered in this endurance race toward liberation.
"We are reminded of the tireless and courageous determination of so many who would not rest until justice was realized," Jaramillo added. "Gov. Perdue is to be commended for her action; however, we cannot forget that this case is one among many still pending. As we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King this month, may we remember his words, ‘a threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’"
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. In 1973, its General Synod, the main deliberative body of the denomination — outraged at the false charges and treatment of the prisoners — raised more than $1 million in bail to free the Wilmington Ten.
"But there has not been justice — until now," Post said.