LUMBERTON — “The story of the Wilmington Ten is the story of all of us, not just about the 10,” said the Rev. Benjamin Chavis, during a question-and-answer period Thursday that took place after the showing of the documentary film “Pardon of Innocence.”
The film was shown Thursday in the Carolina Civic Center Historic Theatre to a sold-out audience celebrating Black History Month. The exhaustively researched documentary follows the history of race relations in Wilmington leading up to the wrongful conviction of Chavis and nine other civil rights activists and their eventual pardon in 2012 by North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue.
Despite his troubles with the legal system, Chavis proclaimed, “I am still proud to be a North Carolinian.”
Chavis, 70 and a native of Oxford, is a hero of the civil rights movement. He worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and after his release from prison rose to the presidency of the NAACP.
He was given a standing ovation Thursday when he walked on stage to answer questions.
“I’ve been involved with the civil rights movement for 60 of my 70 years,” Chavis said. “I do not see this case in isolation.”
Freeing the Wilmington Ten became an international cause that saw Amnesty International declare them to be political prisoners, and Cuban dictator Fidel Castro shame the U.S. for its human rights violations.
“Pardons of Innocence” begins with the infamous Wilmington Massacre of blacks by rioting whites in 1898 and the onset of the Jim Crow era.
Wilmington became a center of civil rights activity during the desegregation of its schools. The historic black high schools was closed suddenly and without notice before the 1969 school year. This followed on the heels of the assassination of Dr. King in 1968.
The resulting treatment of black students in the formerly all white high schools led to a list of demands and a boycott, which was headquartered at the black United Church of Christ. Chavis, then 23 years old, was sent by the church to organize a nonviolent protest.
“I was not an outside agitator,” he said. “Wilmington was already agitated.
“The students were angry. I helped them channel their anger. I was militant, but not violent.”
The school board refused to meet with the students, and when white agitators set to work, the police gave no protection to the church, and Wilmington’s mayor refused a call for a curfew.
Wilmington spiraled out of control with arson of businesses and the fatal shooting of a black youth by police. In the end, the North Carolina National Guard was sent in to keep order.
A year after the rioting, Chavis, eight students and a white social worker were charged with burning a grocery store. With the help of falsified testimony, the prosecution convicted the 10 and they were sentenced to a total of 258 years in prison.
Efforts by the Church of Christ and others began almost immediately to free the Wilmington Ten. Ultimately, witnesses recanted their testimony and a finding of prosecutorial misconduct was issued by the U.S. Court of Appeals.
Nevertheless, Gov. Jim Hunt found no reason to pardon the Ten, but he drastically shortened their sentences. Chavis walked free in 1979.
In 2012, saying “this is a case that should never have happened,” Gov. Perdue pardoned the six living members of the Ten.
Perdue’s statement earned applause from the audience of more than 400. The event was sponsored by the National Newspaper Publishers Association, known as the Black Press.
Wilmington Journal Publisher Mary Alice Thatch, whose father championed the cause of the Wilmington Ten, appeared with Chavis on stage.
Lumberton businessman and former city Councilman Doug McMillan organized the event.
The audience was a mix of young and old, some who knew nothing about the Wilmington Ten going into the theatre and some who knew a lot about it.
“I was friends with a couple of those guys,” said retired Robeson District Court Judge John Carter. “Justice? There wasn’t a lot back then.”
Reach Scott Bigelow at 910-644-4497 or [email protected]