This week Governor Bev Perdue signed a pardon of innocence for the Wilmington 10. That’s a group of nine black men and one white woman who were falsely convicted of fire-bombing a white-owned grocery store in a black neighborhood in Wilmington more than forty years ago. Their trial gained national attention. A few years after the trial, the prosecution’s key witnesses came forward and recanted their testimony.
Benjamin Chavis is one of the Wilmington 10. He went to Wilmington in 1971 as head of the United Church of Christ’s commission for Racial Justice. He spent five years in prison before the conviction was overturned.
“To be a member of the Wilmington 10 from my perspective has always been a badge of honor. Keep in mind we became political prisoners not because we engaged in any illegal activity. We became political prisoners because it was the politics of racial injustice. It was the politics of racial oppression,” says Chavis. “So even while we were in prison it was a badge of honor and we knew that one day truth and justice would prevail.”
Chavis says that day came Monday when Perdue pardoned them. He says the past 40 years have been tough on him and the other members of the Wilmington 10.
“Any time in our society when someone goes to prison there’s always a cloud over one’s head and certainly for the 10 people, nine black, one white, four of whom are already deceased, it was very difficult,” says Chavis. “Most of the members of the Wilmington 10 had a lot of issues with poverty after prison. No one wanted to give them a good job, when they found out they had been even unjustly in prison. The fact you’d been in prison was a taint. Now, with this move by Gov. Perdue at least the painful cloud has finally been removed not only from the Wilmington 10, but also from the state of North Carolina.”
Chavis lives in Florida and runs an educational services company that provides online tools and programs to historically black colleges. He plans to travel back to Wilmington for a service celebrating the pardon Saturday.