[Editor’s Note: This op-ed was witten by one of the members of the Wilmington Ten who was pardoned on Dec. 31 by outgoing North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue, as a result of the work done by the NNPA’s Wilmington Ten Pardons of Innocence Project].
That’s what I felt deep within, where even the January cold that stalked the National Mall could not touch me as I stood there on Inauguration Day. For so long, frustration and disappointment had taken up residence in the hot, earthen-red marrow of my bones. I reflected on how Michelle Obama must have felt in her husband’s maiden run for the White House when she said, “for the first time in my adult life I am proud of my country.”
On that Mall with so many others there to witness Barack H. Obama, a Black man like me, sworn in for his second term as our nation’s president, I felt overwhelmed, and like I belonged there. It wasn’t just the day’s flowery prose and poetry, its soaring songs, festive parades and fluttering flags. It was, for me, the culmination of a realization that the country that I always loved more than it loved me had done right by me – and, along the way, the cause of justice.
In the last hours of 2012, outgoing North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue issued and signed a Pardon of Innocence for the Wilmington Ten. I was among nine Black men and one White woman who were unjustly charged and convicted for the 1971 firebombing of a grocery store in my hometown of Wilmington, N.C. during an especially racially tense time following the closing of the city’s only Black high school. At the time, I was a teenage activist who only wanted, like all 10 of us, to see Black students treated with some degree of respect and consideration.
For our efforts, the Wilmington Ten were sentenced to a total of more than 280 years in prison. Our case generated widespread condemnation and support, especially following the recantation of the prosecution’s three star witnesses. Sixty U.S. Congressmen filed friend-of-the-court briefs with the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals demanding that it overturn our conviction. The Justice Department found widespread misconduct on the part of prosecutors. President Jimmy Carter even spoke up after Amnesty International declared us political prisoners in 1977.
In 1980, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals finally overturned our convictions; we were all released from prison, released but not exonerated. I was free of the degradation of prison life, of physical bondage, but I hardly felt free because every day we spent in North Carolina, we carried the gorilla of injustice on our backs That heavy weight dogged us for years, following four of the 10 to all-too-early graves, and prompting me to try to start a new life in Ann Arbor, Mich., where I, now 60, live and work as an electrician.
But I wasn’t thinking about the Great Wrong done to us as I stood at the inauguration, which happened to fall on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and the 150th anniversary year of the Emancipation Proclamation. I was thinking, as I do now during Black History Month, of all the triumphant warriors that came before me. I thought of the strength and courage of Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Nat Turner, Toussaint L’ouverture, Malcolm X and Dr. King. And Barack Obama.
Being in Washington on that day was an indescribable experience, heavy with the weight of the struggles all Black, Brown, Yellow and Red people have had to wage since we all first set foot on American shores. I give such heartfelt thanks that I could be free, vindicated and live to see a Black man stand on the Capitol steps built by slave labor and take the oath of the land’s highest office in the same vein as a George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.
I am overjoyed to have received the pardon after 40 years of immense pain trying to live without it. However, my greatest joy is found not so much in the fact that I have been exonerated from any culpability in the case, but in the truth that I was able to summon strength through struggle, from all those triumphant warriors who live within me.
My greatest wish is that these kinds of injustices continue to be exposed, so that what happened to the Wilmington Ten won’t continue to destroy the hopeful dreams of young Black folks, any folks for that matter. A pardon can’t give back my life. It does, though, officially bestow upon me the title of Triumphant Warrior.
Earlier that day in D.C., I found myself staring up at the great granite likeness of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., memorialized on the Mall, as he should be. I couldn’t help but think that this tribute was to the same Dr. King who just a little more than 40 years ago was the subject of jeers and vilification and hatred. This great monument stood before me in all its majesty, honoring the same man for whom I had heard blaring horns of cars filled with Whites cheering his assassination as I strolled through the streets of Wilmington on that awful day in 1968.
But staring up at the stone Dreamer on his January holiday, I wondered if there wasn’t a lesson in his turnabout for me, for the remaining six members of the Wilmington Ten. Will history be as kind to us? Could those who water-boarded Lady Justice, and the many who chose to look the other way, to lock us away, ever understand that we were guilty of nothing more than acting like Americans?
I certainly hope so, because if they do, they too will likely find their love and faith in this nation reaffirmed.
It feels so good.