A chapter of the South's desegregation struggle was resurrected Thursday as members of the 1970s group known as the Wilmington 10 requested pardons from North Carolina's governor, nearly 40 years after their trials.
The nine young black men and one white woman were convicted and given long prison sentences in 1972. A Wilmington grocery store was firebombed during days of racial anger the previous year and firefighters and police officers responding to the blaze were fired on.
Supporters said the Wilmington 10 youths were railroaded by the prosecutor and trial judge. The governments of several foreign nations, including the Soviet Union, called the case an example of human rights violations.
A federal appeals court said the testimony of the prosecution's three key witnesses was perjured and prosecutors knew or should have known that. Prosecutors also offered key witnesses leniency and vacation getaways for their damning testimony, the appeals court said. The witnesses later recanted their testimony.
The appeals court overturned the convictions of Wilmington 10 leader Benjamin Chavis and nine others in 1980. Chavis later served in the early 1990s for a time as executive director of the NAACP. Though black newspapers have supported efforts to win pardons for the Wilmington 10 for more than a year, the group's pardon request comes less than eight months before Gov. Beverly Perdue, a Democrat who is not seeking re-election this year, leaves office.
"We believe that the timing of our submission is favorable, given Gov. Perdue's leadership," Chavis, 64, said in an interview. "I'm just saying that the calculus is in favor of the Wilmington 10."
A previous pardon request from the 10 was rejected in 1978 by then-Gov. Jim Hunt. But Hunt cut the prison sentences of the nine men from up to 25 years, making all but Chavis eligible for parole that year.
Perdue spokeswoman Christine Mackey said the pardon requests would be given full and fair consideration.
The group's seven surviving members and relatives of the three who have died asked Perdue for a pardon of innocence for those wrongly convicted and imprisoned. If granted, each person would qualify for state compensation of $50,000 for each year behind bars.
The Wilmington 10 group was caught up in the racial tensions that followed a court order requiring schools in and around the North Carolina port city to be desegregated. During days of shooting around the time of the firebombing, two people were shot to death.
Richard Nixon was elected president in 1968, the same year Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, amid spreading fear of riots and other lawlessness, Chavis noted.
"There was a law and order response to civil-rights activism," Chavis said. "We got caught up into that era," Chavis said.
Police originally arrested more than a dozen suspects and despite weak evidence against the Wilmington 10, the members were tried and convicted by authorities intent on clamping down on the unrest, said Kenneth Janken. A professor of Afro-American studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Janken is working on a history of the Wilmington 10.
"I believe the authorities had their eyes on Ben Chavis and were willing to ruin the lives of nine other people," Janken said.
Emery Dalesio can be reached at _http://twitter.com/emerydalesio