The Dallas Examiner
Screening of the documentary Pardons of Innocence: The Wilmington Ten, produced by writer-producer Cash Michaels, was held at the African American Museum in celebration of Black History Month, Feb. 3. The film, which examines the efforts and imprisonment of a group of nonviolent civil rights activists in North Carolina during the 1970s, was highlighted by a visit from Rev. Benjamin Chavis Jr., one of the guiding voices of the protestors.
“Many of you might not know about The Wilmington Ten story,” announced Mollie Belt, publisher of The Dallas Examiner, who helped bring the film to Dallas – along with Dr. Harry Robinson, founder of the museum. “But there were 10 youngsters, high school students and Dr. Chavis who was sent there by the church to help lead them. Dr. Chavis and the other young men were incarcerated…” along with a lone White mother who believed that equal education and solutions to poverty should have been available to everyone.
“It is the only recorded … coup d’état in America. It was a coup d’état. Some peoples in power, they get thrown out of power violently,” voiced the Chavis as he introduced the film, pointing out that in 1898 both Black and White elected officials who worked together in Wilmington were forced out of their positions, and out of town, during what Chavis described as “a race massacre.”
Furthermore, the Black-owned Wilmington Daily Record newspaper office was burned to the ground as White citizens determined to keep segregation in place took control of the city.
As the documentary explored Wilmington’s history it examined the city’s more recent sociopolitical cultural model that has survived well into the 1960s and 1970s, even as schools and similar public institutions were being forced to integrate. Chavis voiced that the events of 1971 actually began when that White mob rule changed the institutions, and the course, of the city.
Despite the separate-but-equal doctrine forcibly kept in place for approximately a century, Black Wilmington was able to rebuild under their own collective power. Eventually another Black newspaper sprang up, and Black schools were some of the best in the state due to dedicated teachers and parents.
The publisher of The Wilmington Journal, Thomas Jervey, was an advocate for the group and often gave them a voice in his newspaper.
“It’s very seldom that we have a true story that is caught on film, with the actual people involved in this story,” the reverend noted. “This is Black History Month and I tell people all the time the best way to celebrate Black history, is to make some more history. And to make sure our young people know what our travails, what our struggles, what our progress, what our achievements, and sometimes the hurdles that we have to overcome, to be successful.”
The 10 – Chavis, Ann Shepard, Connie Tindall, Wayne Moore, Jerry Jacobs, Marvin Patrick, James McKoy, Wille Earl Vereen, Reginald Epps and William Wright Jr. – were mostly between that ages of 18 and 21, eight of them high school students. Their sentences ranged between 15 and 31 years on arson and various conspiracy charges despite the not guilty pleas from the group members.
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.