COMPILED FROM WIRE AND STAFF REPORTS
WILMINGTON, N.C. – Now that the 2012 presidential elections are history, supporters for the “Wilmington Ten” pardons of innocence effort are increasing their efforts to build more overwhelming public support for the cause before North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue leaves office on Dec. 31.
Who are ‘the Ten’?
As a consequence of involuntary school desegregation, times were already tense in much of the South in 1968 when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered. In Wilmington, school desegregation involved closing Black schools, firing or transferring Black teachers, and placing Black students in previously all-White schools, which led to fights among students and subsequent arrests. There were also battles between street-patrolling Ku Klux Klan members and Black residents.
Black students boycotted Wilmington’s high schools in January 1971 as a result of mistreatment. That year, the United Church of Christ sent 24-year-old Rev. Benjamin Chavis, Jr. to Wilmington to mentor the students and assist them in developing nonviolent protests and boycotts.
Soon after Chavis arrived in Wilmington, a local grocery store was firebombed. Gunshots were allegedly fired from the top of a local Black church were Chavis and the students usually met as firemen responded.
The “Wilmington Ten” – including Chavis, eight Black male high school students and one White female anti-poverty worker – were arrested, charged, and convicted of arson and in 1971. They were sentenced to a collective total of 282 years in prison, with each serving nearly a decade in jail. The youngest of group was 18 years old; the White woman, Ann Shepard, was the oldest at 35.
(Chavis went on to become president/CEO of the NAACP before leaving the organization and working with the Nation of Islam to organize the Million Man March in 1995. He is now a South Florida resident.)
After they were imprisoned, the Wilmington Ten became an international cause celebre.
In 1976, Amnesty International provided legal counsel to appeal the convictions. Then in 1980, a federal appeals court that ruled that the prosecutor and the trial judge had both violated the defendants’ constitutional rights and the convictions were overturned.
Judges ruled correctly
Recently discovered handwritten trial notes of prosecutor James “Jay” Stroud support the court’s reversal. Stroud sought to stack the jury with “KKK” and “Uncle Tom” types, according to his own notes.
A Pender County/Wilmington jury of 10 Whites and two Blacks eventually convicted the Wilmington Ten.
“The prosecutor’s notes are clear and convincing evidence that race was not just a factor in his selection of the ten Whites and two Blacks on the Pender jury that convicted the Wilmington Ten,” veteran civil rights attorney Al McSurely says. “Race was the only factor.
“Forty years later, we know his real motives. I believe when the governor studies this evidence, she will do the right thing and sign the pardons. I can barely contain my outrage at the blatant racism of an officer of the court,” McSurely added.
University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill law Professor Gene Nichol agreed.
“It is crucial that North Carolina act to admit and concede such a potent and defining abuse of power,” Nichol said. “To allow public servants to behave in such a fashion, without remedy, is literally intolerable.”
The state of North Carolina, some 32 years later, has refused to grant pardons of innocence to the Wilmington Ten. They are still convicted felons under state law.
The legal petition to pardon all of the Ten has been pending in Gov. Perdue’s Executive Clemency office since last May. Perdue, a Democrat, is expected to make her decision in December before she steps down.
Churches, fraternities, sororities, community and civic organizations nationwide are being asked to support the cause by sending letters to Perdue, or signing the online petition.
Benjamin Todd Jealous, NAACP president/CEO, has agreed to send out a mass email nationwide to all NAACP members asking them to sign a special online petition that will be delivered to Perdue the first week in December. The national NAACP Board of Directors unanimously passed a resolution last May supporting the Wilmington Ten’s pardon effort, and the North Carolina state NAACP held a special press conference Tuesday in Raleigh to urge Perdue to grant the pardons.
Thousands of signatures in hard copy and online petitions have been collected, but organizers with the Wilmington Ten Pardons of Innocence Project – an outreach effort the National Newspaper Publishers Association adopted in 2011 – say that still many more are needed by Dec. 1 to document widespread sentiment across the nation that the false prosecution of the Ten 40 years ago was wrong, and the state of North Carolina needs to correct it.
In the six months since the pardons effort campaign publicly kicked off, support has also come from North Carolina Congressmen G. K. Butterfield, David Price and Brad Miller and the North Carolina Legislative Black Caucus. The 2012 national Democratic Party platform also adopted a provision supporting the Wilmington Ten pardon effort last summer.
Support and opposition
Supporters believe that Perdue, given her progressive record of advocacy to stop racially biased death penalty sentences; her push for reparations to the victims of North Carolina’s forced sterilization program; and her veto of the Republican legislature’s voter ID bill; is well positioned before she leaves office to grant the pardons of innocence.
Opposition to the proposed pardons comes primarily from former law enforcement and state officials who still believe – despite no evidence proving that the Wilmington Ten had anything to do with the firebombing or the alleged sniper shots – that they are guilty.
To sign the Change.Org online petition asking N.C. Gov. Beverly Perdue to grant pardons of innocence for the Wilmington Ten, go to https://www.change.org/petitions/nc-governor-bev-perdue-pardon-the-wilmington-ten. You can also write a letter to Perdue before Dec. 1 asking her to grant pardons of innocence to the Wilmington Ten. Address it to Hon. Beverly Eaves Perdue, Governor of North Carolina, 20301 Mail Service Center, Raleigh, N.C. 27699-0301.
Cash Michaels of the Wilmington Journal (NNPA) contributed to this report.