Why the Wilmington Ten were called “political prisoners” and The Witness Who Never Testified
WHY THE WILMINGTON TEN WERE
CALLED ‘POLITICAL PRISONERS”
By Cash Michaels
Editor’s Note – This is Part 1 of two exclusive interviews featuring the man who sparked the worldwide campaign to free the Wilmington Ten from prison; and another whose life was threatened by white supremacists forty years ago if he told the truth in court about the Wilmington Ten.
Following is Part II-Rev. Eugene Templeton
They are two men of GOD, both white, both of whom became deeply involved with the African-American community in the civil rights movement of the sixties and seventies.
Their paths would intersect at the case of the Wilmington Ten, and history records their vital footprints in the forty-year struggle for justice for the ten innocent civil rights activists.
Until now, and until this very story, Father Paul Mayer, a veteran climate-peace-and Occupy Movement activist, has never before identified himself as the author of the historic 1976 report by Amnesty International (AI) that first declared the Wilmington Ten to be “political prisoners.”
Indeed, the authors of AI reports – the highly regarded, nongovernmental international human rights organization based in London that chronicles human rights abuses worldwide – are rarely identified for their own safety, making Fr. Mayer’s first and exclusive recollections about his investigation – which he writes about in his yet-to-be-published memoir, Wrestling with Angels – and how he met Rev. Eugene Templeton, the white former pastor of predominately-black Gregory Congregational Church in Wilmington – which was at the center of the Wilmington Ten controversy – all the more compelling.
Mayer, an East Orange, NJ resident, is a Catholic priest of 55 years who served as a Benedictine monk for 18 years. He has traveled the world, advocating for the poor in Latin America; standing against nuclear proliferation, and demanding equal rights for all global citizens.
As a young child, Mayer fled Nazi Germany with his parents as the Jews were being persecuted. As a result, the religious leader has a particular disdain for injustice.
While in the seminary, Mayer traveled to Selma, Alabama in 1965 to meet and march with civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his drive for voting rights.
“That was a life-changing experience,” Mayer, 81, who has been a part of many of the peace and social justice movements of the last half-century, including Occupy, says today.
Fr. Mayer says he did not attend any of the 1972 Wilmington Ten trial proceedings, instead following developments from New York. However, when the Rev. Benjamin Chavis, a young, veteran civil rights activist Mayer knew and had worked with in his association with the United Church of Christ (UCC), and the rest of the Wilmington Ten, had been falsely convicted of conspiracy in the 1971 firebombing of a white-owned grocery store, the activist priest knew he had to get involved.
“The outrageousness of this case really had an impact on me,” Fr. Mayer recalls. “I saw such a perversion of justice. This was a case of Southern racism.”
Chavis had been sent to Wilmington by the UCC in Feb. 1971 to assist black students there who had boycotted New Hanover County public schools because of racial discrimination. Racial violence ensued, though there is no evidence that Chavis had anything to do with it.
In fact, Rev. Chavis, an Oxford, NC native, was sent to ensure that the striking black students, who were headquartered at Gregory Congregational Church, only employed the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s philosophy of nonviolent confrontation with Wilmington’s white power structure over their grievances.
But it wasn’t long before Chavis and the students became targets at the church, with trucks of marauding members of a white supremacist group riding by nightly, shooting at the church and surrounding black community.
Fr. Mayer decided that he would investigate the Wilmington Ten case, and reached out to Amnesty International to allow him to write a report.
Normally AI would only assign investigators who lived outside of the country they were reporting on, but in Paul Mayer’s case, AI made an exception, he says.
“I think they respected my credentials and my history,” Fr. Mayer says.
Recalling the AI process for vetting human rights abuse investigations as “excruciatingly thorough and demanding.”
“They take nothing for granted,” Mayer, who dealt directly with AI’s London headquarters, said. “Being declared a “prisoner of conscience”(which, according to AI, refers to anyone imprisoned because of their race, religious or political views) is a big deal, a major step. And at that time, they were more [stringent] than they are today.”
AI issued a list of criteria Mayer had to follow during his probe, he recalls. Using his people skills, the Catholic priest began months of intense examination of the Wilmington Ten case.
Based on his investigation, Mayer determined that the crux of North Carolina’s case against Chavis and his nine co-defendants was that they were holed up in Pastor Templeton’s Gregory Congregational Church in Wilmington, carrying out “an armed struggle,” meaning, according to their charges, that they had weapons in that church, and were firing them at firefighters and police personnel who were responding to the firebombing of Mike’s Grocery on the night of February 6, 1971.
