FAYETTEVILLE On Dec. 31, outgoing Gov. Bev Perdue granted pardons to the “Wilmington Ten,” four of whom are deceased. Based on my witness of the Wilmington events, I believe that had relevant evidence been heard at trial, it is unlikely the “Ten” would have been convicted of conspiracy to firebomb Mike’s Grocery and assaulting emergency personnel.
As a field representative for the Good Neighbor Council under Gov. James Hunt, later known as the Human Relations Council, I sought to recruit charismatic leaders like Benjamin Chavis to mediate racial unrest. Chavis was 20 when I initially worked with him on racial issues in Oxford.
On Thursday, Feb. 4, 1971, I asked Chavis to return to Wilmington to help restore calm following events arising from the racial integration of Wilmington schools. Rev. Leon White reminded me that Ben was our best chance of getting through that period without violence.
I vividly recall the events at Gregory Congregational Church the night of Feb. 6. I had been on the phone all evening with Ben. At times he spoke to me from the second-floor library of the manse. At other times he was in the church office. I know without a doubt that he never left or ventured out into the community that Saturday night, with or without a weapon. Ben was on the phone with me every hour on the hour. I documented the time and content of every call. In 1971 there were no cell phones. When you talked on the phone, you were stationary.
Fellow GNC field worker Preston Hill and I were subpoenaed to testify at the trial. I gathered my files and left for Burgaw. But before arriving we learned the defense had rested.
After the trial, I set out to compile a more complete report of the events to be ready if called to testify on appeal. But the Region 3 files at the central office in Raleigh were gone.
Stan Swofford, a reporter for the Greensboro Daily News, wrote a series of articles about what happened in Wilmington and the missing files. “Recent developments in the case, along with extensive interviews with state officials and persons familiar with the activities of the Wilmington Ten at the time, indicate that information which would have been vital to the defense of the Wilmington Ten has never been revealed,” he wrote.
HRC Director Ron Ingle, successor to my boss Fred Cooper, corroborated my story of the missing files in an interview with Swofford. Three days later, Secretary of the Department of Administration Bruce Lentz fired Ingle. Then Lentz requested the State Bureau of Investigation look into the matter.
Preston Hill denied the files existed. Fred Cooper initially claimed to have no recollection of the files either. I was called a liar and just about everything else nasty. No one at the HRC backed me up.
Then law enforcement tried to intimidate me or provoke a reaction that would lead to my arrest. Persons in unmarked cars sat in front of my house. Squad cars followed me.
I got the message. The GNC wanted to take a low profile toward the Wilmington Ten litigation. Our funds came from the General Assembly, and someone had the idea that if the HRC cooperated with the defense, we could lose our funding.
The N.C. Department of Justice compiled a 300-page report concluding there were no missing reports because they never existed. But eventually, Cooper admitted that there was a report of missing GNC documents. A former HRC secretary also remembered that records were missing and that Hill and I took them to testify.
The fate of the files may never be known. But I was proud to join a reunion of the Wilmington Ten survivors at Gregory Congregational Church on Jan. 5, 2013.
Ben saw me, hugged me, and we cried. He was never bitter about his conviction. I felt responsible all these years, having been the one who asked him to return toWilmington.
I knew the racism that existed in that area. I was raised in Pender County and witnessed a lynching. But this time the lynching was in the court. Only through this declaration of innocence by Perdue were the Ten finally given complete vindication.
Johnson, 79, recounts the Wilmington events in his recent memoir “Man from Macedonia,” www.manfrommacedonia.org. Johnson was a pastor in Fayetteville and North Carolina’s first African-American Secretary of Corrections.
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