Written by Anthony Moujaes
Hundreds joined a congregation of the United Church of Christ in eastern North Carolina to celebrate with a group of justice advocates receiving their pardons, removing a false conviction after nearly 40 years of protests and appeals. The pardons for the Wilmington Ten were presented Saturday at a ceremony at Gregory Congregational UCC, with over 150 people filling the pews and even more standing outside to witness the historic moment for civil rights and racial justice.
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 at the time.
"It was just a really wonderful day. [North Carolina NAACP president] William Barber was presiding and he was a remarkable speaker," said the Rev. Rollin Russell, who was the UCC Southern Conference Minister from 1982 to 1999. During that time, he said about one-third of his work or discussions related to the Wilmington Ten and obtaining a pardon, work that was finally rewarded for everyone involved.
"I felt vindicated and I think a lot of the pastors in the conference felt very much vindicated," Russell said.
"It’s been a long, arduous – and at times, torturous – 40 years. But this is a joyous day," said Chavis. At the time, he was a civil rights community organizer for the UCC’s Commission for Racial Justice sent to help leaders meeting at Gregory Congregational in Wilmington, N.C. to organize and ensure the area's schools were desegregated fairly.
Four of the 10 are now deceased (Jerry Jacobs, Ann Shepard, Connie Tindall and Joe Wright), and were represented by family members at the ceremony. The remaining six survivors are Chavis, Reginald Epps, James McKoy, Wayne Moore, Marvin Patrick and Willie Earl Vereen.
"It must have been an immensely proud moment for them to hold those precious documents in their hands, and for those who worked over the years to clear their names," said the Rev. John Deckenback, Central Atlantic Conference Minister. Deckenback lived in San Francisco at the time of the trial, but knew about the case and has followed it since. The UCC came to the defense of the Wilmington Ten by raising money and investing its own staff in the case.
"If there’s anything sad about it, it’s because it’s a story many have forgotten and moved on from," Deckenback said. "[The pardon is] a tribute to those who worked for justice."
Former North Carolina governor Beverly Perdue issued the pardons on Dec. 31 in her final days in office, citing new evidence in the case.
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 African Americans off the jury. Perdue said in a statement that 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 trial, were sentenced to a combined 282 years in prison in 1972. Their sentences were commuted in 1978 by then-Gov. Jim Hunt, but he withheld a pardon.
Governor Purdue's "pardon of innocence" means the state no longer considers the Wilmington Ten criminals. "[Perdue] was inclined to give a pardon of forgiveness," Russell said, "and Ben refused it and said ‘I didn’t do anything to be forgiven.’"