The Wilmington Ten were nine young men and a woman who were wrongfully convicted in 1971 in Wilmington, North Carolina, of arson and conspiracy. Most were sentenced to 29 years in prison, and all ten served nearly a decade in jail before an appeal won their release. The case became an international cause célèbre, in which many critics of the city and state characterized the activists as political prisoners.
Amnesty International took up the case in 1976 and provided legal defense counsel to appeal the convictions. In 1978, Governor Jim Hunt reduced the sentences of the ten defendants. In Chavis v. State of North Carolina, 637 F.2d 213 (4th Cir., 1980), the convictions were overturned by the federal appeals court on the grounds that the prosecutor and the trial judge had both violated the defendants' constitutional rights. They were not retried. In 2012, the Wilmington Ten, including four who had already died, were pardoned by Governor Bev Perdue.
In the 1960s and 1970s, black residents of Wilmington, North Carolina were dissatisfied with the lack of progress in implementing integration and other civil rights reforms achieved by the American Civil Rights Movement through congressional passage of civil rights legislation in 1964 and 1965. Many struggled with poverty and lack of opportunity. Despair at the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. increased racial tensions, with a rise in violence, including the arson of several white-owned businesses.
Tension increased further after the 1969 racial integration of Wilmington high schools. The city chose to close the black Williston Industrial High School, a source of community pride. It laid off black teachers, principals, and coaches, transferring students among white-majority schools. Several clashes between white and black students resulted in a number of arrests and expulsions.
In response to tensions, members of a Ku Klux Klan chapter and other white supremacist groups began patrolling the streets. They hung an effigy of the white superintendent of the schools and cut his phone lines. Street violence broke out between them and black men.
Students decided to boycott the high schools in January 1971. In February, the United Church of Christ sent then-23-year-old Benjamin Chavis, from their Commission for Racial Justice, to Wilmington to try to calm the situation and work with the students. Chavis, who had once worked as an assistant to King, preached non-violence and met with students regularly at Gregory Congregational Church to discuss black history, as well as to organize the boycott.
Arson at Mike's Grocery and trial
On February 6, 1971, Mike's Grocery, a white-owned business, was firebombed. Firefighters responding to the fire said they were shot at by snipers from the roof of the nearby Gregory Congregational Church. Chavis and several students had been meeting at the church, which also held other people. The neighborhood erupted in rioting that lasted through the next day, in which two people died.
The North Carolina governor called up the North Carolina National Guard, whose forces entered the church on February 8 and removed the suspects. The Guard claimed to have found ammunition in the building. The violence resulted in two deaths, six injuries, and more than $500,000 (equivalent to $3.3 million in 2021) in property damage.
Chavis and nine others, eight young black men who were high school students, and an older, white, female anti-poverty worker, were arrested on charges of arson related to the grocery fire. Based on testimony of two black men, they were tried and convicted in state court of arson and conspiracy in connection with the firebombing of Mike's Grocery.
The "Ten" and their sentences:
- Benjamin Chavis (age 24) – 34 years
- Connie Tindall (age 21) – 31 years
- Marvin "Chilly" Patrick (age 19) – 29 years
- Wayne Moore (age 19) – 29 years
- Reginald Epps (age 18) – 28 years
- Jerry Jacobs (age 19) – 29 years
- James "Bun" McKoy (age 19) – 29 years
- Willie Earl Vereen (age 18) – 29 years
- William "Joe" Wright, Jr. (age 19) – 29 years
- Ann Shepard (age 35) – 15 years
Trial and sentencing
At the time, the state's case against the Wilmington Ten was seen as controversial both in the state of North Carolina and in the United States. 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.
Each of the ten defendants was convicted of the charges. The men's sentences ranged from 29 years to 34 years for arson, considered severe punishment 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.
Several national magazines, including Time, Newsweek, Sepia and The New York Times Magazine, published articles in the late 1970s on the trial and its aftermath. When then President Jimmy Carter admonished the Soviet Union in 1978 for holding political prisoners, the Soviets cited the Wilmington Ten as an example of American political imprisonment.
Amnesty International took on the Wilmington Ten case in 1976. They classified the eight men still in prison as among 11 black men incarcerated in the U.S. who were considered to be political prisoners, under the definition in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
In 1976 and 1977, three key prosecution witnesses recanted their testimony. In 1977 60 Minutes aired a special about the case, suggesting that the evidence against the Wilmington Ten was fabricated. In 1978, the New York Times reporter Wayne King published an investigatory article; based on testimony of a witness whose anonymity he protected, he said that perhaps the prosecution had framed a guilty man, as his source said that he had committed the crimes at the behest of Chavis. In 1978 Governor Jim Hunt reduced the sentences of the Ten.
In Chavis v. State of North Carolina, 637 F.2d 213 (4th Cir. 1980), the federal 4th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the convictions, as it determined that: (1) the prosecutor failed to disclose exculpatory evidence, in violation of the defendants' due process rights (the Brady disclosure); and (2) the trial judge erred by limiting the cross-examination of key prosecution witnesses about special treatment the witnesses received in connection with their testimony, in violation of the defendants' Sixth Amendment right to confront the witnesses against them. It ordered a new trial, but the state chose not to prosecute again. Chavis and the other seven prisoners were released.
