The emancipation of the Wilmington 10

Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. | 1/31/2013, 4:41 p.m.

On the eve of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the outgoing governor of North Carolina, Beverly Perdue, issued a historic Pardon of Innocence to each member of the Wilmington 10 after a 40-year struggle for justice. This was a long sought-after victory for the Civil Rights Movement, the United Church of Christ, National Council of Churches, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, the National Wilmington 10 Defense Committee, the Congressional Black Caucus and millions throughout the world who for many years demanded "Free the Wilmington 10." Famed civil rights attorney James Ferguson and North Carolina Central University Law professor Irving Joyner led the successful legal effort for the pardons.

In particular, the Wilmington 10 declaration by Perdue was a winning tribute to the effectiveness and commitment of the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA), which spearheaded the national campaign, led by Mary Alice Jervay Thatch and Cash Michaels, to encourage Perdue to issue the pardon. Moreover, this was an another important milestone of success for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and especially the North Carolina Conference of NAACP branches, led by the Rev. William Barber II, who helped immeasurably to build enough public momentum during the last year to achieve such an unprecedented, positive outcome.

Victories for Black Americans, and for all others who stand for freedom, justice and equality, do not come easy and do not occur without a prolonged, sustained struggle or "movement of people" that creates a "moment in history." On behalf of the four deceased members of the Wilmington 10--William "Joe" Wright Jr., Jerry Jacobs, Ann Shepard and Connie Tindall--and on behalf of the six living members-Wayne Moore, Willie Earl Vereen, Reginald Epps, James McKoy, Marvin Patrick and myself--I express our heartfelt gratitude and appreciation to all who helped to make this moment possible. Forty years is an awful long time for justice to be done, but we are thankful that this day has finally come.

With 10 courageous strokes of her ink pen, Perdue acted to rectify what she described as a case of "naked racism." We note that Perdue was under a lot of pressure from many different vantage points, but in the end, she made the right decision based on her review of all the facts that had been presented to her. Limited space in this column will not permit the re-telling of the entire Wilmington story. Suffice it to say, this case was, and continues to be, about equal quality education for Black American students and for all students in public school systems across America.

In 1971 in Wilmington, N.C., the city was racially polarized as a result of recent school desegregation, and in 1972 the Wilmington 10 were unjustly framed, arrested, tried and sentenced collectively to 282 years in prison on false conspiracy, arson and assault charges. Although we were all completely innocent of those false charges, it took 40 years to prove our innocence.

It is important for the record to clarify that the victory of the Wilmington 10 would not have ever been possible if it were not for the 40-year support of the United Church of Christ (UCC). In the 1970s and 1980s, the Rev. Charles Earl Cobb Sr., executive director of the Commission for Racial Justice of the United Church of Christ, and the Rev. Edwin R. Edmonds, chairman of the Commission for Racial Justice, along with Irving Joyner, T. Willard Fair and the Revs. Leon White, Bill Land, Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., Robert V. Moss, Joseph H. Evans, Avery D. Post and Eugene Templeton and thousands of other pastors and members of the UCC provided the strong church leadership and support that gave the young people of Wilmington strategic solidarity and resolve to stand up to the insidious forms of racial injustice so prevalent at that time.