RALEIGH, N.C. [NNPA] – After only a week, significant local and national support to obtain pardons of innocence for the Wilmington Ten is already coming in. But organizers for the National Newspaper Publishers Association’s Wilmington Ten Pardon of Innocence Project say ultimately more support, from every quarter, will be needed. So far, at least two members of Congress, the heads of both the national and state NAACP, a prominent University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill law professor, and the head of the United Church of Christ have joined a growing number of supporters on Facebook, and an online national petition at Change.org, calling for North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue to grant pardons of innocence to the 10 civil rights activists falsely convicted – and later cleared – of conspiracy to commit murder and arson four decades ago.
In his letter of support to Gov. Perdue, Congressman G. K. Butterfield [D-N.C.], a former North Carolina Associate Supreme Court justice, wrote, “As a former member of the North Carolina judiciary, and now a member of the United State House of Representatives, I have worked my entire adult life to bring equality and racial justice to my community, state and country. It is never too late to see justice fully achieved.”
That sentiment was echoed by Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, general minister and president of the United Church of Christ (UCC).
“Any injustice of this magnitude is worth revisiting and rectifying, no matter how long ago it occurred,” Rev. Black said in a statement. “This is an opportunity for the governor of the state of North Carolina to undo the wrong done to these individuals and their families.”
Rev. Black continued, “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.”
A Perdue spokesman said the governor will take the pardon request under consideration.
United Church of Christ activist Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. was assigned to organize a protest around racial discrimination in the public school system in Wilmington. Ten people, most of them teenagers at the time, were charged with the 1971 firebombing of a White-owned grocery store in Wilmington and attacking fire at firefighters who tried to extinguish the fire.
The 10 were convicted and sentenced to a total 282 years in prison, with Chavis drawing 34 years.
In 1980, the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, based on evidence of prosecutorial misconduct, the withholding of exculpatory evidence, and all three of the state’s witnesses recanting their testimonies and confessing that they were bribed by state prosecutors, overturned those convictions.
The state of North Carolina was forced to release the 10 from prison, but refused to pardon them. Consequently, a legal cloud has remained for the past 32 years.
On May 17, attorneys for the seven survivors, and the families of the three deceased Wilmington Ten members, filed a petition for individual pardons of innocence with the governor’s Office of Executive Clemency. The petition was filed on behalf of Chavis, Connie Tindall, Willie Earl Vereen, Marvin Patrick, Anne Shepard Turner (deceased), William “Joe” Wright (deceased), Wayne Moore, Reginald Epps, Jerry Jacobs (deceased), and James McKoy.
“Our petition is for a declaration of actual innocence [from] the governor,” attorney Irving Joyner, pardon project co-chair, told reporters. “Our claim for actual innocence is based on the court record; based on judicial determinations that are already made…”
Another attorney, James Ferguson, the lead defense lawyer for the Wilmington Ten in 1972, said that since then they, “…have labored under an unjust conviction, and for 40 years they have done it with dignity, and without bitterness.”
National Newspaper Publishers Association Chairman Cloves Campbell, Jr., publisher of the Arizona Informant, was present at the press conference, as were NNPA Board members and publishers Dorothy Leavell of the Chicago Crusader; John B. Smith of the Atlanta Inquirer; and Mary Alice Thatch, publisher of the Wilmington Journal, which strongly advocated for the 10 when they were first convicted in 1972.
Campbell said the NNPA, a federation of more than 200 Black newspapers, is sponsoring the pardon project because the story of the Wilmington Ten “must be told,” so that young people in the Black community can learn from it and better themselves.
Benjamin Chavis, who is also an NNPA columnist, told reporters and supporters, “The case of the Wilmington Ten is about justice for all people. Forty years ago, we stood up for what, in the presence of God, was right and in the presence of our community.”
It is because of that commitment to the community more than four decades ago that supporters across the country are being encouraged to join the national petition drive
urging Gov. Perdue to grant the pardons of innocence to the Wilmington Ten before she leaves office in January.
A Cary, N.C. woman who saw news coverage of the pardon story, started a national online petition on Change.Org at https://www.change.org/petitions/nc-governor-bev-perdue-pardon-the-wilmington-10.