Written by Barb Powell
Seven survivors and the families of three deceased members of the Wilmington Ten –– civil rights activists wrongly convicted 40 years ago of arson and conspiracy charges to commit violence –– are petitioning for a formal pardon from the state of North Carolina.
Attorneys for the group today (May 17) delivered a petition for Pardons of Innocence to the Office of Executive Clemency in North Carolina. The group is asking Gov. Beverly Perdue to grant each member a formal pardon.
"Any injustice of this magnitude is worth revisiting and rectifying, no matter how long ago it occurred," said the Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, general minister and president of the United Church of Christ. "This is an opportunity for the governor of the state of North Carolina to undo the wrong done to these individuals and their families."
Following an evening of citywide protests and unrest, nine African-American men and one white woman were arrested and later convicted of the charges –– despite their pleas of innocence –– related to the firebombing of Mike’s Grocery in Wilmington on Feb. 6, 1971. The group included Benjamin F. Chavis, then minister and civil rights community organizer for the UCC’s Commission for Racial Justice.
Chavis, then 24, had been sent to help leaders meeting at Gregory Congregational UCC in Wilmington organize protests to ensure that the area's schools were desegregated in a just and fair manner. At the time of the Wilmington Ten’s trial, the United Church of Christ and its Commission for Racial Justice, led by the Rev. Charles E. Cobb, stood with the student-led coalition to demand fairness and equal justice, and helped support the later appeal process.
The defendants were collectively sentenced to 282 years in prison. Their ages at the time ranged from 19 to 35. Thanks to appeals, plus pressure from religious groups and a 1977 exposé by CBS' "60 Minutes," the Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals overturned the convictions in December 1980 after prosecution witnesses admitted they had lied on the stand. Today, many of the surviving members are older and in failing health.
“The United Church of Christ stood with the Wilmington Ten in their quest for justice then, and we stand with the Wilmington Ten now as they pursue an official pardon from the governor,” said Black.
The May 17 petition filing was announced outside the North Carolina State Capitol by the surviving Wilmington Ten members and the families of the deceased members; their attorney, Irving Joyner; National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) board members; and numerous supporters. James Ferguson, an attorney in the original case, has joined Joyner as co-counsel.
The pardon petition, drafted by Joyner –– who was the original coordinator of the Wilmington Ten legal defense for the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice –– described the Wilmington Ten case as "… a politically inspired prosecution."
It urges Perdue to issue the pardons "… in order to declare each Wilmington Ten member innocent of the offense for which they were wrongfully prosecuted and convicted in the New Hanover County Superior Court in September 1972."
"There are still too many Black activists who are still being mistreated in this country, who carry badges of shame, if you will, for spending time in prison, who at the end of the day, their only crime was standing up for the people," Benjamin Todd Jealous, president/CEO of the NAACP, explained in an interview. "In the case of the Wilmington Ten, we will push [for pardons] and support our state conference in their push to ensure that finally, their names are cleared."
The pardons would officially declare the innocence of the seven surviving members –– Chavis, Wayne Moore, Marvin Eugene Patrick, Connie Levinesky Tindall, James Matthew McKoy, Willie Earl Vereen, and Reginald Epps –– as well as the three deceased members: Anne Shepard-Turner, William "Joe" Wright, and Jerry Gerald Jacobs.
In the Wilmington Ten petition, attorney Joyner wrote, "As a result of the State Prosecutor's knowing use of perjured testimony, the state of North Carolina fraudulently procured the convictions of ten innocent North Carolina citizens."
Joyner concluded, "The time which they spent in prison can’t be replaced, and those experiences and history remain as a blot on their life’s stories."
The filing of the Wilmington Ten petition for Pardons of Innocence is an historic moment, said Joyner.
It is historic in many respects, he told reporters. "First, this case represents one of the first documented disclosures of prosecutorial misconduct in North Carolina where nine innocent African Americans and a lone white woman were persecuted by state agents because they stood up and protested against racial injustices in a local school district."
The pardon petition effort is led by the Wilmington Ten Pardon of Innocence Project Committee and the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA), a federation of more than 200 Black newspapers.
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.