Pardons for the Wilmington 10
Published: December 22, 2012
Before leaving office next month, Gov. Bev Perdue of North Carolina should finally pardon the Wilmington 10, a group of civil rights activists who were falsely convicted and imprisoned in connection with a racial disturbance in the city of Wilmington more than 40 years ago. The convictions, based on flimsy evidence and perjured testimony, were overturned by a federal court in 1980. But by then, the lives of the convicted had been broken on the wheel of Jim Crow justice.
Wilmington was experiencing a bitter civil rights struggle in 1971 when a white-owned grocery store in a black neighborhood was firebombed. The police officers and firefighters who arrived to extinguish the flames came under gunfire. Nine black men and one white woman were railroaded to jail in connection with the event.
Years later, both the prosecutor and the state trial court were denounced in a blistering ruling by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond, Va.
The court found that the prosecution’s chief witness had repeatedly perjured himself on the stand and that prosecutors either knew or had reason to know that the testimony had been fabricated. Beyond that, evidence showed that prosecutors had concealed crucial discoverable material and that they had offered witnesses gifts or lenient treatment for unrelated charges.
Newly discovered notes attributed to the prosecutor paint an even more sordid picture of how the case was pursued. The notes suggest, for example, that the prosecutor used racial profiling and other unethical tactics to disqualify black jurors, while searching out racist jurors who would endorse the case against the defendants without question. In some instances, for example, he appears to have written “KKK” (for Ku Klux Klan) next to names of prospective jurors, occasionally commenting that this was “OK” or “Good.” Taken together, the notes and court documents offer a window into a time when many Southern prosecutors and courts saw it as their mission, not to administer justice, but to preserve the racial status quo.
Most of the defendants were young — some just high school age — when they were collectively sentenced to a total of more than 280 years in prison. Prison robbed them of the promise that their young lives had held. Even after the sentences were overturned, the notoriety associated with the case made it difficult for some of them to find or hold decent jobs, and sometimes led to their being shunned.
Four of the 10 have already died; others are battling illness. As one journalist has noted, their lives “have been marked by struggle, hardship and indignities.”
Anger over this case has continued to fester in the black community. At a 40th anniversary commemoration last year in Wilmington, civil rights leaders rightly decided that the wrongly convicted warranted a pardon from Ms. Perdue. By providing it, she can finally bring a close to one of the more shameful episodes in North Carolina history.