To this day, Dr. Chavis and the surviving members of the Wilmington Ten deny the charges. Several of the Ten, like Willie Earl Vereen, James McKoy and the late Connie Tindall, say that in fact, they were nowhere near Gregory Church or Mike’s Grocery at the time of the arson and sniper fire.
Mayer knew that finding Rev. Templeton, who had gone into hiding for fear of his life years after the convictions, was the key to determining the answer to the burning question, “Did Ben Chavis and the black students who were under attack at Gregory Church have guns there to fight back with?”
New Hanover County prosecutor Jay Stroud maintained they did, and had Chavis and company falsely convicted, and sentenced to a combined 282 years in prison, some of which they all served.
One of the reasons why Stroud was able to convict – beyond stacking the jury of ten whites and two blacks in the second trial with “KKK and Uncle Tom-types,” in addition to a pro-prosecution judge, Stroud’s own infamous notes showed forty years later – is because the defense’s prime witness, Pastor Eugene Templeton, was threatened by white supremacists and did not testify.
Templeton was the best witness because he was in the church the entire week of the conflict, especially the evening of Feb. 6th, 1971 when Mike’s Grocery was firebombed. He knew who was there and who wasn’t. He knew where Ben Chavis was the entire time and what he was doing.
The fact that the lives of Templeton and his wife, Donna, had been threatened to keep his testimony from being heard in court, was significant to Fr. Mayer.
He had to find Rev. Templeton, and have him reveal what he wasn’t allowed to tell a court of law when it counted the most.
After months of searching, Mayer tracked Rev. Templeton down to Morristown, NJ, serving as a hospital chaplain. And even after locating him, it would be weeks before Templeton would return Mayer’s phone calls, and finally agreed, under certain conditions (no tape recording being one) to share what would have been his testimony years earlier.
“I appealed to his conscience that this, perhaps, could save [the Wilmington Ten’s] lives,” Mayer said, indicating that all of the defendants were still in prison at the time.
“[Templeton] was terrified, and when I met him, close to a year [after contacting him], he was still a very frightened man. It took a lot of therapy on my part, and a lot of counseling, and as we Christians say, fellowship, [to] convince him that I was not a charlatan, and I was going to respect his confidentiality in whatever form he wanted me to.”
Fr. Mayer also told Templeton that his AI report designating the Wilmington ten as political prisoners could lead to an international campaign for their freedom, which is ultimately what happened.
Rev. Templeton began to talk, and, according to Father Mayer, his most salient point was that despite all of the violence happening outside of Gregory Congregational Church that first week in February 1971, there were no guns inside of his church, and no one was firing weapons from the church, as had been alleged by state prosecutors.
Not only was having guns there against all that Rev. Templeton believed in, but it would have also been against the rules set down by Gregory Church’s Deacon Board, which voted to allow the black students to use the church for their rallies and classes.
If anyone affiliated with the church knew of any weapons there, Chavis and the students would have been kicked out immediately!
However, the jury in the Wilmington Ten trial never heard any of that.
“[Rev. Templeton was very clear on this point,” Fr. Mayer recalls. “He had no doubt…these people had no guns.”
“That completely destroys the state’s case against [the Wilmington Ten].”
Mayer is convinced that Templeton’s testimony to him about there not being any weapons, the “centerpiece” of his 30-page handwritten report, convinced the officials at AI to publish Fr. Mayer’s findings in 1976, designating the Wilmington Ten as “political prisoners.”
The report, which sparked a worldwide campaign, embarrassed not only North Carolina, but also then-President Jimmy Carter.
It wasn’t long before fifty-five members of Congress urged the US Justice Dept. to investigate. The CBS television newsmagazine “60 Minutes” did an hour-long broadcast revealing that the evidence against the Wilmington Ten had been fabricated, and the three state’s witnesses had committed perjury.
The worldwide pressure for the convictions to be thrown out forced then NC Gov. James B. Hunt to get on statewide television and announce that he would not pardon the Wilmington Ten, but at least commute their sentences.
And in December 1980, after several appeals in North Carolina courts failed, the US Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va. – perhaps one of the most conservative federal appellate courts in the nation thanks to NC Sen. Jesse Helms – overturned all of the convictions of the Wilmington Ten, citing gross prosecutorial misconduct.
The Fourth Circuit effectively told North Carolina that if it had any real evidence against the Ten, then to please commence with a third trial. If not, then dismiss all charges.
But nothing happened. The Fourth Circuit’s decision was never appealed to the US Supreme Court; no third trial ever took place; and none of the charges were ever dismissed, even thirty-two years later.
