From The Wilmington Journal, about Occupy Catholic Fr. Paul Mayer:
WHY THE WILMINGTON TEN WERE
CALLED ‘POLITICAL PRISONERS”
By Cash Michaels
Rev. Eugene Templeton (center) seen here in February, 1971 with Rev. Ben Chavis (to his immediate left) and his wife, Donna, was the white pastor who allowed black students to use his church, Gregory Congregational in Wilmington, to plan nonviolent protests. Templeton says amid violent attacks on the church, there were no weapons there, and the Wilmington Ten were falsely convicted. Inset (Father Paul Mayer)
They are two men of GOD, both white, both of whom became deeply involved with the African-American community in the civil rights movement of the sixties and seventies.
Their paths would intersect at the case of the Wilmington Ten, and history records their vital footprints in the forty-year struggle for justice for the ten innocent civil rights activists.
Until now, and until this very story, Father Paul Mayer, a veteran climate-peace-and Occupy Movement activist, has never before identified himself as the author of the historic 1976 report by Amnesty International (AI) that first declared the Wilmington Ten to be “political prisoners.”
Indeed, the authors of AI reports – the highly regarded, nongovernmental international human rights organization based in London that chronicles human rights abuses worldwide – are rarely identified for their own safety, making Fr. Mayer’s first and exclusive recollections about his investigation – which he writes about in his yet-to-be-published memoir, Wrestling with Angels – and how he met Rev. Eugene Templeton, the white former pastor of predominately-black Gregory Congregational Church in Wilmington – which was at the center of the Wilmington Ten controversy – all the more compelling.
Mayer, an East Orange, NJ resident, is a Catholic priest of 55 years who served as a Benedictine monk for 18 years. He has traveled the world, advocating for the poor in Latin America; standing against nuclear proliferation, and demanding equal rights for all global citizens.
As a young child, Mayer fled Nazi Germany with his parents as the Jews were being persecuted. As a result, the religious leader has a particular disdain for injustice.
While in the seminary, Mayer traveled to Selma, Alabama in 1965 to meet and march with civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his drive for voting rights.
“That was a life-changing experience,” Mayer, 81, who has been a part of many of the peace and social justice movements of the last half-century, including Occupy, says today.
Fr. Mayer says he did not attend any of the 1972 Wilmington Ten trial proceedings, instead following developments from New York. However, when the Rev. Benjamin Chavis, a young, veteran civil rights activist Mayer knew and had worked with in his association with the United Church of Christ (UCC), and the rest of the Wilmington Ten, had been falsely convicted of conspiracy in the 1971 firebombing of a white-owned grocery store, the activist priest knew he had to get involved.
“The outrageousness of this case really had an impact on me,” Fr. Mayer recalls. “I saw such a perversion of justice. This was a case of Southern racism.”
Chavis had been sent to Wilmington by the UCC in Feb. 1971 to assist black students there who had boycotted New Hanover County public schools because of racial discrimination. Racial violence ensued, though there is no evidence that Chavis had anything to do with it.
In fact, Rev. Chavis, an Oxford, NC native, was sent to ensure that the striking black students, who were headquartered at Gregory Congregational Church, only employed the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s philosophy of nonviolent confrontation with Wilmington’s white power structure over their grievances.
But it wasn’t long before Chavis and the students became targets at the church, with trucks of marauding members of a white supremacist group riding by nightly, shooting at the church and surrounding black community.
Fr. Mayer decided that he would investigate the Wilmington Ten case, and reached out to Amnesty International to allow him to write a report.
Normally AI would only assign investigators who lived outside of the country they were reporting on, but in Paul Mayer’s case, AI made an exception, he says.
“I think they respected my credentials and my history,” Fr. Mayer says.
Recalling the AI process for vetting human rights abuse investigations as “excruciatingly thorough and demanding.”
“They take nothing for granted,” Mayer, who dealt directly with AI’s London headquarters, said. “Being declared a “prisoner of conscience”(which, according to AI, refers to anyone imprisoned because of their race, religious or political views) is a big deal, a major step. And at that time, they were more [stringent] than they are today.”
AI issued a list of criteria Mayer had to follow during his probe, he recalls. Using his people skills, the Catholic priest began months of intense examination of the Wilmington Ten case.
Based on his investigation, Mayer determined that the crux of North Carolina’s case against Chavis and his nine co-defendants was that they were holed up in Pastor Templeton’s Gregory Congregational Church in Wilmington, carrying out “an armed struggle,” meaning, according to their charges, that they had weapons in that church, and were firing them at firefighters and police personnel who were responding to the firebombing of Mike’s Grocery on the night of February 6, 1971.
To this day, Dr. Chavis and the surviving members of the Wilmington Ten deny the charges. Several of the Ten, like Willie Earl Vereen, James McKoy and the late Connie Tindall, say that in fact, they were nowhere near Gregory Church or Mike’s Grocery at the time of the arson and sniper fire.
Mayer knew that finding Rev. Templeton, who had gone into hiding for fear of his life years after the convictions, was the key to determining the answer to the burning question, “Did Ben Chavis and the black students who were under attack at Gregory Church have guns there to fight back with?”
