News Record [University of Cincinnati]
January 31, 1978
Where is American justice?
On Jan. 23, CBS showed “The Defection,” story of a Lithuanian sailor who made an attempt to flee from Russia. Obviously, the escape of a worker from one of the most oppressive societies in the world is something to be applauded.
However, “The Defection” only portrayed half the truth. While it posed the horrors of the Russian system (inaccurately described as communist or socialist) it pushed the lie “We-ln-America-Are Free.”
One example of how “free” we in America are is the announcement, also released on Jan. 23, that nine of the Wilmington 10 would remain imprisoned and their convictions u[held.
The case of the Wilmington 10 arose in 1971, when the KKK and other racist vigilante groups organized violence against school integration in Wilmington, N.C. The city’s black community fought back against the systematic terror carried on by the vigilante groups.
After black students were expelled from their high school, the Reverend Ben Chavis, a leader of the United Church of Christ Communities for Racial Justice, organized a demonstration of 2500 at city hall, demanding that the mayor call a curfew and put a stop to the racist terror.
The mayor, however, refused to act, and the result was increased attacks on the black community in which the vigilantes — by now organized into a group called “Rights of White People” (ROWP) — bombed several black homes and churches. It was only after a white was killed that government officials responded by calling in the National Guard, which acted primarily against the black community itself.
it was in the wake of this organized terror and repression on the part of racists, in and out of government, that Ben Chavis and nine others (eight ofthem in high school) were indicted and then convicted of “conspiracy and unlawful burning” of a grocery store. Chavis was sentenced to 34 years, the others from 29 to 34 years.
Six years later, in mid-1977, the prosecution’s case was blown apart when the three key prosecution witnesses testified that they gave false testimony because they had been coerced, threatened and bribed by the district attorney to lie about the Wilmington 10.
One of these witnesses, Jerome Mitchell, explained that he had been awaiting sentencing for armed robbery and second degree murder in an unrelated charge, when the district attorney approached him with an offer of a six month prison sentence if he agreed to falsely testify against the Wilmington 10.
Once Mitchell agreed to testify against the Wilmington 10, the district attorney put him up in a beach cottage rented from a leader of the local KKK, where Mitchell was coached by the district attorney, a Wilmington police detective and William Walden, an agent of the Federal Alcohol, Tax and Firearms Division of the IRS.
In addition, Mitchell testified later that he was given various comforts at the cottage, including marijuana, the freedom to play on the beach and to fish. Similar stories of deals and favors were uncovered by the other two prosecution witnesses, Allen Ray Hall and Eric Junius.
Additional evidence supporting the innocence of the Wilmington 10 has thoroughly discredited the prosecution’s case. Two witnesses for the defense have come forward, the Reverend Eugene and Donna Templeton, both of whom now state that they were with Chavis during the time he was allegedly firebombing the grocery, and that they had fled Wilmington due to racist threats on their lives.
The Wilmington 10 are so obviously the victims of a government frame-up aimed at destroying the black movement, that Amnesty International, an organization recently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, has declared them political prisoners.
What has Jimmy “Human Rights” Carter done? Nothing, despite all of the worldwide publicity and outrage at the continued imprisonment of 9 of the Wilmington 10.
Responding to immense public pressure over what is obviously a frame-up, Governor Hunt of North Carolina announced Jan. 23 that he would only reduce the sentences of the Wilmington 10, making them eligible for parole at an earlier date. Meanwhile, the Wilmington 10 will remain in prison on charges that virtually everyone knows to be untrue.
So this is the quality of “freedom” and “justice” in America, at least if you are poor, black and especially, political. And, of course, the Wilmington 10 are not an exception. Hundreds, if not thousands, of minority and working class people are in prison on similar charges, and they don’t stand a chance in a legal system rigged and run by and for a racist ruling class.
On the other hand, the system must be given some credit. Not everyone has been railroaded into prison for things they didn’t do, in fact some people have done plenty and have never gone to prison. lf you happen to be CIA boss Richard Helms, mass murderers of Vietnamese, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and other upstanding citizens of capitalist America, then it’s another story.
Letwin is a member of the International Socialist Organization.