Today, the man who started it all, Father Paul Mayer, says it’s time for North Carolina to finally deal with the reality of the Wilmington Ten case, and the injustice that has been forty years in the making.
He, like many others across North Carolina and the nation, want Gov. Beverly Perdue to take a hard, honest look at all that’s happened, and then do justice by granting pardons of innocence to the Wilmington Ten.
“I feel deeply about this,” Father Mayer said. “I give thanks to GOD that I was a humble instrument. Even though it was years ago, I still feel that it was a major racist miscarriage of justice, and these people were maligned, defamed, and I’m sure it hurt their lives in many ways.”
“We know that racism is alive and well in America, and [granting pardons of innocence] would be a significant step in rectifying one more racist miscarriage of justice,” Father Mayer said.
Dr. Benjamin Chavis, who hasn’t seen Paul Mayer in many years, had kind words for his friend.
“The Reverend Paul Mayer is a lifelong colleague in the civil rights movement,” Dr. Chavis said in a statement. “Rev. Mayer’s ministry continues to provide the fulfillment of what it means to be an effective and globally respected disciple of the God of equal justice and freedom for all people. Rev. Mayer is a research scholar and a transformative social visionary.”
Below: Part 2, Rev. Eugene Templeton, in his own words, about what really happened at his church almost forty-two years ago.
The witness who never
testified for the Wilmington Ten
BY CASH MICHAELS
OF THE WILMINGTON JOURNAL
When young Rev. Eugene Templeton came to predominately black Gregory Congregational Church in Wilmington in 1969 – the year after civil rights leader Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated – he knew that being its white pastor, the second in its history, would be challenging, especially with the dramatic changes in civil rights that were taking place.
The year before, a federal court had ruled in favor of the NAACP that New Hanover County Public Schools must desegregate, and ordered the racially stratified system to do so.
But white leaders in the city and county, not pleased with a federal court mandate that, in their minds, essentially changed their public school system from what they’ve always cherished, decided to retaliate by immediately, and without any warning, close all–black Williston High School, one of the most popular and achievement-driven schools in all of North Carolina.
The black community was still in shock when Rev. Templeton, then in his early twenties, arrived to lead Gregory. As the United Church of Christ minister worked to earn his place in the community, based on his previous work with black communities in Georgia, black students were experiencing racist treatment in the previously all-white schools they were bussed to.
There were daily fights. Blacks were poorly treated in the classrooms. They weren’t allowed to carry on traditions they had proudly adopted while attending Williston.
And in 1971, the last straw was the New Hanover Board of Education ruled they weren’t allowed to commemorate the birthday of Dr. King.
The students had had enough, and decided to organize to confront what they felt was a school system that was racially discriminatory.
They boycotted classes, knowing that that would cost the school system state money daily, and sought out a place where they not only could strategize and hold rallies, but also have classes to keep up with their studies.
Of all of the black churches they approached to seek permission to headquarter at, only Gregory, with its young 24-year-old white pastor, said yes.
“These were not wild kids,” Rev. Templeton, 69, who interviewed exclusively with The Wilmington Journal in November during a rare trip back to North Carolina, recalls. “These were kids, joined together, in some sense of community, against what they perceived to be a very powerful institution in the school board that had taken their school away, and had given them a very poor substitute.”
Templeton gave his blessing, and got Gregory’s governing deacon board to sign off on giving the students sanctuary.
He knew he needed assistance in guiding them, so pastor Templeton called his superiors in the United Church of Christ (UCC), and they soon sent veteran civil rights activist Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. to provide leadership.
Having once worked under Dr. King, Chavis was known as a strong proponent of nonviolent action. It was something the UCC deeply believed in, and Chavis’ mission was to show the black students how to achieve their goals and voice their grievances in a powerful, yet peaceful manner.
From the very beginning, when Rev. Chavis arrived that first week in February, 1971, that meant there was a special discipline enforced, and no student violated it.
“There was respect for the church,” Templeton says regarding one of the reasons why none of the black students following Rev. Chavis at Gregory ever brought a weapon there. Indeed, Templeton says the church was “off-limits for most things, except for the meetings. We needed the church because it provided the meeting space.”
Having weapons at the church, or indeed, fighting back against the gun attacks from the white supremacists riding on pickup trucks through the streets, would have given the authorities all of the justification they would need to storm the church at anytime that week, and undermine the nonviolent principles Chavis and the students were firmly standing on.
