RALEIGH, N.C. (NNPA) – Seven survivors and the families of three deceased members of the Wilmington Ten – 1970s civil rights activists convicted 40 years ago of conspiracy charges to commit violence – are scheduled to formally petition North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue on Thursday to grant each wronged activist a formal pardon. The May 17 petition filing was announced at a press conference last week by members and family of the group; their attorney, Irving Joyner; National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) board members; and numerous supporters outside the North Carolina State Capitol. 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 Commission for Racial Justice, described the Wilmington Ten case as “…a politically inspired prosecution.” It urges Gov. 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.” Those convictions were eventually overturned on appeal, leading to the release of the Wilmington Ten.
“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, if granted, would officially declare the innocence of the seven surviving members – Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr., Wayne Moore, Marvin Eugene Patrick, Connie Levinesky Tindall, James Matthew McKoy, Willie Earl Vereen, Reginald Epps – as well as the three deceased members: Anne Shepard-Turner, William “Joe” Wright, and Jerry Gerald Jacobs. The charges against them, all related to the firebombing of Mike’s Grocery in Wilmington on Feb. 6, 1971, included conspiracy to murder, conspiracy to assault emergency personnel, conspiracy to burn property with incendiary devices and the actual burning of property. The defendants were convicted and collectively sentenced to 282 years in prison. Their ages at the time ranged from 19 to 35. Today, most of the surviving members are growing old and are in failing health. In exclusive interviews, some revealed that after their arrests, police offered to set them free if they would turn state’s evidence against their co-defendants, especially Wilmington Ten leader Ben Chavis.
It was an offer they could – and did – refuse. In a February, 2011 op-ed piece for NNPA member newspapers, Chavis, now an NNPA columnist, wrote about the events that led up to the arrest of the 10 activists: During the Nixon Administration in the early 1970′s, African Americans in the South, as well as in other regions of the nation, were being challenged with the systematic racial disparities involved in the details of how federal court-ordered school desegregation was being enforced. Black students, parents, and community leaders made a decision in Wilmington in February 1971 that they would stand up and fight to protect and secure the “quality” education of African American students by attempting to preserve the high academic integrity and institutional legacy of African American public schools such as Williston Senior High School (which the New Hanover County Public School Board closed, to the outrage of the African-American community there). The United Church of Christ, as a progressive mainline Protestant denomination of 1.7 million members, and its Commission for Racial Justice, led by The Reverend Dr. Charles E. Cobb, decided to stand with the student-led coalition in Wilmington to demand fairness and equal justice. As a young civil rights activist, I was dispatched by the Commission for Racial Justice to give organizational assistance to our brothers and sisters in Wilmington. Because we dared to speak out and to engage in non-violent street protests to the long, unprecedented history of racial violence and injustice in that port city, the African American community became the targets of a violent, paramilitary, anti-Black terror campaign led by the Ku Klux Klan and the Rights of White People (ROWP) organization. Our movement’s headquarters in Wilmington – Gregory Congregational United Church of Christ – and the surrounding African American community – was placed in a state of siege by armed White vigilantes, who opposed racial justice and equality. Because of our involvement in the struggle in Wilmington in 1971, we were unjustly charged, arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to a combined maximum total of 282 years in prison in North Carolina in 1972. We all were completely innocent of the alleged charges of arson and conspiracy to assault. In 1978, Amnesty International declared that we were ‘Political Prisoners.’ We stayed in prison during most of the 1970′s while our case was on appeal. On December 4, 1980, the Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals overturned the unjust convictions of the Wilmington Ten because of ‘prosecutorial misconduct’ in the unconstitutional and unfair frame-up. Yet, to date there has not been an official ‘pardon of innocence’ issued by the state of or by the federal government. In the Wilmington Ten petition for a pardon of innocence, attorney Joyner writes, “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. This misconduct was aided and abetted by the actions of the Trial Judge which improperly prevented relevant facts from being presented to the jury. These wrongful convictions resulted in each Wilmington Ten member spending significant periods of time incarcerated in the North Carolina Dept. of Corrections where they lost critical developmental years.” 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.” After they were released, most of the Wilmington Ten say they could not get jobs. Some were shunned by their churches. And others chose to leave Wilmington. Virtually all were denied the dreams they held dear as high school students, dreams that included becoming a doctor, a lawyer, musicians, and in one case, a professional football player. Jerry Jacobs is a case in point. “His whole world just came tumbling down,” recalls his mother, Margaret Jacobs. Her son had dreams of becoming a professional tennis player and a doctor before being arrested by police in the Wilmington Ten case at age 19. Following his release from prison, Jacobs moved to New York, where he became addicted to drugs, contracted AIDS, and died in 1989. Without that undeserved detour to prison, Jacobs’ mother says, “He probably would have been living today.” The pardon petition effort is being spearheaded by the Wilmington Ten Pardon of Innocence Project Committee and the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA), a federation of more than 200 Black newspapers. NNPA announced its support for the pardons a year ago during its observation of Black Press Week. The project committee is co-chaired by Mary Alice Thatch, publisher of NNPA member The Wilmington Journal, a Black newspaper that was firebombed by a White supremacist in 1972, and attorney Irving Joyner, a law professor at North Carolina Central University School of Law in Durham. “We are going to tell the story of the Wilmington Ten,” then-NNPA Chairman Danny J. Bakewell, Sr., publisher of the Los Angeles Sentinel, said during the Black Press Week luncheon in Washington, D.C. “And, we think it is incumbent for us to fight for a pardon for those 10 people. Justice to this day has not been served.” •