New Hanover County prosecutor Jay Stroud maintained they did, and had Chavis and company falsely convicted, and sentenced to a combined 282 years in prison, some of which they all served.
One of the reasons why Stroud was able to convict – beyond stacking the jury of ten whites and two blacks in the second trial with “KKK and Uncle Tom-types,” in addition to a pro-prosecution judge, Stroud’s own infamous notes showed forty years later – is because the defense’s prime witness, Pastor Eugene Templeton, was threatened by white supremacists and did not testify.
Templeton was the best witness because he was in the church the entire week of the conflict, especially the evening of Feb. 6th, 1971 when Mike’s Grocery was firebombed. He knew who was there and who wasn’t. He knew where Ben Chavis was the entire time and what he was doing.
The fact that the lives of Templeton and his wife, Donna, had been threatened to keep his testimony from being heard in court, was significant to Fr. Mayer.
He had to find Rev. Templeton, and have him reveal what he wasn’t allowed to tell a court of law when it counted the most.
After months of searching, Mayer tracked Rev. Templeton down to Morristown, NJ, serving as a hospital chaplain. And even after locating him, it would be weeks before Templeton would return Mayer’s phone calls, and finally agreed, under certain conditions (no tape recording being one) to share what would have been his testimony years earlier.
“I appealed to his conscience that this, perhaps, could save [the Wilmington Ten’s] lives,” Mayer said, indicating that all of the defendants were still in prison at the time.
“[Templeton] was terrified, and when I met him, close to a year [after contacting him], he was still a very frightened man. It took a lot of therapy on my part, and a lot of counseling, and as we Christians say, fellowship, [to] convince him that I was not a charlatan, and I was going to respect his confidentiality in whatever form he wanted me to.”
Fr. Mayer also told Templeton that his AI report designating the Wilmington ten as political prisoners could lead to an international campaign for their freedom, which is ultimately what happened.
Rev. Templeton began to talk, and, according to Father Mayer, his most salient point was that despite all of the violence happening outside of Gregory Congregational Church that first week in February 1971, there were no guns inside of his church, and no one was firing weapons from the church, as had been alleged by state prosecutors.
Not only was having guns there against all that Rev. Templeton believed in, but it would have also been against the rules set down by Gregory Church’s Deacon Board, which voted to allow the black students to use the church for their rallies and classes.
If anyone affiliated with the church knew of any weapons there, Chavis and the students would have been kicked out immediately!
However, the jury in the Wilmington Ten trial never heard any of that.
“[Rev. Templeton was very clear on this point,” Fr. Mayer recalls. “He had no doubt…these people had no guns.”
“That completely destroys the state’s case against [the Wilmington Ten].”
Mayer is convinced that Templeton’s testimony to him about there not being any weapons, the “centerpiece” of his 30-page handwritten report, convinced the officials at AI to publish Fr. Mayer’s findings in 1976, designating the Wilmington Ten as “political prisoners.”
The report, which sparked a worldwide campaign, embarrassed not only North Carolina, but also then-President Jimmy Carter.
It wasn’t long before fifty-five members of Congress urged the US Justice Dept. to investigate. The CBS television newsmagazine “60 Minutes” did an hour-long broadcast revealing that the evidence against the Wilmington Ten had been fabricated, and the three state’s witnesses had committed perjury.
The worldwide pressure for the convictions to be thrown out forced then NC Gov. James B. Hunt to get on statewide television and announce that he would not pardon the Wilmington Ten, but at least commute their sentences.
And in December 1980, after several appeals in North Carolina courts failed, the US Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va. – perhaps one of the most conservative federal appellate courts in the nation thanks to NC Sen. Jesse Helms – overturned all of the convictions of the Wilmington Ten, citing gross prosecutorial misconduct.
The Fourth Circuit effectively told North Carolina that if it had any real evidence against the Ten, then to please commence with a third trial. If not, then dismiss all charges.
But nothing happened. The Fourth Circuit’s decision was never appealed to the US Supreme Court; no third trial ever took place; and none of the charges were ever dismissed, even thirty-two years later.
Today, the man who started it all, Father Paul Mayer, says it’s time for North Carolina to finally deal with the reality of the Wilmington Ten case, and the injustice that has been forty years in the making.
He, like many others across North Carolina and the nation, want Gov. Beverly Perdue to take a hard, honest look at all that’s happened, and then do justice by granting pardons of innocence to the Wilmington Ten.
“I feel deeply about this,” Father Mayer said. “I give thanks to GOD that I was a humble instrument. Even though it was years ago, I still feel that it was a major racist miscarriage of justice, and these people were maligned, defamed, and I’m sure it hurt their lives in many ways.”
“We know that racism is alive and well in America, and [granting pardons of innocence] would be a significant step in rectifying one more racist miscarriage of justice,” Father Mayer said.
Dr. Benjamin Chavis, who hasn’t seen Paul Mayer in many years, had kind words for his friend.
“The Reverend Paul Mayer is a lifelong colleague in the civil rights movement,” Dr. Chavis said in a statement. “Rev. Mayer’s ministry continues to provide the fulfillment of what it means to be an effective and globally respected disciple of the God of equal justice and freedom for all people. Rev. Mayer is a research scholar and a transformative social visionary.”