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by Chad Nance


By Staff

“Justice demands that this stain finally be removed. The process in which this case was tried was fundamentally flawed. Therefore, as governor, I am issuing these pardons of innocence to right this longstanding wrong.”

– NC Governor Bev Perdue

Governor Bev Perdue has taken a step no one before her has had the political courage to do… she has pardoned the Wilmington Ten.  Benjamin Chavis, Connie Tindall, Marvin “Chili” Patrick, Wayne Moore, Reginald Epps, Jerry Jacobs, James “Bun” McKoy, Willie Earl Vereen, William “Joe” Wright, Jr., Ann Shepard have all been pardoned after 44 years, international outcry against their convictions, and heavy lobbying within North Carolina in the past few years.

the wilmington ten

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, African Americans in North Carolina were frustrated by the slow pace of school desegregation and other reforms promised by federal legislation and court decisions. Many young people, rejecting the commitment of the Civil Rights pioneers of the 1950s to non-violent tactics, looked for new ways to make themselves heard. There were prominent cases of arson against white-owned businesses in Charlotte and in Oxford, N.C., and many North Carolina cities erupted in violence after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968.

The largest demonstration following the assassination of King took place in the  port city of Wilmington. Race relations there had worsened following the desegregation of the city’s high schools at the beginning of the 1969/70 school year. There were frequent clashes between white and African American students.  Hostilities reached a boiling point in late January 1971 when Wilmington’s African American students announced a boycott of the city’s schools. Ben Chavis, an experienced activist from Oxford, N.C., was called to Wilmington to organize the boycott.

After Chavis’s arrival, two downtown businesses were burned, and there was evidence of other arson attempts. African American activists were blamed for the incidents. Members of the Ku Klux Klan and a group called The Rights of White People began to patrol downtown Wilmington armed and openly hostile to the boycotting students and their leaders. On the night of February 6, 1971, several fires were set, and a small downtown grocery store was firebombed. When firemen reported to the scene, they claimed that they were shot at by snipers on the roof of the Gregory Congregational Church, in which Chavis and a number of students were barricaded. Two people were killed and several were injured during the battle that raged that night and into the next day. Finally, on February 8, National Guardsmen sent by Democratic Governor Robert Scott, forced their way into the church.  The church was… empty.


Ten people including Chavis were subsequently arrested. The state of North Carolina’s case against the Wilmington Ten was controversial at the time and has become a black mark on North Carolina’s history that no one seemed to have the political will to rectify until now.

One witness testified that he was given a minibike in exchange for his testimony against the group. Another witness, Allen Hall, had a history of mental illness and had to be removed from the courthouse after recanting on the stand under cross examination.  Prosecutorial misconduct was extreme and included bribing “witnesses”, suppressing evidence of innocence, and outright lying.

The group were convicted of the charges. The men’s sentences ranged from 29 years to 34 years for arson, severe proscription for a fire in which no one died. Ann Shepard of Auburn, New York, age 35, received 15 years as an accessory before the fact and conspiracy to assault emergency personnel. The youngest of the group, Earl Vereen, was 18 years old at the time of his sentencing. Reverend Chavis was the oldest of the men at age 24. The sentences totaled 282 years. The State of North Carolina paroled the last of the group, Benjamin Chavis, in December 1979. In December of 1980, the 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals overturned the convictions against the “Wilmington Ten.”

Perdue used strong language in her press release regarding the pardons:

“Since the trial ended, the prosecution’s key witness and two supporting witnesses all independently recanted their testimony incriminating the defendants. Furthermore, last month, new evidence was made available to me in the form of handwritten notes from the prosecutor who picked the jury at trial. These notes show with disturbing clarity the dominant role that racism played in jury selection. The notes reveal that certain white jurors believed to be Ku Klux Klan members were described by the prosecutor as ‘good’ and that at least one African-American juror was noted to be an ‘Uncle Tom type.”

Finally North Carolina can, perhaps, but this ugly miscarriage of justice behind us.


the wilmington ten



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