The case of “The Charlotte Three” echoed around the country and even the world in the 1970s, reflecting ongoing racial and political tensions in Charlotte and North Carolina.
The case spanned a decade. It would follow a twisted path of dubious informants and secret payments to a Mecklenburg County courtroom and eventually state prison.
It ended in 1979 when Gov. Jim Hunt commuted the sentences of the men known as the Charlotte Three. Here’s how the case unfolded:
Jim Grant had earned a Ph.D. in chemistry from Penn State University when he came to Charlotte as a VISTA volunteer in 1968.
It wouldn’t be long before his political activities against the Vietnam War and for social justice causes across the state put him squarely in the sights of law enforcement.
His anti-war activities attracted the interest of the FBI. The State Bureau of Investigation would watch him after his involvement in a 1970 sanitation workers strike, according to Chris Schutz, a historian at Tennessee Wesleyan University.
T.J. Reddy had come from New York to attend Johnson C. Smith University and transferred to UNC Charlotte, where he helped found the Black Student Union and the African and Afro-American Studies Department. He was an accomplished artist and poet.
Charles Parker worked with Reddy at UNCC. An honor student, he got to know Grant through anti-war protests.
In 1967, racial tensions were boiling across the country. Bloody riots tore apart cities such as Newark and Detroit.
That September, Reddy and some friends went to ride horses at the Lazy B Stables. But they were turned away, they claimed because of their race. They returned the next day and were allowed to ride for a few minutes.
A year later, in the fall of 1968, the stables went up in flames. Fourteen horses died. A barn was destroyed.
Four years later, Reddy, Grant and Parker would be charged for the fire.
The years leading up to their arrests had seen an explosion of racial violence, from the Attica prison riots to the police killing of Black Panthers in Chicago.
The FBI and other agencies, including the U.S. Justice Department under Assistant Attorney General Robert Mardian, stepped up surveillance of black nationalists and other dissidents.
“People thought the country was under siege by leftists and radicals,” says Schutz, who wrote his dissertation on the Charlotte Three. “That sort of hysteria fed into all the machinations of the case.”
In 1970, police in Oxford, a racially torn town in Granville County, arrested a pair of African-Americans named Alfred Hood and David Washington for possession of guns and dynamite. The two, with criminal histories, jumped bond and headed to Canada.
By 1971, they were back in custody. They claimed that Grant and Ben Chavis, another prominent activist, had aided their flight. According to Schutz, a federal agent would call Grant and Chavis “two of the top militant leaders in the State of North Carolina.”
Hood and Washington weren’t finished pointing fingers.
On their testimony, officials in January 1972 arrested Grant, Reddy and Parker for the burning of the Lazy B.
At the same time, Grant and Chavis were facing trial for aiding Hood and Washington in their 1970 flight. A state court convicted Grant and acquitted Chavis in April 1972.
The same day, a grand jury indicted Chavis and nine others for the 1971 firebombing of a Wilmington grocery. They became known as the Wilmington 10.
The trial of the Charlotte Three began in July. Protesters ringed the Mecklenburg courtroom. Inside, Hood and Washington were the prosecution’s main witnesses. Five days later a jury convicted all three after two hours of deliberation.
Superior Court Judge Frank Snepp gave Grant a 25-year sentence. He gave Reddy 20 years and Parker, 10. Snepp, a no-nonsense judge and former Marine, called Grant “the most culpable.”
“You are the organizer and the leader,” he announced. “That was your brainchild.”
By 1974, Hood had been arrested at least two more times, including once on a murder charge. That March, the Observer published the first of a series of stories on the Lazy B case. Among other things, it revealed the federal government had made secret payments to Hood and Washington of at least $18,000, including three months at Atlantic Beach. None of that was disclosed at trial.
“That may all be justified, but the rule is you have to tell the defense attorney and the judge,” said Mark Ethridge, a former Observer managing editor who co-wrote the series.
The payments, incidentally, came at the direction of Mardian, the assistant attorney general who three weeks before the series ran was indicted with other aides of President Richard Nixon on Watergate charges.
The convictions were upheld by North Carolina’s Court of Appeals and Supreme Court. But the three had their champions.
“The situation of the Wilmington 10 and of the Charlotte 3 is a matter of Federal collusion, and would not (be) possible without that collusion,” James Baldwin wrote in an open letter to President Jimmy Carter published in The New York Times.
Times columnist Tom Wicker called the case “one more of those vengeful miscarriages of justice by which comfortable society attempted to label urban unrest, racial disorders … and anti-war activity as the work of agitators and terrorists.”
In 1978, the Charlotte City Council passed a resolution asking the court to commute their sentences. The following year Gov. Jim Hunt did just that.