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.
Thus far, at least two members of Congress; the heads of both the national and state NAACP; a prominent UNC-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, in calling on NC Gov. Beverly Perdue to grant pardons of innocence to the ten civil rights activists falsely convicted of conspiracy to commit murder and arson four decades ago.
In his letter of support to Gov. Perdue, NC Congressman G. K. Butterfield [D-NC-1], a former NC 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 the 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 last week. ”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.”
Perdue’s press office indicated that the governor will give the pardon request due consideration.
Led by then UCC civil rights leader Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. to protest racial discrimination in the public school system in Wilmington, the ten – mostly teenagers at the time – were falsely charged forty years ago for the 1971 firebombing of a Wilmington, NC white-owned grocery store, and subsequent sniper fire at firefighters, during the height of racial tension there.
The ten were collectively tried, convicted and sentenced to 282 years in prison, with Chavis drawing 34 years.
In 1980, the US 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.
But the state of North Carolina, which had released the ten earlier from prison, refused to pardon them. As a result, a legal cloud has remained for the past 32 years.
On May 17th, 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 NC Governor’s Office of Executive Clemency for 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…”
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 forty years they have done it with dignity, and without bitterness.”
NNPA 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 ten when they were first convicted in 1972.
Campbell said the NNPA was 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.
Dr. 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,” Chavis said, adding, ”and in the presence of our community.”
It is because of that commitment to the community over forty years ago that supporters across the country are being encouraged to join the national petition drive to ask Gov. Perdue to grant the pardons of innocence to the Wilmington Ten this year before she leaves office in January.
A Cary, North Carolina woman who saw news coverage of the pardon story, started a national online petition at Change.Org titled, ”NC Governor Bev Perdue: Pardon the Wilmington Ten” at https://www.change.org/petitions/nc-governor-bev-perdue-pardon-the-wilmington-10.
At press time she had collected over fifty signatures in one day, and expects more as the story gets more national play.
On the popular social media site Facebook, in just two days, over one hundred people ”liked” the Wilmington Ten Pardon of Innocence Project site, and actively urged others to join them.
Organizers are directing those who want to learn more about the Wilmington Ten online to go to ”Triumphant Warriors” at http://triumphantwarriors.ning.com/, which is hosted by Wilmington Ten member Wayne Moore.
There are also plans for a dedicated NNPA-sponsored website that will not only display historical videos, stills and writings about the Wilmington Ten, but updates and stories about the current pardon effort.
There are also plans to form a local advisory committee in Wilmington, and a national committee, with the expressed task of attracting more broad-based support from across the state and nation.
Democratic Congressman Brad Miller of North Carolina’s 13th Congressional District, urged Gov. Perdue in his letter of pardon support, ”Although the years of incarceration can’t be reclaimed, North Carolina can still address [this] injustice with a pardon to clear the factual record, and concede serious state wrongdoing.”
Fourth District Congressman David Price, also a Democrat, told Gov. Perdue in his letter, ”Although the convictions were overturned, I don’t believe justice has yet been served in this case. The Wilmington Ten were wrongly accused and spent many years of their lives imprisoned for crimes they did not commit.”
”They were innocent,” Rep. Price concluded, ”and they deserve to be pardoned.”
Professor Gene Nichol, of the University of North Carolina School of Law, wrote Gov. Perdue, ”It is imperative that the state of North Carolina act to remove constitutional injuries inflicted in so invidious a manner.”
And North Carolina NAACP Pres. Rev. William Barber, who presented a resolution to the national NAACP Board last weekend in Miami, Fla. in support of the Wilmington Ten, told Gov. Perdue in his letter, ”Our [legal] system does not empower our courts to repair and heal such breaches and wounds [of false convictions]. Our Constitution, instead, places such acts of human compassion in your hands.”