RALEIGH – A chapter of the South’s desegregation struggle was resurrected Thursday as members of the 1970s group known as the Wilmington 10 requested pardons from North Carolina’s governor, nearly 40 years after their trials.
The nine young black men and one white woman were convicted and given long prison sentences in 1972. A Wilmington grocery store was firebombed during days of racial anger the previous year and firefighters and police officers responding to the blaze were fired on.
Supporters said the Wilmington 10 youths were railroaded by the prosecutor and trial judge. The governments of several foreign nations, including the Soviet Union, called the case an example of human rights violations.
A federal appeals court said the testimony of the prosecution’s three key witnesses was perjured and prosecutors knew or should have known that. Prosecutors also offered key witnesses leniency and vacation getaways for their damning testimony, the appeals court said. The witnesses later recanted their testimony.
The appeals court overturned the convictions of Wilmington 10 leader Benjamin Chavis and nine others in 1980. Chavis later became executive director of the NAACP. Though black newspapers have taken up the cause of winning pardons for the Wilmington 10 for more than a year, the group’s pardon request comes less than eight months before Gov. Beverly Perdue, a Democrat who is not seeking re-election this year, leaves office.
“We believe that the timing of our submission is favorable, given Gov. Perdue’s leadership,” Chavis, 64, said in an interview. “I’m just saying that the calculus is in favor of the Wilmington 10. The historical calculus, the political calculus and the leadership calculus.”
A previous pardon request from the 10 was rejected in 1978 by then-Gov. Jim Hunt. But Hunt cut the prison sentences of the nine men from up to 25 years, making all but Chavis eligible for parole that year. Anne Sheppard Turner had already been released by the time Hunt acted after serving time on lesser charges. A phone message left with Hunt’s assistant at a Raleigh law firm was not returned Thursday.
Perdue spokeswoman Christine Mackey said the “petitions will be thoroughly reviewed and given full and fair consideration.”
The group’s seven surviving members and relatives of the three who have died are asking Perdue for a pardon of innocence, which a governor can grant an innocent person who is wrongly convicted and imprisoned. If granted pardons of innocence, each member of the Wilmington 10 would qualify for state compensation of $50,000 for each year they were imprisoned.
The group’s defense attorney at the time of their trials, James Ferguson, said at a news conference Thursday it was too soon to say whether a Perdue pardon would be followed by a compensation request.
The Wilmington 10 were caught up amid the racial tensions that followed a court order requiring schools in and around the North Carolina port city to be desegregated.
During days of shooting in the streets of Wilmington, the white-owned grocery in a black neighborhood was firebombed and arriving rescue workers were shot at. A police officer shot and killed a black youth near the burning store. An armed white man riding through the neighborhood the following morning was shot and killed by unidentified attackers. The governor dispatched the National Guard to restore order.
Richard Nixon was elected president in 1968, the same year Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, amid spreading fear of riots and other lawlessness, Chavis said.
“There was a law and order response to civil-rights activism. We got caught up into that era,” Chavis said.
Police originally arrested more than a dozen suspects and despite weak evidence, the Wilmington 10 were tried and convicted by authorities intent on clamping down on the unrest, said Kenneth Janken. A professor of Afro-American studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Janken is working on a history of the Wilmington 10.
“I believe the authorities had their eyes on Ben Chavis and were willing to ruin the lives of nine other people,” Janken said.
Willie Vereen and James McKoy said they were playing in a band together miles away from the grocery store at the time of the blaze. Vereen said he believes they were targeted along with other members of the Wilmington 10 because they had taken part in black student boycotts at their high school.
“We was charged, tried and convicted for crimes that we did not commit. It was a conspiracy against our lives,” Vereen said. “Why they put us in prison like that, it was to show the rest of the black people that if you march, if you stand up for freedom, justice and equality, this is what will happen to you.”
Marvin Patrick, 59, said after he was released from prison he was forced to lie about his past to get jobs, but over and over again someone would find out about and he’d be out of work again.
“I got fired from must be 20 jobs and had to lie on my application to get a job,” said Patrick, who still lives in Wilmington. “But it wouldn’t last a year. Not necessarily fired me right out but always come up with an excuse that we had to let somebody go and I would always be the one.”