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Editor's note: The Wilmington Ten were a group of civil rights activists who spent nearly a decade in jail after being convicted of arson and conspiracy in 1971. The case became an international cause celebre amidst widespread beliefs that the individuals in the case were only guilty of holding dissenting political beliefs. Amnesty International took up the case in 1976. The convictions were finally overturned in 1980 because the prosecutor and the trial judge both violated the defendants' constitutional rights.
WASHINGTON -- The flood of emotion and memory of his six-year incarceration was evident as Dr. Benjamin Chavis, Jr., sought to retain his composure at the podium of the National Newspaper Association (NNPA) “Power of the Black Press Luncheon” last week.
After hesitating to respond to a question from NNPA columnist and colleague George Curry, the master of ceremonies, about Chavis’ lowest point after being falsely convicted and imprisoned in 1972 as one of The Wilmington Ten, Chavis became overwrought. “I was warned not to go into the shower,” he said in a faltering voice barely above a whisper, “I couldn’t take a bath for eight months.”
Then only 24-years old, Davis explained he had been told he was marked for a prison hit; that his life was in daily peril and he shouldn’t leave his cell. Arson of a local grocery store was among the charges for which the group was convicted. But Chavis, who is not from Wil-mington, was specifically targeted as the outside agitator, as described in a brief documentary about the case shown during the luncheon.
Chavis and his co-defendants became an international cause célèbre after Amnesty International declared them, in 1978, political prison-ers, the first American prisoners so recognized by the organization.
Legal challenges and media notoriety exposed the prosecutorial misconduct and the collusion of state and federal officials in imprisoning the young activists, many of whom were in their teens, for daring to defy the local practices of school desegregation plans. Though The Wilmington Ten eventually were freed and their sentences commuted by North Carolina’s governor, they never received a formal “pardon of innocence.” NNPA is rallying its member newspapers to support that cause in the year ahead.
Mary Alice Thatch, publisher of The Wilmington Journal, provided a historical retrospective on The Wilmington Ten, explaining that her city in southern North Carolina had long been a bastion of white supremacy. She said Cape Fear River “ran red from the blood of our ancestors in 1898” as a result of a terror campaign that targeted the African-American community decades before Chavis arrived as an em-issary from the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice. “Ben, thank you for crossing that bridge [to Wilmington] in 1971,” Thatch said.
The NNPA has yet to announce its strategy around the pardon initiative, but to her peers, Thatch said she is “asking you help us repay The Wilmington Ten in what I call a very small way” for their efforts to bring social justice to the “birth place of Jim Crow in North Caro-lina.”
While welcoming the pardon campaign, Chavis emphasized the NNPA effort as an opportunity to educate and revitalize today’s youth to be vigilant about protecting the rights and gains so many have sacrificed to attain. Despite the election of an African American to the White House, Chavis said, “We ought to be more vocal now than ever before,” noting, for example, that the current budget discussions on Capitol Hill could result in the closure of several Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
Now in his early 60s, Chavis has had a long and sometimes controversial career, which included a stint as the executive director of the NAACP. Chavis was co-founder, with Russell Simmons, of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network. From an early age, Chavis recognized the power of the press. A North Carolinian native, Chavis said he interned for The Carolina Times when he was 14 years old. During his incarceration, he wrote not only about The Wilmington Ten, but about other political prisoners as well. Chavis said he is pleased that his editorials, like his recent one on the de-funding threat to HBCUs, could be carried once again by NNPA members.
NNPA Chair and The Los Angeles Sentinel publisher Danny Bakewell encouraged NNPA members to take up the banner and “request a pardon for those ten people,” some of whom are now deceased. He lauded several of NNPA’s corporate partners, which, through adver-tising in member newspapers, assist in publication. Bakewell also announced NNPA’s partnership with The Nielsen Company to produce a report on the state of the African-American consumer.
As NNPA Chair, Bakewell has been consistent in his message that businesses exercise corporate responsibility in advertising purchases. “I don’t expect them to advertise in markets they’re not in,” Bakewell said, but noted that African Americans often represent a significant market share for companies who return little to those communities.
The message from Bakewell and other speakers was that advertising is only a means to the end of providing a voice for African Ameri-cans.
Chavis added, however, that African Americans themselves also bear responsibility for sustaining their own media. “I want the black community to step up,” he said. “We have to pay for our own freedom … We also have to reach into our pockets.”