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Sat, 02.06.1971

The Wilmington Ten, a story

*On this date in 1971, the Wilmington Ten are remembered.  They were nine young men and a woman, who were wrongfully convicted in Wilmington, North Carolina of arson and conspiracy.  

On February 6, 1971, Mike's Grocery, a white-owned business, was firebombed. Firefighters responding to the fire said they were shot at by snipers from the roof of the nearby Gregory Congregational Church. Ben Chavis and several students had been meeting at the church, which also held other gatherings. The neighborhood erupted in rioting that lasted through the next day, in which two people died.  

The North Carolina governor called up the National Guard, whose forces entered the church on February 8 and removed the suspects. The Guard claimed to have found ammunition in the building. The violence resulted in two deaths, six injuries, and more than $500,000 in property damage.  Ben Chavis and nine others, eight young Black men who were high school students, and an older, white, woman anti-poverty worker, were arrested on charges of arson related to the grocery fire. Based on the testimony of two Black men, they were tried and convicted in state court of arson and conspiracy and were sentenced to a total of 282 years in prison. Most were sentenced to 29 years in prison, and all ten served nearly a decade in jail before an appeal won their release. The case became an international cause célèbre, in which many critics of the city and state characterized the activists as political prisoners.  

The "Ten" and their sentences:  Benjamin Chavis (age 24) - 34 years, Connie Tindall (age 21) - 31 years, Marvin "Chili" Patrick (age 19) - 29 years, Wayne Moore (age 19) - 29 years, Reginald Epps (age 18) - 28 years, Jerry Jacobs (age 19) - 29 years, James "Bun" McKoy (age 19) - 29 years, Willie Earl Vereen (age 18) - 29 years, William "Joe" Wright, Jr. (age 19) - 29 years, Ann Shepard (age 35) - 15 years Amnesty International took up the case in 1976 and provided legal defense counsel to appeal the convictions. In 1978, Governor Jim Hunt reduced the sentences of the ten defendants.

In 1980 in Chavis v. State of North Carolina, 637 F.2d 213 (4th Cir., 1980), the convictions were overturned by the federal appeals court, on the grounds that the prosecutor and the trial judge had both violated the defendants' constitutional rights. They were not retried. In 2012 the surviving members of the Ten were pardoned by Governor Beverly Perdue.  


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