Also Marks Opening of New Business in Bethesda
The Rev. Benjamin L. Chavis and fellow Wilmington 10 member Wayne Moore numbered among more than 40 guests at the former Box Sports Bar and Restaurant in Bethesda, Md., on Jan, 18.
They were there to celebrate two seminal events: the grand opening of a new business Chavis co-founded and also a salute to the Wilmington 10 who are celebrating the recent pardon signed by outgoing North Carolina Gov. Beverly Purdue. Among the guests were former Maryland Lt. Governor and Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, as well as political, civil rights, entertainment, business and sports leaders in the Washington, D.C. area.
Chavis, 64, the acknowledged leader of the Wilmington 10, said he felt vindicated to finally be pardoned for a crime neither he nor any of the other activists committed.
"I was very joyous but I also wished that the four members who're deceased were alive to have knowledge of this victory, but they're here in spirit," he said. "When something historic happens, we have to use the issue to push for more change."
"We tried to preserve our educational institutions and that struggle continues in 2013."
On Dec. 31, Perdue issued the pardon for Chavis, Moore, Ann Shepard, Jerry Jacobs, Willie Earl Vereen, William Wright, Reginald Epps, Connie Tindall, James McKoy and Marvin Patrick. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as well as Chavis and others had stepped up calls for the pardon last year.
Perdue said her action was prompted by the racism and racial bias that suffused the case.
"These convictions were tainted by naked racism and represent an ugly stain on North Carolina's criminal justice system that cannot be allowed to stand any longer," she said. "Justice demands that this stain finally be removed."
In 1976, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the group's appeal. Then later that year, Allen Hall, who claimed to have actually seen the defendants burn the grocery store, reversed his testimony saying that he was pressured by police to lie or he would have been hurt or imprisoned.
In 1978, then-Gov. Jim Hunt reduced the group's sentences, allowing eight of them to become eligible for parole and in 1980 the convictions were overturned by a federal court which found prosecutors had engaged in misconduct.
At the time she issued the pardon Perdue said she felt compelled to take that action because the court ruled that the prosecutor knew that his star witness lied on the witness stand. That person and other witnesses later recanted. She also was moved by recently discovered notes from the prosecutor that indicated a preference for white jurors who might be members of the Ku Klux Klan. The prosecutor is also alleged to have scribbled a derogatory racial description of a black juror as an "Uncle Tom" type. Perdue also pointed to the federal court's ruling that the prosecutor knew his star witness had lied. He and others later recanted their testimonies.
Moore, 60, said segregation had a stranglehold on education for black students in Wilmington, located in New Hanover County. The federal government threatened to take money from the county unless officials increased the quota of black students. Instead, they closed down the only black school and bused Moore and other students to white schools. He said he was punished for standing up and demanding a quality education for blacks. He described a community wracked by racial tension, unrest and deep distrust.
"We weren't able to participate comfortably; it was hard," Moore recalled of the forced busing. "We developed a list of grievances, including calls for a Martin Luther King observance, more cheerleaders and greater representation on the student government. In order to press them, we organized a boycott."
Moore said he attended a meeting one night at Gregory Congregational Church where Chavis – who was dispatched by the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice to assist – was instructing students on how best to develop a non-violent but forceful response to school and county officials.
"Vigilantes attacked us and a riot ensued," he said. "One year later, police arrested 16 people for causing the riot. I was overwhelmed, stunned shocked. My world was turned upside down. All we wanted to do was to develop a conducive educational environment."
In February 1971, someone firebombed a grocery store located a block from the church. Chavis was arrested, charged with conspiracy to commit murder and conspiracy to firebomb the store and sentenced to 34 years in prison. Moore was originally sentenced to 29 years in prison and said he served four and ½ years in Central Prison.
Moore, an author and electrician by trade, said he was angry and bitter initially but realized that "bitterness only eats at you."
On a website that details the experiences of the group, Moore wrote: "Although I can only imagine what it was like to be a slave chained to the bowels of a slave ship, my experience with the Wilmington 10 allowed me to somewhat sample physical bondage with no ability for self-reliance or self-determination. Once freed from physical bondage one may either become careless or carefree, mean or desensitized, or fragile or unable to cope. Or one may become a courageous warrior triumphant in many of their endeavors."
Moore said he has struggled tremendously to overcome the psychological and social effects of being imprisoned for crimes he didn't commit. His self-confidence and self-esteem were shattered and the long separation from family and friends irreparably affected those relationships.
"Repairing those wounded relationships has been my most difficult challenge to date," he said.
Moore, who was forced to move to Michigan to find work, said he's elated every time he thinks about the pardon.
"I'm still on Cloud Nine about that," he said with a laugh. "A friend called and said congrats, I asked him what for and he told me. I immediately went online and they had an issuance of pardon."
Chavis, who served as executive director of the NAACP and who played an influential role in developing the Million Man March, was paroled in 1979.
He addressed the gathering about The Dry Fry Wing Company that he co-founded with partner George Farrell, as music spun by DJ James the Great played softly in the background. As Chavis spoke, patrons from other parts of the restaurant moved in closer to hear him.
"Sisters and brothers, before we have an opportunity to taste the wings I want to set the tone," said Chavis on Jan. 18. "The grand opening takes place on the eve of the second inauguration of President Obama and on the eve of Dr. King's holiday. Young people will learn about business and the stock market, dividends and liquidity."
"On the eve of the great celebration of Obama and the living legacy of Dr. King, I can think of no better place to be."
After luminaries cut a large red ribbon outside of the building, Chavis, Steele and Farrell each spoke about the economic benefits that come from owning and operating a business. The Florida-based company – The Dry Fried Wing Bar and Grille – is entering the Washington metro area market and will operate at 7525 Old Georgetown Road in Bethesda. There are plans to spread across the country.
"We stand on the shoulders of the Kings, mommies and daddies who didn't have the opportunity," Steele said. "I hope we understand what this business means to the state and the conversations we must have about empowerment, power and ownership. Our mommies and daddies fought for the right to sit at lunch counters and this generation has the opportunity to own the diner where the lunch counter was."