RALEIGH – Officials on the state and local level are cheering as Governor Beverly Perdue granted a pardon to the Wilmington 10 as one of her last acts in office.
The “Wilmington 10” were wrongly convicted in 1972 of firebombing a white-owned Wilmington grocery store in February 1971. The firebombing came amidst long racial conflict in Wilmington: KKK activity was on the rise, public school integration had sparked resistance, and conflict just before the incident had culminated in the shooting of a black teenager by police.
Police arrested ten people for the bombing: the Rev. Ben Chavis, Jr., who was in town preaching non-violence, along with eight black male high school students and a white female anti-poverty worker. All ten were quickly convicted on shaky eyewitness testimony and sentenced to 15-34 years in prison. But those eyewitnesses recanted not long thereafter—and evidence surfaced that the prosecutor had gone out of his way to select a jury with as many KKK sympathizers as possible.
Amnesty International took up the Wilmington 10 case in 1976; two years later, then-Governor Jim Hunt freed them by commuting their sentences—and in 1980 a federal appeals court overturned the convictions altogether. Until Monday, though, the Wilmington 10—only six of whom are still alive—had never received an official pardon of innocence from the state.
In response to Governor Perdue’s pardon, the North Carolina NAACP issued a statement reading in part, “North Carolina has finally had a revelation and with this revelation comes a continued need for redemption and repentance from the stain of injustice.”
U.S. Rep. David Price issued a statement of his own, reading in part: “(Monday’s) pardon reaffirms that prejudice has no place in our criminal justice system…On behalf of all North Carolinians, the Governor has delivered justice long denied.”
The NAACP’s statement, in full:
Today the spirit of justice was awakened in the Capitol of North Carolina. Governor Beverly Perdue signed a Pardon of Innocence for nine men and one woman known as ‘The Wilmington 10.’ These young people were non-violent protestors fighting for educational equality. They were framed, wrongfully convicted and incarcerated in connection to a fire bombing in Wilmington, NC over 40 years ago. These unjust convictions were due to racist manipulation of the court system and extraordinary and blatant racially motivated prosecutorial misconduct. A Federal Court overturned these convictions over 30 years ago but until today, NC had fallen short. In the last few days of her governorship, Governor Perdue has walked us into a season of epiphany.
In this season, NC has finally had a revelation and with this revelation comes a continued need for redemption and repentance from the stain of injustice. Not only will the civil rights and human rights communities honor this act, but history itself will record this day as groundbreaking. On the eve of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, Governor Perdue has proclaimed a contemporary emancipation for these freedom fighters, Benjamin Chavis, Connie Tindall, Marvin Patrick, Wayne Moore, Reginald Epps, Jerry Jacobs, James McKoy, Willie Earl Vereen, William Wright, Jr., and Ann Shepard, whose fight for justice will never be forgotten. These pardons are not only for North Carolina but also for the nation and for the world. We honor the Governor’s noble, courageous and righteous decision today and we commend her heart’s steadfast commitment to justice.
Rep. Price’s statement, in full:
I commend Governor Perdue for a principled and courageous act. The Wilmington 10 were wrongly imprisoned for nearly ten years for crimes they did not commit. Today’s pardon reaffirms that prejudice has no place in our criminal justice system and that we have a moral obligation to correct past wrongs. On behalf of all North Carolinians, the Governor has delivered justice long denied.
Pittsboro mayor Randy Voller–a candidate for the chairmanship of the NC Democratic Party–also issued the following statement on Monday:
Governor Perdue’s pardon of innocence for the “The Wilmington Ten” is a clear and coherent act of redress from our State and sends a positive signal to our neighboring states and the world at-large that North Carolina is still a beacon of justice.
Her action has balanced the scales of justice and once again shown the world at-large that our state’s legacy is firmly rooted with the beliefs and teachings of great Tar Heels like Frank Porter Graham, Terry Sanford and William Friday and with those whom they inspired. I applaud her giant step of redress, which in effect balances the State of North Carolina squarely with the scales of justice.
I have long advocated for broad grants of clemency like Illinois Governor Ryan did in 2003 when the scales of justice have become imbalanced. I personally spoke with Dr. Ben Chavis a number of times over the past month about the “Wilmington Ten” and joined a number of other groups and individuals who advocated for a pardon of innocence. Today is a great day for the State of North Carolina.
The families and victims of this injustice have my empathy and those whom have never lost faith and continued to advocate for justice have my greatest respect. Governor Bev Perdue now belongs to the ages. Dr. Ben Chavis and the rest of the “Wilmington Ten” and their families have a restored legacy and a renewed hope and affirmation that however flawed and slow the system may be that fairness and justice can still prevail in the end. Happy New Year!