The "Wilmington 10," nine Black men and one white woman convicted of firebombing a grocery store in 1972 in Wilmington, N.C., were formally pardoned, 40 years after they were convicted by a jury. The civil rights activists were pardoned Monday by the state's outgoing governor.
"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," said Gov. Beverly Purdue. "Justice demands that this stain finally be removed."
Though their sentences were reduced in 1978 and eventually overturned entirely, the convictions remained.
The NAACP today applauded Purdue's decision to pardon the Wilmington 10.
"This pardon brings closure to a case marred by racism and injustice," said NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous. "I applaud Gov. Beverly Purdue for her leadership in righting this disgraceful wrong and congratulate the NAACP North Carolina State Conference, NAACP members, and activists around the country for their work to raise awareness about this case."
The initial conviction was made in the coastal city despite the group's claims of innocence and their supporters' vehement argument that the defendants were victims of racially biased prosecutors.
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."
Rev. William J. Barber II, North Carolina NAACP State Conference President, also offered his support for the decision to pardon the group.
"Today the spirit of justice was awakened in the Capitol of North Carolina," Barber said. "These young people were non-violent protestors fighting for educational equality. They were framed, wrongfully convicted and incarcerated in connection to a fire bombing in Wilmington, NC over 40 years ago. These unjust convictions were due to racist manipulation of the court system and extraordinary and blatant racially motivated prosecutorial misconduct. A Federal Court overturned these convictions over 30 years ago but until today, NC had fallen short. In the last few days of her governorship, Governor Perdue has walked us into a season of epiphany."
The activists were sentenced to a combined 300 years in prison when they were convicted. In 1980 a federal court overturned their convictions but the charges remained on their records and their names were never cleared.
The NAACP organized a petition to Gov. Perdue asking that she pardon these innocent activists. The petition received more than 15,000 signatures.
Photo: Benjamin Chavis speaks at a news conference in 1978 the day after Gov. Jim Hunt reduced the sentences of the Wilmington 10. Courtesy of CNN.