Somebody firebombed Mike’s Grocery, a white-owned store in a black Wilmington neighborhood, during three days of racial violence in February 1971. When firefighters and police came to put out the blaze, somebody fired shots at them.
Weeks later, 17-year-old Allen R. Hall was arrested on assault charges stemming from those violent days. The police told him they knew who had burned the store.
“They said they didn’t want me or anyone else, but that they wanted Ben Chavis,” Hall testified in 1977. At least, that’s one version given by Hall.
The troubled teen had sung a different tune in 1972 to help prosecutors win lengthy prison terms for the Rev. Benjamin L. Chavis Jr., a young black civil-rights activist from Oxford; eight black Wilmington high school students; and a white anti-poverty worker – a group who became known around the world as the Wilmington Ten.
Hall’s 1977 recantation helped persuade a federal appeals court in 1980 to overturn the convictions. The court ruled that prosecutors had suppressed evidence that undermined the credibility of Hall and two other youths who also disavowed their testimony against the Ten. So the defendants did not receive a fair trial, the court ruled.
Prosecutors never retried the case. But they did not accuse anyone else of burning Mike’s, and they did not drop the Wilmington Ten charges. This week, Chavis and his six surviving co-defendants came to Raleigh to petition Gov. Bev Perdue for a pardon of innocence, to clear the slate.
“We feel that 40 years late is past due time for a governor of North Carolina to at least consider this,” Chavis, 64, now president of Education Online Services Corp. in Sunrise, Fla., said Friday.
“But this is more about North Carolina’s future than about its past. I think Gov. Perdue’s decision will help shape how North Carolina is viewed in the future.”
In 1971, Wilmington and the New Hanover County schools were among the last in North Carolina to submit to the racial desegregation that had been ordered 17 years earlier by the U.S. Supreme Court. These were troubled times in the wake of landmark civil rights legislation in the 1960s and the 1968 assassination of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
There was division between whites who embraced the 1960s changes and those who resisted any further gains for blacks, says historian Timothy B. Tyson. And there was a similar divide between older blacks and a younger generation – including disaffected veterans of the Vietnam War – who were disillusioned with King’s nonviolent approach.
“Desegregation in Wilmington was being done in a very white-dominated way that made the black community mad,” Tyson said. They laid off black teachers, black principals and black coaches, and closed a high school that had been a source of community pride for decades.
Members of the Ku Klux Klan and a more radical supremacist group called Rights of White People came to Wilmington to intimidate the moderate white school superintendent – cutting his phone line and hanging him in effigy, in his front yard – and to send armed patrols through black neighborhoods.
Tensions rose in January 1971 when black students began a school boycott. The tactic worked in several North Carolina communities in the 1960s and 1970s because state funding was tied to attendance numbers. When the money stopped coming from Raleigh, white school officials had a new incentive to negotiate with black parents.
Chavis, a former King acolyte who worked for the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice, was dispatched to Wilmington.
“Ben had come to town and was trying to make the school integration happen in a way that was more acceptable to black students and teachers, but that was rough sledding,” said Tyson, who teaches at Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill. Tyson wrote about Chavis in “Blood Done Sign My Name,” his 2004 book about the 1970 murder of Chavis’ first cousin in Oxford, where both men grew up.
“It was a very polarized situation before I arrived in Wilmington,” Chavis said. “I didn’t cause the polarization. What I was somewhat successful in doing was trying to get some of the students out of harm’s way. The Klan and Rights of White People were very active at that time.”
Communication lines were weak in Wilmington, Tyson said.
“There was tension, with disorganized street violence in a seething atmosphere with blacks and whites fighting in the streets, Rights of White People patrolling with weapons and shooting people sometimes, and a lot of rock-throwing and arson,” Tyson said.
“It wasn’t the (civil rights) movement that was burning down buildings, it was angry people whom the movement did not control,” said Tyson. “But white officialdom had a hard time distinguishing. White officials tried to negotiate with middle-class blacks because they felt more comfortable with them, but the middle-class blacks were not doing this, and they didn’t know who was.”
So who burned Mike’s Grocery and shot at firefighters?
Hall testified at length in 1972 – in copious detail cited with skepticism later in the 1980 appeals court order – that Chavis gave the Wilmington students instructions and orders for firebombing the store. But by the time Chavis and his co-defendants were out of prison, Hall changed his story more times than anyone could count, sometimes three times in the same day.
New York Times reporter Wayne King spent three months looking at the case in 1978. He turned up another young man in Wilmington who described – at length but with the Times’ protection of anonymity – participating in the bombing and shooting at Chavis’ behest. King speculated that the prosecutors may have “framed a guilty man.”
Chavis maintains that the Wilmington Ten are innocent.
“We were innocent when we were first arrested in 1971, we were innocent when we were being framed up by the prosecutor in 1972, and we were innocent when the judge said we received a fair trial in 1977,” Chavis said.
He said the Wilmington Ten legacy offers a constructive lesson for North Carolinians.
“Over the last 40 years, I’ve learned that American society is a better society when there’s more racial harmony,” Chavis said. “I think back in the late ’60s and the early ’70s there was a fear of diversity. Today you see that diversity doesn’t have to be something you fear. You can treat everybody fairly and equally and have a pluralistic society.”
Siceloff: 919-829-4527 or blogs.newsobserver.com/crosstown or twitter.com/Road_Worrier/