By Gweny Rohler
"Oh, yes. I remember it," my friend Curtis nodded when I asked if he was living here during the Wilmington 10. In 1971, in the wake of our school integration, which was delayed and then sudden, a group of students found themselves becoming civil rights activists. What began as an attempt to be involved in equal education and to have Dr. King's birthday recognized as a day of mourning, quickly spiraled out of control. Multiple fires, deaths, and enforced curfews followed with the National Guard. Ten people were eventually convicted in 1972, with combined sentences of 282 years in prison, for the firebombing at Mike's Grocery and sniper gunfire, from within the United Church of Christ, aimed at the firefighters. The case remained controversial for years as witnesses' testimonies changed and were disproven.
Curtis cocked his head to the side, and after a pause, asked what I remembered about it. "I wasn't born yet," I shook my head.
But I grew up here in the "80s and "90s, and by ninth grade had come to the conclusion on my own that the integration process had been very poorly thought out--if at all. My public school experience wasn't typified by cliques like on TV or the teen movies that dominated the "80s--it was governed by race and economic power. I realize now, living in the shadow of the events of the Wilmington 10, it's a discussion that is still pertinent today. Otherwise Elizabeth Redenbaugh, a member of our county Board of Education who opposes "neighborhood schools," wouldn"t have been invited to the JFK Library to receive the Profile in Courage Award.
I began to become vaguely aware of the Wilmington 10 in middle school, about the time one of the 10, Joe Wright, passed. I heard one of my African-American teachers reprimand a group of young African-American students who were cutting up in class, stating that they didn't appreciate what other people had sacrificed so that they could be here and receive an education. People had gone to jail--did they understand that?
In college, while reading about Amnesty International, I was startled to learn that they had declared the Wilmington 10 to be political prisoners held on American soil. Really? In my hometown? Amnesty International knew about Wilmington?
It was the first time that it occurred to me that anyone outside of Wilmington might have heard about the 10. But finding a copy of James Baldwin's "An Open Letter to Mr. Carter," a note to the president that had appeared in The New York Times in 1977, was what really shook me. James Baldwin, one of America's greatest writers had even heard of Wilmington? Let alone the Wilmington 10--and what is more, it was actually published in The New York Times? I never really thought of Wilmington as strategically important in the civil rights struggle. Greensboro, site of the first lunch counter sit-in, yes; but Wilmington?
"Yes, my grandfather was with the fire department then, and he's had a lot to say about the Wilmington 10," my friend Chris exclaimed. "People still feel strongly about it." Thinking about the firefighters arriving to put out the fire at Mike's Grocery, I'm not surprised to hear that. Shooting at the firefighters would be tough for a lot of people to get past.
Neither the burning of Mike's Grocery nor the shootings were isolated incidents during this time. In May, a petition for Pardon of Innocence was presented to the Office of Governor Perdue on behalf of the Wilmington 10. North Carolina is the only state that has an Innocence Inquiry Commission.
Kendra Montgomery-Blinn, executive director of the NC Innocence Inquiry Commission, did point out that we wouldn't hold that distinction for long. Georgia is forming one, and many other states have them in the works. I asked her if the Wilmington 10 case had come through her office. She kindly and politely pointed out that due to confidentiality she couldn't discuss specific cases, but did site their guidelines, which among other things requires all the applicants to be living. "I believe that three of the 10 are not," she said. She was correct: Joe Wright, Ann Sheppard-Turner and Jerry Jacobs have passed.
There is an important legal distinction to keep in mind when thinking about the request for a Pardon of Innocence. A verdict of "not guilty" means that the prosecution did not prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. A Pardon of Innocence is different; it is a statement that the accused is completely innocent of any wrongdoing.
The petition for Pardon of Innocence on behalf of the Wilmington 10 was prepared by Irving Joyner, a professor of law at NC Central University. He talked with encore about the 10 and the petition.
encore (e): What has prompted the decision to pursue Pardons of Innocence at this time?
