UPDATED: Jan. 2, 2013.
“The Wilmington 10″ — nine black men and one white woman — became the focus of one of the longest and most controversial civil rights cases in Wilmington history. Supporters saw them as political prisoners, framed by a racist and unjust judicial system. After nearly a decade, the 10 had their convictions overturned on a legal technicality in 1980.
Following a year-long petition drive by the North Carolina NAACP and other civil rights groups, Gov. Beverly Perdue formally issued a pardon to the Ten, saying “the more facts I have learned about the Wilmington Ten, the more appalled I have become about the manner in which their convictions were obtained.”
On Feb. 1, 1971, Benjamin Chavis Jr., Southern regional program director of the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice, arrived in Wilmington to help black students, who had announced a boycott of the New Hanover County public schools the previous months. Racial tensions had worsened since the desegregation of the county’s school system in the 1969-70 school year and the closing of Williston High School, a beloved institution in the local black community.
Soon, black youths were confronting local Klansmen and members of a militant group called Rights of White People. On the night of Feb. 6, 1971, several firebombs were set in downtown Wilmington. Mike’s Grocery, a white-owned business at Sixth and Ann streets, in a predominantly black neighborhood, was burned. When firefighters arrived on the scene, they were reportedly fired upon by snipers from the roof of Gregory Congregational Church, 609 Nun St., Wilmington [Map this], where Chavis and a number of boycotters had barricaded themselves. Two nights of rioting followed; a policeman shot a black teenager, and a middle-aged white man was killed by unknown assailants. On Feb. 8, National Guard troops entered the church, only to find it deserted.
Chavis and nine others were arrested and charged with arson and conspiracy to fire upon firefighters and law enforcement officers. Based largely on the testimony of two African-American witnesses who claimed to have been in Gregory Congregational Church on the night of the firebombing, they were found guilty in Superior Court in 1972 and sentenced to prison terms of between 15 and 34 years — a total of 282 years in all.
The 10 were Chavis, 24 at the time; Ann Shepard (later Ann Shepard Turner), a 35-year-old white social worker; Reginald Epps. 18; Jerry Jacobs. 19; James “Bun” McKoy, 19; Wayne Moore, 19; Marvin “Chili” Patrick, 19; Connie Tindall, 21; William “Joe” Wright Jr., 19; and Willie Earl Vereen, 18. Except for Chavis and Turner, all the defendants were Wilmington residents.
The sentences became controversial, particularly after key prosecution witnesses recanted their their stories. In 1976, Amnesty International took up the case, claiming the Wilmington 10 were “political prisoners” under the terms of the 1948 U.N. Declaration of Human Rights. Soviet officials, stung by charges of human rights abuses from President Jimmy Carter’s administration, cited the case as an example of American injustice. Pressure intensified on state and federal officials after a 1977 segment on CBS’ “60 Minutes” suggested that much evidence against the 10 was fabricated.
In January 1978, in a statewide telecast, North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt refused to pardon the 10, but he substantially reduced their sentences. By then, nine of the 10 were freed on parole. Later in 1978, the U.S. Department of Justice called for the sentences to be reversed; 55 members of Congress signed a “friend of the court” brief seeking the same result. Chavis, the last of the 10 in prison, was paroled in December 1979. Charges against the 10 were finally overturned in December 1980 by the 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.
Supporters had long criticized prosecutors’ decision to move the group’s initial trial from Wilmington to Burgaw. In November 2012, at a Raleigh news conference, the NAACP displayed jury selection notes from the trial, which labeled potential jurors as “possibly KKK good” and (in the case of a black potential juror) “Uncle Tom type.” Former prosecutor Jay Stroud acknowledged writing the notes but disputed the NAACP’s interpretation of his comments.
Chavis was ordained in the United Church of Christ in 1980 and became executive director of its Commission for Racial Justice in 1985. In 1988, he was elected vice president of the National Council of Churches. In 1993, he was named executive director of the NAACP, but was ousted in August 1994 by the civil rights organization’s board of directors, amid charges that he had used NAACP funds to pay for an out-of-court settlement in a sexual harassment suit. In 1995, he was an organizer for the Million Man March on Washington. In 1997, he joined the Nation of Islam, taking the name Benjamin Chavis Muhammad. Today he serves as a special assistant to Minister Louis Farrakhan in New York. On a 2006 visit to Wilmington, to mark the 35th anniversary of the case, Chavis told the Star-News, “Being part of the Wilmington 10 is a badge of honor.”
Jerry Jacobs died in 1989 of AIDS complications.
Joe Wright died in 1990 of sarcoidosis. Before his death, he had been a producer for a Wilmington radio show. Wright’s brother, Thomas Wright, served on the Wilmington City Council and in the state House of Representatives from 1992 to 2008. In 2008, he was expelled from the House for mishandling loans and campaign and charitable contributions; later, he was convicted in Wake County Superior Court of three counts of fraud and was sentenced to 70 to 95 months in prison.
According to Francine DeCoursey — a Wilmington filmmaker who is preparing a documentary on the case — McCoy, Patrick and Vereen are living quietly in Wilmington. Epps, at last report, was living in Raleigh. while Moore was in Michigan. Moore and Chavis reported that Ann Shephard died in early 2011 in Durham.
UPDATE: Connie Tindall died on Aug. 3, 2012. Here is a story about his passing.
Date posted: August 12, 2009
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