N.C. focus—a clash over bias in justice system

AFRO Archived History

by: Ruth Jenkins Special to the AFRO
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Martha Rivera Chavis, wife of the Dr. Ben Chavis died recently (see story at left). Ben Chavis is long time civil rights activist who was imprisoned for approximately 12 years, along with 9 other people, for a crime they did not commit. The story below is from right before Chavis was sent to prison. He, along with the other 9, eventually received pardons for their time in prison.

Ben Chavis of the Wilmington 10

May 3, 1975

WASHINGTON—The Rev. Ben Chavis took part in his first civil rights demonstration at the age of 14, spurred by resentment at seeing plantation workers being taken advantage of in the North Carolina tobacco farm area where he lived.

He has fought injustice and repression ever since, which brings him 14 years later to the point where he faces a 34-year prison term.

The Rev. Mr. Chavis, 28, an ordained minister is now living in Washington, D.C. as the field director of the local office of the United Church of Christ Commission on Racial Justice. He is also the vice-chairman of the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression.

He is the key figure in the “Wilmington 10” case, wherein 10 people face a total of 276 years in a North Carolina prison for their 1972 participation in organized protests against racism in schools.

Chavis compares their involvement to that of the student defenders in Boston today.

A mass rally on their behalf is scheduled to take place in Washington on May 31 under the sponsorship of the National Alliance of which Angela Davis is a co-chairman. Supporters are expected from across the country.

In promotion of the mass demonstration, a mobilization meeting in Washington is set for 8 p.m. on Thursday, May 1 at St. Stephens Church in NW.

In addition to the Rev. Mr. Davis, Charlene Mitchell, executive secretary of the National Alliance, will be featured.

In early 1971, the Rev. Mr. Chavis was in Wilmington, N.C. participating in the “vital struggle for liberty” which resulted in criminal conspiracy and arson (burning a grocery store) charges against him and nine other persons.

The case is now known nationally as the “Wilmington 10.”

The charges stemmed from their participation in church rallies in support of students seeking fair treatment by teachers in administrators in the newly desegregated schools.

Rebuffs from school officials resulted in boycotts, marches on the school administration building and a full-fledged movement of protest.

The atmosphere was filled with racial tension. A Martin Luther King Memorial Birthday demonstration had been disrupted by vigilantes.

Chavis, then North Carolina field organizer for the UCC Commission on Racial Justice, was invited to Wilmington to help in the school crisis issue.

Rallies were regularly held at the Gregory Congregational United Church of Christ, located in the black community but pastured by a white minister.

Supporters contend that police sat by and watched as Klansmen and other vigilantes repeatedly harassed the meetings, riding around the church armed with shotguns.

Bomb threats were received and city officials refused to impose a curfew or chase off the antagonizers.

Finally, students and their supporters placed barricades around the church in self-defense.

They describe the next four days as a “literal siege” with Klansmen firing shots indiscriminately.

On Saturday night, a fire broke out at a white-owned grocery store a block away from the church.

As a 17-year-old black student left the church that night, he was shot to death. No one has ever been charged with his murder.

Next morning, a white man was killed, two blocks away from the church, Chavis says.

This brought about an immediate curfew and calling out the National Guard.

The students and their supporters managed to evacuate the church, but the minister and his wife were forced to leave the city for good.

It was a year later that the Wilmington 10 were arrested. Significantly this occurred right after Chavis had attended the 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary, Ind.

In addition to the Rev. Mr. Chavis, the Wilmington 10 includes eight young black students, between 18 and 20 years of age and 34-year-old Ann Shepard, described by Chavis as “one of the few whites who offered us support.”

Upon conviction, the students were given 29-year prison terms; Mrs. Shepard 10 years and the Rev. Mr. Chavis 34 years. All served several months in prison before being freed on appeal and high bail.

Now, if the N.C. Supreme Court denies the appeal, their right to bail can be revoked and they may be re-imprisoned.

Chavis says that being a minister “has served to give me continued determination and faith to not give up. Because of our case, the eyes of a lot of people have been opened to the injustice.”

For many years he has been  an activist champion for the rights of people struggling against racial and economic repression.

The Rev. Mr. Chavis who was raised in a family of Episcopalians says:

“I take the ministry very seriously. I work with the traditional church relationship and also with people I find leaving the church. Lots of ministers say they were called to service by the Lord. But I called the Lord. I needed Him. And I think the church can help our people.”

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