Irving Joyner (IJ): The pardon issue was initially raised by participants at the 40th year commemoration of the Wilmington 10 case. When we reviewed the record, we realized that the charges against these individuals had never been dismissed and, technically, that they could still be prosecuted for the crimes which the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals had vacated.
In addition, there were other charges which had never been prosecuted or dismissed. From that discovery, the decision was made to seek a Pardon of Innocence from the governor. Local supporters of the Wilmington 10 were concerned and outraged about the treatment that several members had suffered over the years, and the continuing harm which had been done to their characters and reputations in North Carolina. They wanted something to be formally done by the state of North Carolina, especially in light of an apology presented by the mayor of Wilmington during the 40th commemoration activities.
e: Have you received support or endorsement for the petition from any organizations? If so, which ones?
IJ: Thus far, we have received support from the National Newspapers Publishers Association (NNPA), the National NAACP, the North Carolina Branches of the NAACP, the North Carolina Legislative Black Caucus, along with Congressmen G.K. Butterfield, Brad Miller and David Price, the president of the United Church of Christ--which housed the Commission for Racial Justice for which Rev. Chavis was employed as a community organizer when the Wilmington school conflict began.
Other groups are in the process of offering their public support. Following the concerns raised by local participants and supporters of the Wilmington 10, the NNPA chose to spearhead a national support effort for the Wilmington 10 Pardon Petitions.
e: If the governor does not grant the pardons before she leaves office, will you continue seeking pardons with the next governor?
IJ: We do not believe that it will be necessary to seek clemency action from the next governor and have not developed any contingency plans in the event that Governor Perdue does not grant the clemency which is legally and morally deserved. If she refuses to grant these petitions, we will deal with that issue if it becomes necessary.
e: If the pardon is granted, each member will receive financial compensation for the time spent wrongfully imprisoned. Three members have passed away; will the money still be remitted to their survivors?
IJ: I do not know that Wilmington 10 members will receive financial compensation for the time which they spent in prison. That issue/concern is not a part of our pardon petition.
e: The Petition was filed shortly after the NC Primary, where the Proposed Constitutional Amendment to define and restrict marriage was passed. The story of the Wilmington 10 is a now famous civil rights event. Was the selection of the date so close to a state measure to restrict civil rights to all citizens chosen symbolically?
IJ: No. We made a decision to file the petition and filed it as soon as we were able to draft and submit it.
e: Have the Wilmington 10 stayed in close contact with each other?
IJ: For the most part, most of the Wilmington 10 members have remained in close contact. Several of them continued to live in Wilmington and others visit the city on a regular basis.
e: What would you like the public to know about the Wilmington 10? Are there any misconceptions you would like to correct?
IJ: That the Wilmington 10 members are innocent of the crimes for which they were charged and wrongfully convicted. For that reason, they are legally and morally deserving of the pardons which are being sought.
e: How did you become the attorney for the Wilmington 10? Have you maintained close contact with each member?
IJ: Following the arrests of the 15 individuals who were charged with alleged offenses resulting from the Wilmington school and racial conflicts, I served as the National Organizer and Legal Coordinator of the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice's effort to support and defend these individuals. I worked closely with attorney James Ferguson, who was the Chief Legal Counsel for the Wilmington 10 trial and appeals, and Attorneys Frank Ballance, John Harmon and Charles Becton. I also worked with and organized national support groups and activities on behalf of the Wilmington 10.
Since the reversal of the convictions by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, I have maintained irregular contact with most of the Wilmington 10 members but have always been available to them if they encountered problems along the way. Once the decision to fill the petition for pardons, I was asked to lead the legal aspects of this effort.
For those who feel inspired to support the Wilmington 10, there is a national online petition at Change.org that will be presented to the governor. (https://www.change.org/petitions/nc-governor-bev-perdue-pardon-the-wilmington-10). Or, like every cause in America today, one can visit "The Wilmington Ten Pardon of Innocence Project" Facebook page.