Templeton says, “There was no sense of responsibility anywhere” by the white power structure in Wilmington about the racist conditions black students had to endure in New Hanover County Public Schools.
Their only concern, Rev. Templeton confirms, was that that “black radical outsider,” Ben Chavis, had come to town to stirrup trouble. The media was making sure that Rev. Chavis was held responsible for every arson, every disturbance, every bullet fired and every person hurt or killed during a tumultuous week that saw the port city set ablaze.
“The public message was, “We’re just good people trying to get along in a difficult situation, and this outsider has come in, and unwittingly duped this pastor to go along with him…and [Chavis] has totally ravaged our community,” Templeton recalls. “I know that a lot of white people in town believed that entirely to this day.”
Leaders in Wilmington’s black community cried out to the mayor and police chief to do something to stop the white marauders attacking the church, which was well behind police barricades that the attackers violated regularly. Chavis says he even pleaded for a curfew to be imposed to keep attackers off the street, but the pleas fell on deaf ears with city officials.
Then it happened.
Saturday, Feb. 6th, 1971 – the infamous day in the case of the Wilmington Ten – Rev. Templeton recalls it beginning with more pickup trucks, with armed members of the Rights of White People, riding through the streets of black Wilmington.
At noon, the Gregory governing board of Deacons met, and decided that enough was enough. They voted to have all of the black students to leave the church.
Templeton says both he and Rev. Chavis felt “very defeated.” The people who had supported them initially were saying, “Stop, your cause is over. You cannot succeed.”
Templeton recalls feeling a “huge sense of betrayal” after all that they had been through.
Most of the students left Gregory as ordered, and went back to their homes and families to be safe. About six of the older students insisted on staying with Rev. Templeton, his wife, and Rev. Chavis in the parsonage, in order to protect them from harm, and provide security during the church service the following morning.
That left the church locked and empty, Templeton says.
Later that fateful Saturday afternoon, a young black teen from the neighborhood named Steve Mitchell was killed across from Gregory. The death greatly added to the deep depression and sense of failure Rev. Templeton, Ben and those with them were feeling.
When a white man is also killed nearby, Templeton and Chavis knew they had to go.
As the night went on, Templeton says they heard sirens from the direction of Mike’s Grocery, the white mom-and-pop neighborhood store that black residents cherished because the Greek owner would always give credit to those in need.
Someone had firebombed Mike’s, and the sirens were coming from fire trucks answering the call. It wouldn’t be long after public safety personnel were on the scene that someone began firing bullets in their direction.
Prosecutors say the shots came from the steeple of Gregory Church, not far away.
Templeton says that’s impossible because there were no weapons in the church, and no one with a weapon at the church for that day, or that week.
“We were scared of getting killed. We weren’t thinking about shooting firemen and policemen,” the former pastor recalls. [We] had enough going on just to protect [ourselves].”
Templeton is clear that of the people that were with him in the parsonage that evening, with the exception of Ben Chavis, none of the others who would be eventually arrested and charged with conspiracy in connection with the firebombing of Mike’s, or the alleged sniper assault on firefighters and police officers dealing with the blaze, were there.
Willie Earl Vereen and James “Bun” McKoy were musicians, and were playing a gig out of town, they told The Wilmington Journal.
Connie Tindall, before he died last August, told The Journal that Feb. 6th was his birthday, and he was with friends celebrating it at a club nowhere near Gregory church or Mike’s Grocery.
Judy Mack, a daughter of Anne Shepard – the white female member of the Wilmington Ten – recently told reporters that her mother was a “white woman of size,” and it would have been impossible for anyone to have not seen her in the area if she were preparing to set fire to Mike’s Grocery, or were brandishing a firearm.
“She’s not somebody you would have missed,” Templeton recalls, noting that he doesn’t remember seeing her that prior week at all.
The five other student Wilmington Ten members maintained that they were innocent of any charges in connection with the white-owned grocery store.
“[For prosecutors to target] that whole group doesn’t make sense to me,” the former pastor says.
And Rev. Templeton insists that Rev. Ben Chavis was with him and his wife for the entire day. In fact, at the time of the firebombing of Mike’s, Templeton says Chavis was with him, preparing in the event that the National Guard stormed the church with teargas during Sunday morning’s church service and Sunday school.
“[Ben] is with us,” Templeton says. We were getting all of the washcloths we could so that we could moisten them, so we could, if the [church] got teargassed, we could protect the people there.”
“And that’s what we were actually planning. That was the ‘conspiracy’ we were about,” Templeton says.
