By Cash Michaels
Special to the NNPA from The Wilmington Journal
WILMINGTON, N.C. – For Mary Alice Thatch, publisher of the Wilmington Journal, it was a sight she wasn‘t sure she’d ever see. But it was because of her efforts, and the team that she put together through the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) that made justice for the Wilmington Ten possible.
“We knew that we would not stop fighting,” Thatch, who co-chaired the Wilmington Ten Pardons of Innocence Project – an NNPA justice outreach effort – triumphantly, told the joyful crowd at historic Gregory Congregational United Church of Christ last Saturday.
Indeed, many of the hundreds of people who jammed into the small Black church to see members of the Wilmington Ten honored with the certificates of pardon, signed by Gov. Beverly Perdue, declaring them innocent, agreed.
The 40-year long injustice was finally, and officially, coming to an end.
“God demands justice for all of us,” North Carolina NAACP President William Barber, who presided over the one-of-a-kind pardons worship ceremony, preached from the pulpit. “And we must demand it for each other.”
Five surviving members of the Ten – Benjamin Chavis; Wayne Moore; Marvin Patrick; James McKoy; and Willie Earl Vereen; were joined by the families of deceased members William Joe Wright; Anne Sheppard; Jerry Jacobs and Connie Tindall, to receive both the certificates, and the pens with which Gov. Perdue – whose term in office ended Saturday just two-hours before the worship ceremony – signed on December 31.
The 10th member, Reginald Epps, is still living, but has shied away from all Wilmington Ten gatherings as he has struggled to rebuild his life over the years.
Each member, now 40 years older than when they were framed and convicted as young civil rights activists in 1972 by, as Gov. Perdue stated, the “naked racism” of a corrupt prosecutor, proudly received their honors with a handshake and a hug from Pardons Project Attorney Irving Joyner, as ecstatic onlookers in the church wildly cheered.
Gregory Church, the focal point of civil rights activity during that period, was once where White supremacists drove by in pickup trucks in 1971, firing their weapons, hoping to kill, if not terrorize, Rev. Chavis and as many of the Black students who had taken sanctuary there a possible.
Wilmington then was a small, southern town that exploded in racial violence after Black students boycotted the recently-desegregated public schools of the New Hanover County Public School System. Chavis, eight other young Black males, and Anne Sheppard, a White female social worker, would later be arrested, convicted and sentenced to a combined 282 years in connection with that violence, though there was never a shred of evidence that they were connected in any way.
But on Saturday, Gregory Church became a place of overwhelming joy and pride. What citizens, Black and White, had known for 40 years was now reality before their very eyes: The Wilmington Ten always were innocent!
“This is a great moment, a great moment in the history of North Carolina,” proclaimed James Ferguson, who served as Wilmington Ten lead defense attorney 40 years ago.
Under North Carolina law, each member of the Wilmington Ten is entitled to apply for up to $50,000 in compensation from the state for each year of false incarceration, not exceeding a total of $750,000.
Though all of the Wilmington Ten spent time in prison, they all had their individual sentences commuted in 1978 by then-Gov. James B. Hunt.
However, after the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned all 10 convictions in December 1980, based on gross prosecutorial misconduct, it directed North Carolina authorities either to retry the Ten, or dismiss all charges. For 32 years, North Carolina did neither, effectively leaving the Wilmington Ten in legal limbo. Most of the defendants had trouble getting work, or keeping a job. Many were shunned by their communities.
And at least two members – Jerry Jacobs and William Joe Wright – died directly because of diseases they contracted while imprisoned.
But none of that was being debated at Gregory Church last Saturday. Gov. Perdue, who was more than 130 miles away and completing her last day in office, was given a standing ovation for her courageous decision.
Chavis, noting the wrong the state had done, vowed that “pieces of silver” would not come between the Wilmington Ten after all they’d been through.
“This is a great day for the movement,” Chavis said happily. “A great day.”