Editor’s Note: The Lee Upperman referred to in this story is the late Atty. Leroy W. Upperman who was a Wilmington native, son of Dr. and Mrs. Leroy Upperman and sister of Linda Upperman Smith, who resides in Wilmington.
BY CASH MICHAELS
OF THE WILMINGTON JOURNAL
This week, as the world mourns the passing of legendary UNC Tar Heel Head Basketball Coach Dean Smith, he is being remembered as a trailblazer not only for his championship winning hardwood strategy, but also for standing strong for social justice, and against racial discrimination.
“He pushed forward the Civil Rights movement, recruiting the first black scholarship athlete to North Carolina and helping to integrate a restaurant and a neighborhood in Chapel Hill,” said Pres. Barack Obama of Smith in tribute.
But while many know of how Coach Smith recruited Charlie Scott as the first African-American to play Atlantic Coast Conference basketball in the ‘60’s, and how he supported former Chapel Hill Mayor Howard Lee when the black man tried against all odds to purchase a home in an all-white Chapel Hill neighborhood, it has never been revealed, until now, that Dean Smith also tried to use his considerable influence with then Gov. James B. Hunt in 1977 to secure pardons for ten wrongly convicted civil rights activists known as “the Wilmington Ten.”
In July 2013, while doing research for the National Newspaper Publishers Association, for the documentary, “Pardons of Innocence: The Wilmington Ten” at the NC Archives, Cash Michaels discovered a previously unknown missive from Coach Smith to Gov. Hunt. Dated July 25, 1977 on “University of North Carolina” letterhead from Smith’s “Basketball Office,” a copy of the extraordinary letter was made for possible use in the film. However it was never used in the production, so the letter copy was held until this week, after Smith, at age 83, died at his home in Chapel Hill Saturday evening.
When Gov. Hunt first took office in 1977, the Wilmington Ten – nine young black males and one white female led by the fiery Rev. Benjamin Chavis – had already been tried, convicted and sentenced to a combined 282 years in prison in 1972. Defense attorneys were unsuccessful appealing those convictions to state courts, and an appeal to the US Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals was pending.
Upon taking office, Hunt indicated that he wanted to review the historic case, and once all of the state appeals ran out, he would step in if needed.
It was during this time that letters from literally all over the country and the world began pouring in to Gov. Hunt’s office, both pro and con.
One of them was from Dean Smith.
Addressed to “The Honorable James B. Hunt, Jr. – Governor,” Coach Smith wrote:
“Lee Upperman, our former basketball manager and now one of the attorneys for the Wilmington 10, has allowed me to read the Petition for Pardon of these ten people,” Coach Smith wrote to Hunt. “Without knowing the full details, other than what I have carefully examined in the Petition for Pardon, I would still urge you as a citizen to truly pardon these ten who have already served what many would consider a just sentence for what they had been determined guilty.”
Smith continued, “Apparently there is no chance for a new trial and for them to serve the number of years given them in a rather strange way would seem to be excessive.”
Coach Smith concluded his letter to the governor with, “As a citizen who supported you for Governor in the November election, I would urge you to pardon the Wilmington 10 if you do have that right.”
“Most sincerely, Dean E. Smith.” The coach signed it simply “Dean.”
But the letter didn’t finish there.
In what apparently was Dean Smith’s handwriting, he adds a postscript:
“Bob Seymour has provided me with some additional material on these 10 people which would lead one to believe injustice was done.”
Smith then initialed the handwritten notation.
The significance of Smith’s July 1977 letter is the fact that he marked the envelope “PERSONAL & CONFIDENTIAL” meaning that he wanted his request to be seen, and considered, only by the governor, and not be made public.
Given the raging national and worldwide controversy about the Wilmington Ten case, and how they were falsely convicted for the arson destruction of a white-owned grocery store in Wilmington during the height of racial tensions there in February 1971, Smith would have found himself in the crossfire between civil rights and law enforcement groups who were bitterly divided.
While African-Americans and white liberals would have welcomed someone of Coach Smith’s stature and high profile in support of their worldwide movement to free the “freedom fighters” Wilmington Ten, Smith would have been instantly vilified by members of the NC judiciary, North Carolina’s business community, and even conservative US Sen. Jesse Helms – all of whom who considered the Ten to be dangerous radicals – and wrote numerous letters to Gov. Hunt opposing freeing them.
