by Brenda Kame’enui, First Congregational United Church of Christ, Eugene, Oregon
You’ll find the United Church of Christ (UCC) frequently on the right side of peace, justice, and equality events, from the defense of slaves on La Amistad to the ordination of gay and lesbian clergy. The UCC has a proud history of being a witness for peace with justice.
The New Year’s Eve declaration of pardon by outgoing North Carolina Governor Beverly Perdue of the Wilmington 10 was a long-overdue welcome to everyone related to civil rights in the South since the 1950’s. The sentences of the Ten, who were wrongfully convicted of a 1971 fire bombing of a grocery store, were commuted in 1978 by then-Governor Jim Hunt, but the governor did not issue a pardon for the Ten. In 1980, the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the convictions, but still no pardon.
While the United Church of Christ was long active in civil rights demonstrations and voter registration efforts, Benjamin Chavis was in North Carolina as a UCC justice worker in 1971. He was both a minister and civil rights community organizer for the UCC’s Commission for Racial Justice, working to ensure schools in the area were desegregated fairly. Chavis was one of the Ten, and when the Ten were convicted, the UCC was outraged and raised $1 million in bail to free them. This set in motion continued UCC racial justice efforts, from then-UCC president Avery Post to the General Synod. For four decades, the UCC and the Central Atlantic Conference continued the tireless efforts of seeking justice for the Wilmington 10.
In May of 2012, attorneys for the Wilmington 10 petitioned the state, asking for a full pardon to remove the false convictions. The Central Atlantic Conference and others are credited for their courageous persistence to gain pardon for nine black men and one white woman, the final step in removing criminality from their names. After seven more months, Gov. Perdue granted the pardon on December 31, 2012.
As we honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and enter into Black History month, it’s fitting to remember that cases like the Wilmington 10 continue to abound in the United States. Michelle Alexander, of the Kirwin Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at The Ohio State University and author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010), has written about mass incarceration of African Americans. Four of five drug arrests are for minor possession, which can bring a life sentence. Alexander said without a human rights movement to fight the caste system in the U.S., we risk losing all the accomplishments of Martin Luther King. As Dr. King said, “A threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”