Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. literally gave his life to the civil movement rights movement. In a way, so did the 10 civil rights activists convicted of arson and conspiracy in 1971, charges for which they always espoused innocence. Gov. Beverly Perdue, with a stroke of pen prior to leaving office, struck a blow for freedom in America. She pardoned the Wilmington 10 on the eve of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.
“We honor the Governor’s noble, courageous, and righteous decision today, and,” proclaimed Rev. D. William Barber, president of the NAACP of North Carolina, “we commend her heart’s steadfast commitment to justice.”
On Monday, December 31, 2012, Benjamin Chavis, a former NAACP president and leader of the Million Man March, along with 8 other black men and 1 white woman officially became innocent of the firebombing of Mike’s Grocery, a white-owned establishment in Wilmington, N.C.
Police, responding to the incident on February 6, 1971, believed shots were fired at them from the roof of the nearby church where the Wilmington 10 and others had been meeting. That series of violence took place during a period when bombings, riots, and peaceful protesters shook America to its core and made the country openly question racial traditions. In the center of more clashes, 10 arrests were made.
Following a mistrial with a largely black jury, the 10 suspects were convicted by a predominantly white jury and spent varying years in jail before 3 star witnesses recanted their testimonies in 1976 and 1977. Gov. Hunt, then, commuted the sentences that together amounted to 282 years.
All convictions were overturned later in 1980. The Fourth Circuit of Appeals, under heavy scrutiny from advocates for social justice, ruled procedural errors occurred during the second trial. The 10 were never retried, but the shadow of suspicion and publicized criminal records stalked them. Some were denied jobs. They were treated with distain in their home community. It was a hard way for them and their families to live.
Chavis and 5 of the surviving 10 petitioned for a pardon in May 2012 once the notes of original prosecutor Jay Stroud came to light. Stroud’s handwritten notes suggested racial bias in jury selection and other questionable tactics likely played a role in the convictions, although. Stroud insisted the notes have been misconstrued. (View his notes in the adjacent slideshow or at www.naacp.org.)
“I have decided to grant these pardons because,” explained Perdue, “the more facts I have learned about the Wilmington 10, the more appalled I have become about the manner in which their convictions were obtained.”
Perdue added, “The legitimacy of our criminal justice system hinges on it operating with justice being dispensed based on innocence or guilt—not based on race or other forms of prejudice.”
“I applaud Gov. Beverly Perdue for her leadership in righting this disgraceful wrong,” praised NAACP President & CEO Benjamin Jealous, “and congratulate the NAACP North Carolina State Conference, NAACP members, and activists around the country for their work to raise awareness about this case.”
Thanks to the NAACP, the Innocence Project, writer and historian Tim Tyson, Amnesty International, and supporters and media worldwide, a just result, 40 years in the making, was reached for young civil rights activists who at the time were Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis, age 24; Reginald Epps, 17; Jerry Jacobs, 19; James McKoy, 18; Wayne Moore, 17; Marvin Patrick, 19; Connie Tindall, 21; Anne Shepard Tuner, 34; Willie Earl Vereen, 19; and William “Joe” Wright, 18.
Jealous promised, “The Wilmington 10 won’t be the last. These are fights worth fighting.” Jealous and other nonprofit advocates continue to ask the public to support their efforts. Simply click on the name of the organizations above to learn more.
All rights to this article are reserved by Gloria Blakely. Copyright 2013.