I breathed a sigh of relief, revealing a breath I had unknowingly been holding, as I read that outgoing North Carolina Gov. Beverly Purdue gave a full pardon to the “Wilmington 10.”
But I also felt a familiar tinge of anger and bitterness. Justice often comes slowly, especially when it comes to cases or situations involving black people.
In her pardon, Gov. Perdue said “These convictions were tainted by naked racism and represent an ugly stain on North Carolina’s criminal justice system that cannot be allowed to stand any longer. Justice demands that this stain finally be removed.” (http://inamerica.blogs.cnn.com/2012/12/31/north-carolina-governor-pardons-wilmington-10/?iref=allsearch)
The Wilmington 10 became nationally known in 1972 when nine black men and one white woman were accused and convicted of conspiracy and arson in the firebombing a white-owned store in a black neighborhood. Among the 10 convicted persons was Ben Chavis, who at age 24 at the time of the incident, was the oldest of the group. Chavis was sentenced to 34 years in prison, and was imprisoned from 1972 to 1979.
In 1978, the sentences were reduced for all of the Wilmington 10, and two years later, North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt overturned their convictions. Among the reasons cited was misconduct by the prosecutor of the case. Gov. Perdue said, in her comments about why she granted the pardon, that information given to her had revealed that there had been much injustice served in the case.
In an article on CNN, the author wrote, “Perdue said that among the key evidence that led her to grant pardons of innocence were recently discovered notes from the prosecutor who picked the jury. The notes showed the prosecutor preferred white jurors who might be members of the Ku Klux Klan and one black juror was described as an “Uncle Tom type.”
The author continued, “Perdue also pointed to the federal court’s ruling that the prosecutor knew his star witness lied on the witness stand. That witness and other witnesses recanted a few years after the trial.” (http://www.cnn.com/2012/12/31/justice/north-carolina-wilmington-10/index.html).
All along, the 10 people had protested that they were innocent, but to no avail. The case received international attention and condemnation. When the United States criticized Russia for having political prisoners in the 1970s, that country commented that the United States had little ground for its criticism, citing the political prisoners in America known as the Wilmington 10.
That it took 40 years for this pardon to be granted is one issue, but a larger issue is that this type of injustice, so often meted out to African-Americans and other persons of color, is and has been so much a part of the American justice system. Michelle Alexander lays out the scope of the injustice experienced by African-Americans in her landmark book, The New Jim Crow, pointing out how the “war on crime” adversely and disproportionately affected African-Americans, but even before that, it was clear that America had a justice system that was anything but just for them.
In the book Slavery by Another Name, author Douglas A. Blackmon brilliantly lays out how the convict leasing system was based on and depended upon, injustice as concerned mostly people of color. One could be arrested for just about anything and, through an unsophisticated yet highly successful system of cooperation between the justice system and farmers and businessmen who needed cheap labor in order to realize huge profits. Blackmon describes how that system essentially criminalized black people, mostly men, and kept them enslaved to those farmers and corporations for years, and nobody said anything about it, though what was being practiced was peonage, which was illegal.
Thus, the roots of injustice toward black people are deep, watered and nurtured by, none else than the “justice system” itself. It became easier and easier to label black people as “criminals” as they were frequently arrested for the slightest “offense,” something that could be as minor as being stopped on the way to looking for a job because they had no money. The things black people were arrested and sentenced to a life of slavery to farms and corporations garnered no questions or outrage from an apathetic country that was being led to believe that these troublesome black people were in fact bad, and deserving of getting “justice” so that society would be safer. It was a manipulated image that took hold.
So it is not surprising that when Chavis and the others who comprised the Wilmington 10 were arrested that the prosecutor did whatever he had to do in order to get them convicted. The justice system supported injustice toward blacks. The Wilmington 10 reportedly had two trials; the first one ended in a mistrial when the prosecutor, Jay Stroud, said he was sick. In that trial, the jury was made up of 10 blacks and 2 whites. In the second trial, which resulted in the conviction of the defendants, the jury was made up of 10 whites and two blacks.
Chavis, who was once a member of the United Church of Christ, never stopped working for justice. From the beginning, he and the others knew that they had been wrongly accused and wrongly convicted; bigger than that, he knew that the injustice had been allowed to take place because of the racial tensions in North Carolina and in the United States.
“Although we were 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 our unjust convictions overturned, names cleared,” Chavis said in an article which appears on his website (http://www.drbenjaminchavis.com/pages/landing/?blockID=73315&feedID=3359). He said that the arrests and convictions were the result of “federal officials (who) 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.”
It is good that Gov. Perdue issued the pardon, but it begs the question of how many other unjustly accused and convicted people of color, most often African-American, are sitting in prisons today. Some whites may be surprised and shocked that such a travesty of justice occurred “back then,” but here is what is sobering: this type of injustice is still happening. Racism, resulting in bigoted attitudes toward and beliefs about black people, still accounts for many arrests today. Prisons are overflowing with young black men many of whom, in the final analysis, were arrested for minor drug possession charges. Their presence in our prisons is making someone wealthy. Prisons-for-profit are cropping up more and more. Institutionalized slavery still exists.
So, I am glad for the pardon of Chavis and the others. Because of the pardon, those of the group who remain alive will get some monetary remuneration, and that is a good thing. They will get some money for each year they were incarcerated. I am glad about that.
But I am sad, too, because, the more things change, the more they remain the same …
A candid observation …