Early Sunday morning, Feb. 7th, about five people, including a mother with her two children, attended services at Gregory Church. One of the deacons who demanded that the black students leave came to conduct the Sunday school.”
“We give them the washcloths to protect them,” Rev. Templeton recalls. “We tell them what’s going on. We say that in this craziness, we need to have a prayer, and then everybody needs to go home.”
As far as Templeton knows, he says, everybody left.
The pastor gets down on the floor in the rear of a vehicle, with three men sitting above him on the seat, their feet proving cover. With his wife sitting in the front, the car drives out of Wilmington, arriving in Raleigh later that day.
Templeton vaguely remembers Ben Chavis leaving in a separate car.
The National Guard subsequently storms the church later that day, but it is empty.
It is a year later before anyone is arrested, and put on trial, in connection with the events of Feb. 6th, 1971.
The next time Rev. Templeton returns to Gregory is the following weekend for the funeral of Steve Mitchell, the black teen who had been gunned down near the church.
Before the funeral, Wilmington Mayor Luther Cromartie telephoned Pastor Templeton, a call he’ll never forget.
“Look boy,” Templeton remembers the mayor telling him, “I don’t want this funeral to be turned into a circus.”
“And he was so clear that he thought we were planning the funeral as another jumping off point for another …provocation to the town. That got me.”
Templeton performed the service, then left Wilmington for Hickory, NC, because people said it wasn’t safe for him to stay.
It wasn’t long before Rev. Templeton resigned as pastor of Gregory Congregational Church. For years after, he and his wife lived in fear.
That became particularly true a year later when, in 1972, after he was asked to come back to Wilmington to testify for the defense of the Wilmington Ten, Templeton and his wife flew into Fayetteville from New Jersey to catch the connecting flight to Wilmington.
But friends from Wilmington leave an urgent message at the Fayetteville airport for him to call. When he does, Templeton is told that if he and Donna step off the plane to go to Wilmington, word is the Klan will assassinate him.
Donna was pregnant. Templeton decides he can’t take that chance. The couple turns around, and head back to New Jersey, leaving the Wilmington Ten defense team to drastically change their strategy as a result.
In Oct. 1972, a jury of ten whites and two blacks convict the Wilmington Ten, none of whom take the stand in their own defense because, in the opinion of defense attorneys, the state put forth no credible evidence.
Attorney Irving Joyner, who worked with the defense, said their hope was that given the racially charged climate, and the fact that ten Pender County whites dominated the jury, that having the white pastor testify to what he knew might buy them a chance to effectively counter the state’s fabrications.
Without Templeton, however, it made no sense putting any of the Ten on the stand. So the best the defense could do was to show that the state’s witnesses were lying.
But that didn’t matter to the “KKK and Uncle Tom-type” jury, or presiding Judge Robert Martin, who made clear early on that he was pro-prosecution.
The Wilmington Ten were convicted, and sentenced to 282 years in prison, some of which they served before Gov. James B. Hunt – under great worldwide pressure after Amnesty International issued its report, and CBS’s “60 Minutes” uncovered that the state’s witnesses lied and evidence was fabricated – commuted their sentences.
In Dec. 1980, the US Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned all of the Wilmington Ten convictions, and directed North Carolina either to retry them, or dismiss all charges.
The state has done neither, leading up to now, when Gov. Beverly Perdue is being petitioned to grant pardons of innocence to the Wilmington Ten.
In the intervening years, Rev. Templeton has worked hard to rebuild his life, deeply haunted by the singular event that has changed his life, and made him live in fear for a good portion of it.
On February 3rd, 2011, after Mayor Bill Saffo apologized to the Wilmington Ten during the UNC-Wilmington commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the 1971 incident, Rev. Templeton, having returned to Wilmington for the first time in years, was greeted as a hero by African-American community for supporting the black students when no other pastor would.
Until that night, Rev. Templeton says he carried the guilt of thinking that he hadn’t done enough forty years ago to help Ben Chavis and the others.
Today, as forty years ago, Templeton insists that all of the Ten are innocent
He says that Ben Chavis is “a man of GOD” who abhors violence, and always has.
Rev. Templeton says if he were to speak to Gov. Perdue personally, he would tell her about the struggle he and Ben went through that fateful evening of Feb. 6, 1971.
“We had been beaten by the church, by the government, and all we had going for us was the rightness of the cause. I will never believe that that makes people guilty of anything,” Rev. Templeton says.
“I ask you to give [The Wilmington Ten] their pardons, so that they can move on with their lives, with as little baggage, from what this horrible sequence has done to them, as possible.”