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Former North Carolina governor stands up for justice

3/31/2013, 3:46 p.m.

WASHINGTON - They were Southern governors who shared the same last name - Perdue - but took different approaches in two high-profile race-sensitive cases. Despite a direct appeal from Pope Benedict XVI, Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue did not spare Troy Davis from execution in 2011 for allegedly killing a Savannah policeman.

Over the objections of many, including some members of her own staff, last December, North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue issued pardons of innocence to the Wilmington 10, activists who were imprisoned for crimes they did not commit.

Five days before she left office and 40 years after the Wilmington 10 were convicted, Perdue, the first female governor of North Carolina, granted full pardons of innocence to the group. Pardons of innocence are granted to show that the state of North Carolina no longer believes the Wilmington 10 committed a crime.

Perdue was honored by the National Newspaper Publishers Association Foundation last week for her display of courage. The awards ceremony capped a two-year campaign by the NNPA to win pardons for the Wilmington 10.

In issuing the pardons, the North Carolina governor cited "naked racism" for the false convictions of the Wilmington 10, led by Benjamin Chavis.

Mary Alice Thatch, publisher of The Wilmington Journal, persuaded the NNPA to take on the challenge of seeking pardons for the 10 activists.

"I don't know if you remember Michelle Obama saying, 'For once in my life, I'm proud of my country,'" Thatch said as the governor was about to be presented with the award. "I want to say to Gov. Perdue, for once in my life, I am proud of North Carolina. Thank you so much."

The NNPA's Wilmington 10 Pardon of Innocence Project was an effort to "generate national and worldwide support for the petition, to the state of North Carolina, and specifically the governor, to grant individual pardons of innocence to the Wilmington 10."

Publishers across the country prominently displayed stories on the case. Cash Michaels, editor of The Wilmington Journal, wrote a series of stories most of 2012 that shed light on the questionable actions of the prosecutor, who made notes during jury selection showing a preference for "KKK-type" supporters.

On Feb. 6, 1971, a White-owned grocery store in a predominantly Black neighborhood was firebombed during a demonstration in Wilmington, N.C. When emergency responders got to the scene, they were shot at by snipers.

Nine Black men and one white woman were arrested and later charged with conspiracy to commit arson and conspiracy to assault emergency response teams; they became known as the Wilmington 10.

After three of the prosecution's witnesses recanted their testimony, Amnesty International and other groups rallied on behalf of the Wilmington 10, saying the actions of the prosecutor were unjust and corrupt, portraying the imprisoned group as political prisoners.

In 1980, all of their convictions were overturned, but the governor of North Carolina withheld a pardon. Nearly 40 years later, the pardons were granted.

The efforts of the Black Press were recognized by Chavis, one of the seven surviving members of the Wilmington 10. Speaking on behalf of the activists and their families, Chavis said, "This is another proud moment. We salute Gov. Beverly Perdue for her courage, for her leadership, and for making a difference."