The Wilmington Ten arose out of racial unrest that occurred because of the September 1968 closing of Williston Senior High school, a prominent all-Black high school, which was suddenly closed in order to integrate its’ 1100 students into the then two white high schools.
They were the first group of prison inmates in the United States of America to be officially declared “political prisoners” by Amnesty International in 1978. This conclusion by Amnesty International was published and distributed worldwide. The civil rights case concerning public school desegregation arose during the Nixon Administration in 1971-1972. Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan had to deal with the unjust arrest, trials, and imprisonment of the Wilmington Ten as well as the subsequent international campaign to free the Wilmington Ten.
A “political prisoner” is a person that has been unjustly imprisoned not because of a criminal act or violation of the law, but rather is imprisoned because of political activism, descent, and opposition to injustice. Such was the case of the Wilmington Ten in North Carolina, where state and some federal officials conspired together to unjustly frame, arrest, try, imprison, and repress members of the Wilmington Ten who were actively protesting the institutionalized racial discrimination and hostilities surrounding the forced, court-ordered desegregation of the public school system in New Hanover County and Wilmington, North Carolina from 1968-1971.
At the time, the Rev. Ben Chavis, Jr., as a minister and civil rights community organizer for the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice was sent to Wilmington, North Carolina in February of 1971 to assist Reverend Eugene Templeton, and the Gregory Congregational United Church of Christ that had become the central meeting place for the local civil rights protests to get racial justice and fairness in the manner in which the local public schools in Wilmington were being desegregated.
The members of the Wilmington Ten, nine black men and one white woman, were unjustly sentenced to a combined total of 282 maximum years in prison in October of 1972 after a frame-up conviction of alleged arson, assault and rioting charges.
Although totally innocent of the charges, it took almost a decade of court appeals, state-witnesses recanting, federal re-investigations, years of unjust imprisonment and cruel punishment before the Wilmington Ten had their unjust convictions overturned, and a return to the ongoing Civil Rights Movement. The Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals overturned the convictions on December 4, 1980. Some thirty one years later, The Wilmington Ten Innocence Project was launched.
Today, 4 are deceased. Other members have disabilities, have been shunned by the system due to blemishes on their records, dreams deferred, and felt that their lives have been destroyed. Three of the remaining six have been able to go on to live a somewhat normal life, but left Wilmington to do so.
On December 31, 2012, Gov. Beverly Perdue pardoned the remaining 6 of 10. Gov. Perdue said, “The legitimacy of our criminal justice system hinges on it operating in a fair and equitable manner with justice being dispensed based on innocence or guilt – not based on race or other forms of prejudice. That did not happen here. Instead, these convictions were tainted by naked racism and represent an ugly stain on N.C.’s criminal justice system that cannot be allowed to stand any longer.” Her pardon of innocence means the state no longer thinks they committed a crime.
Click on link below to see story of former Governor Perdue and her pardoning of The Wilmington Ten.
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