It is one of the most racist, most disturbing legal cases in American jurisprudence. They are known as “The Wilmington Ten,” eight teenage Black male students, and one White female community worker, nonviolent social activists, led by the fiery Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., who were falsely convicted 40 years ago of conspiracy in connection with the racial violence that engulfed Wilmington, NC in February 1971.
This was just three short years after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, Tenn. The South was a tense place. Whites weren’t at all pleased with capitulating to federal court-ordered desegregation decrees. Where they could drag their feet on integration, they did.
In Wilmington, NC in 1968, the New Hanover County Public School System lost a legal suit brought by the NAACP to desegregate its schools. The White school system retaliated by closing, without warning, Williston High School, an all-Black high school that was a source of tremendous pride for Wilmington’s African-American community because it was one of the best high schools overall in North Carolina. Williston’s Black students were forced to attend two White high schools in Wilmington, where they were ignored by teachers and staff; not allowed to engage in regular activities like White students, and were forced to fight almost every day just to survive.
By 1971, Wilmington was a racial tinderbox. Blacks and Whites were on edge. Black students began organizing to speak out against the injustices of the school system. The United Church of Christ sent 24-year-old Rev. Ben Chavis, a young, talented civil rights organizer who once worked under Dr. King, to lend leadership and guidance to the Black student movement in Wilmington.
It was at Gregory Congregational Church in Wilmington – a Black church led by an extraordinary White pastor, Rev. Eugene Templeton – where the students would meet and rally, and Chavis would instruct them in nonviolent demonstrations, Black history, and the need for Black empowerment.
But it wouldn’t be long before Gregory Church became the target of White supremacists that would ride the streets of Wilmington’s Black community, firing weapons at Black citizens at the church and surrounding neighborhoods.
Chavis repeatedly asked the mayor and police authorities to stop the violence and call a curfew, and was routinely rebuffed. Finally, on Feb. 6, 1971, a White-owned grocery store a block away from Gregory Church was firebombed. Authorities alleged that there was sniper fire from the roof of the church towards firefighters as they fought to put out the flames. The National Guard was finally called in to maintain order. At least two Wilmington citizens – one Black, one White – lost their lives.
It was a year later when 16 suspects, mostly high school students ages 17 to 20 – were rounded up by police in connection with the events of Feb. 6th, 1971. Police were really after Chavis, and slowly whittled the number of suspects down to nine, including Chavis, in hopes of turning state’s evidence against what they considered to be a dangerous Black radical. They arrested Black students in their homes in the middle of the night, handcuffing them in front of their parents. Their only “real” crime was that they knew Chavis, and had followed his leadership. Otherwise, they were all innocent.
They were all made to stand trial twice in 1972 – first in June, until the prosecutor realized he couldn’t possibly get a conviction with a jury of 10 Blacks and two Whites, so he got “sick” to cause a mistrial; and then the second trial in September, this time with a jury of 10 Whites, some who were Ku Klux Klan sympathizers, and two rural, small town Blacks. The 10 were convicted, and sent to prison, where they suffered for several years, and their families relentlessly prayed that one day, the truth would come out.
Prosecuted solely because they all stood up for an equal public education for all students, the “Ten,” as they’re also known, became America’s first designated “political prisoners” by Amnesty International. Even though the CBS News program “60 Minutes” proved in 1977 that the evidence against them was fabricated; and even though all three witnesses against the Ten later recanted their testimony, admitting that state prosecutors paid them to lie under oath; and even though the US Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously overturned those convictions in 1980 after all of the Ten had served a portion of their collective 282 years in prison, the state of North Carolina has never officially acknowledged their innocence. Not in the 40 years since their trials, or over 30 years since they’ve been free.
As of May 17 of this year, attorneys for the Wilmington Ten filed a petition for individual pardons of innocence for the seven surviving members – Dr. Chavis; Marvin Patrick; Connie Tindall; James “Bunn” McKoy; Willie Earl Vereen; Wayne Moore; and Reginald Epps – all in their late fifties to mid-sixties. Petitions for pardons of innocence were also filed for the three deceased members of the Ten – Jerry Jacobs; William “Joe” Wright; and Anne Shepard Turner.
And thus has begun a national movement to once again “free” the Wilmington Ten. It is now in the hands of outgoing North Carolina Governor Beverly Perdue, a Democrat, to grant the declarations of individual “actual innocence” upon each of the Ten. A decision is not expected until after the 2012 presidential elections, and certainly not before the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte this September.
Because she has been a good governor, standing up against the Republican- dominated NC General Assembly by vetoing voter ID, restrictions on a woman’s right to choose, and standing strong for North Carolina’s unique Racial Justice Act – which prevents racial bias from being a factor in death penalty cases – it is believed that Gov. Perdue and her staff will give the Wilmington Ten pardon petitions a fair hearing.
Beyond the sheer injustice of the case, it is important, indeed vital, many say, that young people today know why they must stand strong with the Wilmington Ten. Courage to stand up, and speak truth to oppressors, and demand their constitutional rights no matter what the costs – that is the true legacy of the Wilmington Ten.
From now, until Gov. Perdue renders her pardon decision later this year, we will be organizing across the nation, asking everyone who believes in freedom and justice, to sign our national petition on Change.Org; and to learn more about the Wilmington Ten at our Facebook page where they’ll see videos, photos, and read important articles.
Already, at least three U.S. Congressmen, the NC Legislative Black Caucus, the national NAACP Board of Directors, and hundreds of petition signers from across the nation have come onboard to ask Gov. Perdue to pardon the Wilmington Ten.
I hope the readers, and your family and friends, join us. With so much wrong in the world, this cause – returning the dignity of innocence to those who have been denied such for forty long years – is so right!
By; Cash Michaels
Mr. Michaels is Coordinator, The Wilmington Ten Pardons of Innocence Project