Four decades later, memories of the case are hazy, if it's remembered at all. The Wilmington Ten were convicted on charges of conspiracy and assault in connection with the Feb. 6, 1971, firebombing of a neighborhood grocery. A federal appeals court overturned their convictions. The defendants were never retried. The charges were never dismissed.
And one more fact that is beyond dispute: The Wilmington Ten were framed.
At a time of tremendous racial upheaval in the state, blacks in Wilmington determined to escape Jim Crow's grip were confronted by armed white supremacists patrolling their streets. The police in Wilmington were white. The courts were white. Nine of the Wilmington Ten were black. A single white civil rights activist was charged and convicted with the blacks.
All of the Ten were innocent.
There wasn't then, and there isn't now, credible evidence that any of them was connected with the attack on Mike's Grocery. The three so-called witnesses who testified against them have long since recanted. New evidence has surfaced—real evidence this time—that the three concocted their testimony in return for favors from the prosecution.
As one of the Wilmington Ten, Willie Earl Vereen, says: "We were conspired against. We weren't the conspirators."
Vereen was at the State Capitol on Friday to deliver petitions circulated by the NAACP and others and signed by more than 14,000 people. They ask Gov. Bev Perdue, before she leaves office Jan. 5, to issue official pardons of innocence to the six defendants still living and, posthumously, to the four who've died.
A natural question to ask is, Would it matter? Vereen was imprisoned for five years before he was released; he's been free ever since. What difference would a pardon make today?
As I mulled this subject, I heard the news that Republicans in Congress want to name the federal building on Fayetteville Street in Raleigh for the late Sen. Jesse Helms. Congresswoman Renee Ellmers, who represents part of Wake County, is behind the move. So is Sen. Richard Burr.
Helms, a rabid segregationist all his life, was elected to the Senate in 1972, the same year the Wilmington Ten were convicted. The same deep-seated racism that put the Ten behind bars put Helms in Congress. The thought that he should be venerated is repugnant.
To be blunt, only a state determined to forget its history or, worse, rewrite it with whitewash would consider honoring Helms. Yet the idea is gaining support—or tepid acceptance, anyway— including in such progressive bastions as The News & Observer's editorial page.
Pardons of innocence would provide a long-delayed measure of justice for Willie Vereen and the Wilmington Ten. More than that, they would help every North Carolinian recall the depth of corruption in our state when it convicted them and elected Helms—and cause us to reflect whether, unlike Helms, we've repented of our sins.
Before she can issue pardons in this case, Gov. Perdue must satisfy herself that the Wilmington Ten defendants did not commit or conspire to commit the arson or assault. A committee organized by a national association of African-American newspapers (including The Wilmington Journal) and aided by North Carolina Central University law professor Irv Joyner, Duke University historian Tim Tyson and journalist Cash Michaels has assembled a compelling case for their innocence.
Proving beyond a doubt that 10 people did not do something is extremely difficult. But it's clear from the records gathered by the defense that several of the Ten had sturdy alibis and that the only evidence against any of them was perjured.
The defense got a huge break when New Hanover District Attorney Ben David discovered a dusty box marked "Wilmington Ten" in storage two years ago and entrusted it to Tyson.
The box contained, among other smoking guns, the prosecutor's notes on jury selection, including his written distaste for black jurors and marked efforts to seat members of the Ku Klux Klan. Frustrated by the judge, prosecutor Jay Stroud ended up with a jury of 10 blacks and two whites, which caused him—after listing the pros and cons in writing—to force a mistrial by claiming he was too sick to proceed.
After a new, notably racist judge was sent in to preside, the eventual jury that convicted the Ten consisted of 10 whites and two blacks.
This all sounds like a bad movie, but think back to 1972 and the white resistance to integration. There was bloodshed in Alabama. There was bloodshed in Mississippi. And there was bloodshed in Wilmington, N.C.
And just as white leaders in other states jailed Martin Luther King, white officials in Wilmington jailed the Rev. Ben Chavis, a then 34-year-old disciple of the MLK creed of nonviolent resistance. Chavis, dispatched to Wilmington by the United Church of Christ to push for integrated schools, was the target of the Wilmington Ten prosecution. The eight blacks thrown in with him were high school kids—including Willie Vereen.
Vereen celebrated his 59th birthday last week. He looks much older. He plays the drums, and in 1971 his band had a gig an hour from Wilmington the night the grocery was torched. As he tells it, the only reason he ever went to the integration meetings was to meet girls—his older sister, Wanda, was the activist in the family, he says.
It was months after the arson when Vereen was fingered by a prosecution snitch and arrested. He never thought he'd be convicted, never doubted his attorneys' counsel that the Ten need not testify because there was no case against them.
Vereen says he's spent the rest of his life watching people's reactions when he explains what happened, and seeing that look of "That's what they all say" about his innocence. While his father never doubted him, he adds, his mother "was confused, and naïve about a lot of things."
"She had her own feelings about what happened, and I can't say they were good," Vereen told me. "That hurt."
For the Ten, their convictions remained on their records even after they were overturned, causing some to lose out on jobs and school. Worse, for Vereen, was losing his trust in people and his country.
Remembering, tears rolled from his eyes.
"It still hurts," I said to him.
"Deeply," he answered.
It should hurt us deeply, too. Perdue's pardons, if they're issued, can help us to heal—and remember.
This article appeared in print with the headline "They still count."