Somebody firebombed Mike’s Grocery, a white-owned store in a black Wilmington neighborhood, during three days of racial violence in February 1971. When firefighters and police came to put out the blaze, somebody fired shots at them.
Weeks later, 17-year-old Allen R. Hall was arrested on assault charges stemming from those violent days. The police told him they knew who had burned the store.
“They said they didn’t want me or anyone else, but that they wanted Ben Chavis,” Hall testified in 1977.
At least, that’s one version given by Hall.
The troubled teen had sung a different tune in 1972 to help prosecutors win lengthy prison terms for the Rev. Benjamin L. Chavis Jr., a young black civil-rights activist from Oxford; eight black Wilmington high school students; and a white anti-poverty worker – a group who became known around the world as the Wilmington Ten.
Hall’s 1977 recantation helped persuade a federal appeals court in 1980 to overturn the convictions. The court ruled that prosecutors had suppressed evidence that undermined the credibility of Hall and two other youths who also disavowed their testimony against the Ten. So the defendants did not receive a fair trial, the court ruled.
Prosecutors never retried the case. But they did not accuse anyone else of burning Mike’s, and they did not drop the Wilmington Ten charges. This week, Chavis and his six surviving co-defendants came to Raleigh to petition Gov. Bev Perdue for a pardon of innocence, to clear the slate.
“We feel that 40 years late is past due time for a governor of North Carolina to at least consider this,” Chavis, 64, now president of Education Online Services Corp. in Sunrise, Fla., said Friday.
“But this is more about North Carolina’s future than about its past. I think Gov. Perdue’s decision will help shape how North Carolina is viewed in the future.”