Ben Chavis Celebrates Wilmington 10 Pardon

Barrington M. Salmon | 1/23/2013, 12:59 p.m.

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.