In May 2012, Benjamin Chavis and six surviving members of the group petitioned North Carolina governor Bev Perdue for a pardon. The NAACP supported the pardon, as well as arguing for compensation to be paid [clarify] and their survivors for their years in jail. On December 22, 2012 The New York Times published an editorial titled, "Pardons for the Wilmington Ten", that urged Governor Perdue to "finally pardon" the group of civil rights activists.
The claims were approved by the North Carolina Industrial Commission and signed off on by the North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper's office in May 2013. Total compensation was $1,113,605: Ben Chavis received $244,470 (equivalent to $284,000 in 2021), Marvin Patrick received $187,984 (equivalent to $219,000 in 2021), with most of the remaining rewards being $175,000 each (equivalent to $204,000 in 2021). As four of the Wilmington Ten were deceased before the December 2012 pardons, their families received no compensation. [needs update] a case was pending before the NC Industrial Commission, seeking that compensation be awarded to the families of the four deceased: Jerry Jacobs (d. 1989), Joe Wright (d. 1991), Ann Shepard (d. 2011), and Connie Tindall (d. 2012).
Representation in other media
- Wilmington 10 -- U.S.A. 10,000
- In 2003, University of North Carolina Wilmington student Laura Colatuno made the documentary film The Wilmington Ten: A Story Retold
- In 2009, Francine DeCoursey was developing the documentary film The Wilmington Ten: Justice Denied … Justice Interrupted …
- In 2014, the National Newspaper Publishers Association and CashWorks HD Productions produced the documentary film Pardons of Innocence: The Wilmington Ten
- Dr. Kenneth Janken, The Wilmington Ten: Violence, Injustice, and the Rise of Black Politics in the 1970s
- Larry Reni Thomas, Rabbit! Rabbit! Rabbit!: A Fictional Account of the Wilmington Ten Incident of 1971
- Franker, Susan; Smith, Vern E.; Lee, Elliott D. (July 31, 1978). "US Political Prisoners?". Newsweek. p. 23. Retrieved December 14, 2007 – via Massachusetts Institute of Technology Experimental Study Group.
- "This Month in North Carolina History | February 1971 – The Wilmington Ten". North Carolina Collection. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Louis Round Wilson Library. February 2, 2006. Archived from the original on February 5, 2006. Retrieved March 5, 2005.
- Siceloff, Bruce (May 18, 2012). "Four decades later, Ben Chavis and the Wilmington Ten seek a declaration of innocence". The Charlotte Observer. Archived from the original on January 15, 2013.
- King, Wayne (December 3, 1978). "The Case Against the Wilmington Ten". The New York Times Magazine. pp. 30–36. Retrieved November 21, 2020.
- "North Carolina Governor Pardons Wilmington 10". Prison Legal News. Human Rights Defense Center. January 2013. p. 45. Retrieved June 13, 2018.
- Mackey, Chris (December 31, 2012). "Gov. Perdue Issues Pardon of Innocence for Wilmington 10". North Carolina – Office of the Governor. Archived from the original on January 2, 2013. Retrieved December 31, 2012.
- Dalesio, Emery P. (May 17, 2012). "Pardons Sought in NC Race-Riot Case". Associated Press. Retrieved December 31, 2012 – via Lexipol's Corrections1.
- Possley, Maurice (November 17, 2017). "Other North Carolina Cases: Jerry Jacobs". The National Registry of Exonerations. Retrieved November 21, 2020.
By that time, four of the Wilmington Ten were dead. Jerry Jacobs had died in 1989. William Wright died in 1990. Ann Shepard died in 2011 and Connie Tindall died in August 2012—four months before the pardon was granted.
- Mooneyham, Scott (February 13, 2014). "Families of Deceased Wilmington 10 Members Want Compensation From the State". The Charlotte Observer. Retrieved November 21, 2020.
- Cantwell, Si (February 22, 2009). "Here Now: Effort aims to shed light on racial turmoil of Wilmington 10 case". Star-News. Associated Press. Retrieved August 15, 2012.
- Michaels, Cash (March 31, 2015). ""Pardons of Innocence: The Wilmington Ten" Honored During 14th Annual NC Black Film Festival". Retrieved November 22, 2015.
- Janken, Kenneth Robert (October 2015). The Wilmington Ten: Violence, Injustice, and the Rise of Black Politics in the 1970s (ebook ed.). Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 978-1-4696-2484-6. Retrieved March 8, 2017.
- Thomas, Larry Reni (2006). Rabbit! Rabbit! Rabbit!: A Fictional Account of the Wilmington Ten Incident of 1971. Charlotte, NC: Conquering Books. ISBN 978-1564114051. OCLC 64672101. Retrieved November 21, 2020.
- Transcripts in the case State of North Carolina v. Benjamin Franklin Chavis, Marvin Patrick, Connie Tyndall, et. al (also known as "The Wilmington Ten Case")
- John L. Godwin, Black Wilmington and the North Carolina Way: Portrait of a Community in the Era of Civil Rights Protest, University Press of America, 2000
- Wayne Grimsley, James B. Hunt: A North Carolina Progressive, Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, 2003.
- Larry Reni Thomas, The True Story Behind the Wilmington Ten, Hampton, Va.: U.B. & U.S. Communications Systems, 1993.
- Timothy Tyson, Blood Done Sign My Name, New York: Crown, 2004.
- Wayne Moore, Triumphant Warrior: Memoir of a Soul Survivor of the Wilmington Ten, Warrior Press, March 2014
- "The Story of The Wilmington 10", Triumphant Warriors website