By Cash Michaels
Special to the NNPA from The Wilmington Journal
WILMINGTON, N.C. – North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue says right up to the deadline when she was deciding whether to grant pardons of innocence to the Wilmington Ten, there were some officials who opposed her doing so.
“There were those that said that as late as Sunday afternoon before I made the ultimate decision on Monday,” Perdue, who stepped down from one-term in office Jan. 5, told The Wilmington Journal. “It was a hotly discussed decision. I sought the opinions and the advice of many, many people – the folks who were for pardons of innocence, many of the advocacy groups who were so powerful.
“I also spoke to many of North Carolina’s leading jurists, and talked to people of all persuasions, and interestingly enough, there will always be, as there are in many cases, those who think one should never rethink the outcome of a jury trial. And I actually believe that because of what we’ve seen happen in North Carolina this decade, not from the ‘70s. [But] in some cases, justice is not the fair barometer of the court system we would hope.”
Perdue, a Democrat, maintains that after studying the case of the falsely accused 10 civil rights activists, that granting them all individual pardons of innocence on Dec. 31 from their 1972 convictions, “Was the right thing to do.”
In her much heralded announcement, Perdue bluntly said the Wilmington Ten were the victims of the “naked racism” of a runaway prosecutor who manipulated the jury selection process by brazenly seeking “KKK and Uncle Tom-type jurors.”
She recounted, “I spent six or seven months, off and on, picking up the documents, and reading about the testimony, and the circumstances, if you will, of the time when the Wilmington Ten were prosecuted and convicted. That era of North Carolina was a hard one, one that was shameful in my mind. There was just rampant racism; there was a reluctance to embrace folks of all backgrounds and all ethnicities and all races.”
She added, “It wasn’t a North Carolina that looks anything at all like our North Carolina today. I believe the Wilmington Ten were victims of the times, and victims of a deep-seeded prejudice and racism that circumvented any kind of likelihood that their trial was fair.”
Fairness, she said, was uppermost in her mind.
“That, for me, was the ultimate testing ground for the righteousness of our justice system,” she stated. ”It’s what we all believe in. If you’re going to be prosecuted and convicted, it should be done in a fair and equitable way – where justice will literally mean justice.”
Her decision was even more noteworthy because the Wilmington Ten pardons were the only one she issued during her 4-year term.
The governor disclosed that the day before she left office, she received a personal visit from former Gov. Jim Hunt, the man who refused to pardon the Wilmington Ten in 1978, but did commute their sentences.
Members of the Wilmington Ten, and civil rights leadership across the nation, have praised Gov. Perdue for her courage, not only in the Wilmington Ten pardons, but also her advocacy for victims of forced sterilization, signing the 2009 North Carolina Racial Justice Act, vetoing the state legislature’s voter ID law, and pushing hard to improve education for poor children statewide.
Benjamin Chavis, the leader of the Wilmington Ten, lauded Gov. Perdue’s courage Saturday during a packed worship service at Gregory Congregational Church in Wilmington to bestow the official certificates of pardon, signed by Perdue, to members of the Ten, and the families of the four deceased members.
North Carolina NAACP President William Barber, who presided over proceedings, said that by pardoning Chavis and others, Gov. Perdue “gave the Wilmington Ten their names and dignity back.”