Mary Alice Thatch: From ‘Janitor’ to NNPA Publisher of the Year

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“Mr. Manley’s paper was right across the street from where the Journal is housed now,” Thatch stated. “Both were bombed because of positions the papers took, which really shows the power of the Black Press.”

Recalling her conversations with her father, Thatch said, “He would say, nobody is going to do to me what they did to Manley. I am going to be vocal, I am going to represent my people, I am going to say what I want to say, but nobody is going to run me out of town. This man is going to be prosecuted for what he did.”

And he was. In 1974, Lawrence R. Little, who identified himself as propaganda minister of the militant Rights of White People organization, was found guilty of planting dynamite that exploded at the Journal’s office. After four days of testimony, an all-White jury found him guilty and a White judge sentenced him to life imprisonment.

An FBI agent testified at the trial that Little had told him, “I have heard about the good Black people. They are all niggers, and all niggers are animals, and animals are beasts, and beasts don’t have souls. If you kill a nigger, you haven’t committed murder.”

Despite hate mail from White supremacists over the years, Jervay, who served as chairman of the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) in the 1950s, never tempered his demand for justice and equality. Neither has his daughter, Mary Alice.

At an event in 2011, commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Wilmington Ten’s false convictions, Louis Hines, a local International Longshoreman Association official, issued a challenge.

“He said, ‘There are two things we have got to do in Wilmington,’” recalled Mary Alice Thatch, who was in the audience. “’And those two things are to seek compensation for these 10 folks, and we’ve got to always make sure that the doors of the Wilmington Journal are open.’”

The next day, in a meeting in her office, Thatch told several members of the Wilmington Ten: “I don’t know how we’re going to do it, but we’re going to do it. I’m going to take this to somebody much bigger than I. I cannot do this by myself in Wilmington, but I promise you that I will get somebody that can help us.”

And she did.

“The next day or the day after, I was talking to Dorothy [Leavell],” Thatch recalled. “I was serving on the NNPA Foundation Board at the time. I was secretary, and she was chairperson of the foundation. I was talking about what had been said, and she said, ‘That’s an NNPA project.’ I said, ‘If you say so.’ She talked to Danny [Bakewell, then president of the NNPA] and the rest is history.”

Not yet.

The Wilmington Ten Pardons of Innocence Project was officially launched in Washington, D.C. at the 2011 Black Press Week luncheon at the National Press Club.

When Ben Chavis, the leader of the Wilmington Ten, was asked to describe his lowest point in prison, after some hesitation, he said, “I was warned not to go into the shower. I couldn’t take a bath for eight months.”

With North Carolina-based Cash Michaels serving as the lead writer on dozens of stories that were sent out to NNPA newspapers through its news service – riveting disclosures that revealed that the prosecutor’s hand-written notes showed that he selected “Uncle Tom types” and KKK sympathizers for the jury – a national movement grew to include a national petition drive by MoveOn.org and the NAACP national office.

The two-year campaign resulted in outgoing North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue issuing pardons of innocence on Dec. 31, 2012 to the Wilmington Ten. Although a federal appeals court had overturned their convictions in 1980 because the prosecutor had, among other things, failed to turn over evidence that was favorable to the defense, the Wilmington Ten were released from jail, but they were not fully exonerated. Not until the governor pardoned them.

“The box of papers was the real key to getting the pardons,” Thatch said. “What was contained in [prosecutor James] ‘Jay’ Stroud’s papers was what convinced Gov. Perdue that this was truly, as she put it, ‘naked racism.’ When the announcement was made, I hollered all over the house,” she said. “This was the biggest accomplishment that we have ever made in North Carolina.”

Thatch said it was a combination of Wilmington Ten leader Ben Chavis’ optimism, the commitment of two original attorneys – James E. Ferguson, II and Irving, who never abandoned the case – the diligence of Cash Michaels and Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, NNPA publishers who carried the stories, and others that made the pardons a reality.
In large part, because of the Wilmington Ten campaign that she led, Thatch was elected NNPA 2012 Publisher of the Year.

“I was surprised,” she said, “It it required a great deal of hard work and tenacity, and I feel very honored and appreciative to NNPA for the recognition.”

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