north carolina governor pardons wilmington ten before leaving office next month

by Tim Phillips

Today North Carolina Governor Beverly Perdue pardoned the Wilmington 10, civil rights activists who were falsely imprisoned in connection with a racial disturbance in early February 1971. According to a December 22 New York Times editorial,

Wilmington was experiencing a bitter civil rights struggle in 1971 when a white-owned grocery store in a black neighborhood was firebombed. The police officers and firefighters who arrived to extinguish the flames came under gunfire. Nine black men and one white woman were railroaded to jail in connection with the event.

The prosecutors either knew or should have known that their chief witness’s testimony was fabricated. They also concealed exculpatory evidence and offered special treatment to witnesses, such as gifts or leniency regarding unrelated charges. Newly discovered notes attributed to one of the prosecutors also suggest that he sought racist jurors and used unethical tactics to disqualify black jurors.

In 1978, then-Governor Jim Hunt reduced the sentences. A federal court overturned the convictions two years later. Yet the activists’ notoriety from the case still made it difficult for some of them to obtain or keep decent jobs, and sometimes led to their being shunned. As a result of Perdue’s decision to pardon them, each of the six members of the Wilmington 10 who are still alive qualify for state compensation of $50,000 for every year they were incarcerated.