Exclusive showing of Pardons of Innocence: Wilmington Ten documentary

MIKE McGEE | 3/5/2018, 2:30 a.m.
Screening of the documentary Pardons of Innocence: The Wilmington Ten, produced by writer-producer Cash Michaels, was held at the African ...
On May 17, 2011, attorneys for the seven survivors and the families of the three deceased Wilmington Ten members, along with members of the National Newpaper Publishers Association, pose after an announcement that the group filed a petition for individual pardons of innocence with the Governor’s Office of Executive Clemency. John Davis

The film depicts the city during a time of great change, but unequal change rife with discontent. For example, in 1969 the city closed the all-Black Williston Industrial High School, splitting up the student body into two majority-White schools and laying off most Black staff. By January 1971, students began boycotting the local schools due to taunts, violence, and disrespect they had to endure, as well as a lack of inclusiveness in school activities.

Lead by Chavis, the group met at the integrated Gregory Congregational Church to plan nonviolent approaches to effect measurable change in the Wilmington school system through effective boycott.

However, the group was practically trapped inside the church as a white supremacist groups such as the The Rights of White People, surround the area around the church on foot or by car, taking shots at the house of worship.

A nearby store, Mike’s Grocery, was destroyed by arson Feb. 6 and a 17-year-old Black student was shot and killed after responding firefighters had to contend with sniper fire. A day later, a White man was killed in his truck and rumors began to spread that the Ten had firebombed the grocery as they stockpiled guns and dynamite inside the church - despite there being no physical evidence or witnesses supporting such talk. Riots broke out after the firebombing of the store and the NC governor called the National Guard to Wilmington. According to the film, the Guard entered the church Feb. 8 and the Ten were arrested.

The 1972 conviction of the individual members rested on the testimony of two Black men who later recanted their stories, and misconduct by Assistant District Attorney Jay Stroud.

“It was very expensive to overturn a conviction. I think the legal fees came to almost a million dollars, which the United Church in Christ paid in total,” Chavis remarked. One defense lawyer, Reginald Lewis, made an interesting discovery on that note.

“He was the first Black billionaire; I don’t know if you know that name,” the reverend continued, “and Reggie Lewis found out that the state of North Carolina had invested our bail money, which was $500,000, so the state was making interest off of our bail money. So he went down and forced the state to split the interest with the Church.”

Gov. James Hunt commuted the sentences of the Ten, who were granted their freedom in 1979. In the 1980 case Chavis v. State of North Carolina a federal appeals court overturned all the convictions due to violations of the constitutional rights of the Ten, as well as Stroud’s prosecutorial misconduct. Among other violations, he was accused of coaching and bribing witnesses, and changing a witness’ written statement.

Litigation continued in March 2011 during Black Press Week, when the National Newspaper Publishers Association’s Wilmington Ten Pardon of Innocence Project announced that it would begin a national effort to have the group receive a rare “pardon of innocence.”

In December 2012, Gov. Beverly Perdue provided all 10, including three who had since died, a pardon of innocence.

Despite the 40 years of fighting the Wilmington Ten had to endure, the reverend still found something positive within the group itself.

“What impressed me when I got to Wilmington – see, I’m not a native of Wilmington – I saw these young people putting their lives on the line to get an education,” Chavis said. “I was so impressed with that, you know, I was going to stand with them, and I still stand with them, actually.