(NNPA)–Seven survivors and the families of three deceased members of the Wilmington Ten – ten 1970’s civil rights activists convicted forty years ago of conspiracy charges to commit violence, charges a federal appeals court; the US Justice Dept; and fifty-five members of Congress later determined were not true – formally petitioned the governor of North Carolina Thursday to grant each of the original group a pardon of innocence.
The pardon petition called the Wilmington Ten case, ”…a politically inspired prosecution.”
The May 17th petition filing was immediately announced to the world during a press conference conducted Thursday by members and family of deceased members of the Wilmington Ten; their attorney, Irving Joyner; National Newspaper Publishers Association Board members; and numerous supporters outside the North Carolina State Capital Building.
A nationwide petition drive to support the pardon effort was also announced.
Support for the effort has already begun to come in from local and national leaders.
”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 Jealous, president/CEO of the NAACP said when asked several weeks ago. ”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.”
Rev. William Barber, president of the NC NAACP, has also expressed his support for the pardon effort as well.
The Wilmington Ten pardons, if granted by NC Gov. Beverly Perdue, would officially declare the innocence of the seven surviving members – Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr., Wayne Moore, Marvin Eugene Patrick, Connie Levinesky Tindall, James Matthew McKoy, Willie Earl Vereen, Reginald Epps – and the three deceased members – Anne Shepard-Turner, William ”Joe” Wright, and Jerry Gerald Jacobs.
The pardon petition, authored by attorney Joyner – the original coordinator of the Wilmington Ten legal defense for the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice – and James Ferguson, the lead defense attorney in the case forty years ago, bears the authorizing signatures of the seven survivors and representative family members of the deceased.
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.”
The charges – associated with 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, according to the pardon petition.
For the past forty years, and even when they were collectively convicted and sentenced to 282 years in prison, the Wilmington Ten have always maintained that they were innocent of all charges.
Their ages, at the time of their convictions, ranged from 19 to 35.
Today, many of the surviving members are in their late 50’s, early sixties, and in dwindling health.
In exclusive interviews, some revealed that after their arrests, police offered to set them free if they turned state’s evidence against the others, especially Wilmington Ten leader Rev. Ben Chavis.
None ever took the offer.
In a February, 2011 op-ed piece for NNPA member newspapers, Dr. Chavis, now an NNPA columnist, wrote about the events that led up to the arrest of the ten 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.
[Wilmington Police refused to do anything to stop the White supremacist attacks in the black community. On Feb. 6, 1971, a local store called Mike’s Grocery was firebombed amid the violence. It took a year, but authorities finally targeted Rev. Chavis, eight young black student leaders, and a 35-year-old white female social worker, Anne Shepard, for arrest and prosecution, even though there was no evidence that any of them committed any crimes]
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.
[The three so-called state’s ”witnesses” North Carolina prosecutors used against the defendants, all began to recant their testimony against the Wilmington Ten]
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,” atty. Joyner continued. ”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 adds, ”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.”
In exclusive interviews, many of the Wilmington Ten say they could not get jobs after they were released from prison. Some were shunned by their churches. Some had to leave Wilmington, they say.
All were virtually 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.
”His whole world just came tumbling down,” says Mrs. Margaret Jacobs, mother of deceased Wilmington Ten member Jerry Jacobs. Jacobs had dreams of being a professional tennis player and a doctor before being arrested by police in the Wilmington Ten case at age 19.
As a result, after Jacobs left prison, he was forced to leave Wilmington for New York, where he began shooting up drugs, contracted the AIDS disease, and died in 1989.
”Yes it did,” Mrs. Jacobs now laments when asked if the Wilmington Ten changed her son’s life. ”Yes it did. He probably would have been living today.”
As in the Jerry Jacobs case, the burden of the Wilmington Ten’s arrests, convictions and incarcerations was also shared by all of their families, who always believed in their innocence.
”Only the granting of Pardons of Innocence can remove this deeply engrained tarnish which continues to hang over this state,” attorney Joyner writes.
The pardon petition effort, the first ever for the Wilmington Ten in the forty years since their case became a national and international cause célèbre, was spearheaded by the Wilmington Ten Pardon of Innocence Project Committee, the manifestation of the national initiative the National Newspaper Publishers’ Association kicked off during its 2011 Black Press Week ”Power of the Black Press Luncheon.”
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, NC, and chair of the NC NAACP Legal Redress Committee.
”We are going to tell the story of the Wilmington 10,” then NNPA Chairman Danny J. Bakewell, Sr., publisher of the Los Angeles Sentinel said during the 2011 Black Press 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,” Bakewell added, ”has not been served.”
In an exclusive interview, attorney Joyner says the filing of the Wilmington Ten petition for pardons of innocence, is an historic moment.
”It is historic in many respects, he says. ”First, this case represents one of the first documented disclosures of prosecutorial misconduct in North Carolina where nine innocent African-Americans and a lone White woman were persecuted by state agents because they stood up and protested against racial injustices in a local school district.”
”Second, the Wilmington Ten became another outstanding example in North Carolina of young people daring to protest and defy entrenched racism within the North Carolina education and criminal justice systems.”
Atty. Joyner continued, ”Third, the State of North Carolina, through the New Hanover County District Attorney’s Office and the North Carolina Attorney General’s Office, used every weapon at its disposal to ”cover-up” the vicious persecution of these ten young people and, after this massive misconduct was publicly exposed, refused to do anything to rectify the harm that had been done to these ten victims and the Wilmington community.”
”It is now time for the Governor of North Carolina to make amends for the State and correct the record by issuing Pardons of Innocence for each member of the Wilmington Ten, attorney Joyner says.
NC Gov. Beverly Perdue, a Democrat who was elected in 2008 as the first female governor in North Carolina history, has announced that she is not running for re-election, and will be stepping down when her term ends in December.
If she grants the Wilmington Ten’s pardon of innocence petition, it is not expected until after the November presidential election.
Editor’s Note – a website for the Wilmington Ten Pardon of Innocence Project will be launched shortly, detailing the history of the case and other features. Meanwhile, readers can show their support at the Wilmington Ten Pardon of Innocence Project Facebook page.
Cash Michaels is the coordinator of the Wilmington Ten Pardon of Innocence Project for the NNPA