His controversial involvement would have undoubtedly put an unwanted cloud over his basketball program at UNC if word ever leaked at that time, and his judgment on race would have once again been questioned.
Because of a recent change in policy, letters sent to the Governor’s Office of Executive Clemency in the past ten years to be considered during pardons cases are no longer considered public record, in an effort to protect those who communicate with the governor, who has the sole discretion in issuing pardons.
In the State Archives, an unsigned drafted letter dated Sept. 1, 1977 apparently from Gov. James Hunt, responds to Coach Smith, thanking him for his missive, and telling Smith that until all of the state courts considering appeals in the case have decided, he will abide by a policy of not stepping in.
“If, at some time in the future, we consider any action for any of the individuals involved, we will give your thoughts due consideration,” wrote Hunt to Coach Smith. “I thank you for sharing your ideas with me on this case.”
History shows that a few months later, on January 23, 1978, Gov. Hunt went on statewide television, and announced that he would not pardon the Wilmington Ten, but would reduce their harsh sentences. However in December 1980, after all of them had been released from prison, the US Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Virginia overturned the Wilmington Ten’s convictions citing “gross prosecutorial misconduct,” and ordered North Carolina to either drop the charges, or conduct a new trial.
The state did nothing for 32 years, thus leaving the Ten in legal limbo. Not until the National Newspaper Publishers Association, led by the Wilmington Journal, defense attorneys Irving Joyner and James Ferguson, and the NCNAACP, mounted a successful national campaign in 2012 to secure ten pardons of innocence from then Gov. Beverly Perdue, were they finally legally exonerated.
Calling the Ten victims of “naked racism” and “political prisoners,” Gov. Perdue said she granted the pardons of innocence because she couldn’t find any evidence of their guilt, but did agree with the US Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals that prosecutors in the case indeed broke the law in framing the ten activists.
Dean Smith was right in 1977 when he wrote, “…injustice was done.”
This week was the first time anyone associated with the Wilmington Ten case were told or shown anything about Coach Smith’s bid to gain their freedom.
After reading the letter, Rev. Dr. Benjamin Chavis, now president of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, said in an exclusive statement to The Carolinian and Wilmington Journal newspapers, “Dean Smith was a bold leader who stood for racial equality when it was not the popular thing to do. Smith’s courage made him more than one of the greatest basketball coaches in the world. He triumphed off the court as well and won progress for all humanity. Long live the legacy and spirit of Dean Smith.”
Another Wilmington Ten member, Wayne Moore, also paid tribute to the great coach and leader.
“I have known for a long time that Dean Smith was not only a champion as a coach, but that he was also a champion for social justice,” Moore, who now lives in Michigan, wrote. “Being the first coach to grant a scholarship to a black player at UNC at a point where Jim Crow and Civil Rights were clashing on the doorsteps of justice, took a great deal of courage. There were immediate calls for him to be fired, but he stood his ground and went on to become one of the greatest coaches in the history of basketball.”
“Still, his greatest legacy might rightfully be the passion he openly displayed for racial justice and equality. The fact that this letter is written on UNC stationery is a testimony in and of itself to his bold approach he often took.”
Attorney Irving Joyner, professor of law at North Carolina Central University School of Law in Durham, and one of the defense attorneys for the Wilmington Ten, wrote, “I have always been an admirer of the courage that Dean Smith exhibited in his coaching and community affairs.”
“His decision to bring Charlie Scott from New York to desegregate the UNC-Chapel Hill basketball team changed the complexion of NCAA basketball at a time that he was not forced to it. At the time, Dean Smith knew that desegregating that basketball team and the campus was the right thing to do. For him, it was a matter of principle,” Prof. Irving wrote.
“Likewise, I treasure and appreciate his championing of the early efforts to pardon the Wilmington 10 in 1977 and since that time because he personally knew that it was the right thing to do,” Joyner continued. “I deeply regret that Governor Jim Hunt did not accept his advice. Those and other equally courageous acts endeared Smith to his community, his school, and to the many people who were engaged in the struggle for equal rights and racial justice.”
Prof. Joyner concluded, “We pray that these lessons of racial harmony and racial justice will serve as an inspiration, and guide to others who find themselves in positions of power and influence.”