(NNPA)—When then-National Newspaper Publishers Association Chairman Danny Bakewell Sr. asked me to emcee the Black Press Week luncheon at the National Press Club in 2011, I had no idea that I would be witnessing history. At the urging of Wilmington Journal Publisher Mary Alice Thatch, the NNPA decided to launch a national campaign to win pardons for the Wilmington 10, a group of activists who were falsely convicted and sentenced to a combined total of 282 years.
Everyone knew it would be an uphill battle, but it was a battle the NNPA was willing to wage. It established The Wilmington Ten Pardon of Innocence Project whose goal was “to generate national and worldwide support for the petition, to the state of North Carolina, and specifically the governor, to grant individual pardons of innocence to the Wilmington Ten.”
NNPA publishers saw a video about the Wilmington Ten at the luncheon and its leader, Benjamin Chavis Jr., was interviewed by me and the publishers. When I asked Ben, a longtime friend, about his lowest point in prison, he tried to steer me away from the question by saying he preferred to focus on the future, not the past.
But the past affects the future, which is why I brought him back to my original question. This time, he gave a direct, emotional answer.
“I was warned not to go into the shower,” he said, his voice barely audible. “I couldn’t take a bath for eight months.”
And the reason Chavis was reluctant to take a bath was because of death threats.
No one should have to live like that, especially after the criminal justice system has been manipulated to obtain a false conviction.
For Chavis, the trouble began after the all-Black high school was closed as part of the court-ordered desegregation of New Hanover County, N.C. schools. The Black students were forced to attend the previously all-White high school, where they were harassed. In February 1971, the United Church of Christ dispatched Chavis, a native of Oxford, N.C., to help organize a school boycott.
During that period of unrest, someone firebombed Mike’s Grocery, a White-owned business located a block away from Gregory Congregational Church, where Chavis had set up headquarters. When fire fighters and police officers arrived, they were attacked by snipers.