By Cash Michaels
Special to the NNPA from the Wilmington Journal
WILMINGTON, N.C. – Father Paul Mayer, a one-time Benedictine monk, is a White Catholic priest of 55 years. He has traveled the world, advocating for the poor in Latin America, protesting 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. So the religious leader has a particular disdain for injustice.
While in the seminary, Fr. Mayer traveled to Selma, Ala. in 1965 to march with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his drive for voting rights.
“That was a life-changing experience,” the activist minister, who has been part of many of the peace and social justice movements of the last half-century, says today.
“The Reverend Paul Mayer is a lifelong colleague in the civil rights movement,” Benjamin Chavis, leader of the Wilmington Ten, says. “Rev. Mayer is a research scholar, and a transformative social visionary.”
Until now, Father Mayer, an Occupy Movement activist at age 81, has never identified himself as the author of the historic 1977 report by Amnesty International (AI) that first declared the Wilmington Ten as “political prisoners.”
Indeed, the authors of reports – the powerful international 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 Wilmington Ten investigation – which he writes about in his yet-to-be-published memoir, Wrestling with Angels – all the more compelling.
Mayer writes of how he searched for Rev. Eugene Templeton, the White former pastor of predominately-Black Gregory Congregational Church in Wilmington, which was at the center of the controversy.
Mayer closely followed the 1972 Wilmington Ten trial proceedings. When Ben Chavis, a young, veteran civil rights activist Mayer knew and had worked with previously, 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,” Mayer recalls. “I saw such a perversion of justice. This was a case of Southern racism.”
In Feb. 1971, Chavis had been sent to Wilmington by the United Church of Christ to assist Black students 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.
Chavis, an Oxford, N.C. native, was sent to ensure that striking Black students, who were headquartered at Gregory Congregational Church, only employed the late Dr. King’s philosophy of nonviolent confrontation with Wilmington’s White power structure. But it wasn’t long before Chavis and the students became targets at the church, with trucks of marauding White supremacists riding by nightly, shooting at the church and surrounding Black community.
Fr. Mayer decided that he would investigate the case, and reached out to Amnesty International for the assignment.
Normally group would only assign investigators who lived outside of the country they were reporting on, but in Paul Mayer’s case, officials made an exception.
“I think they respected my credentials and my history,” Mayer says, recalling the process for vetting human rights abuse investigations as “excruciatingly thorough and demanding.”
He explained, “They take nothing for granted. Being declared a ‘prisoner of conscience’(which, according to Amnesty International, 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.”
Following the organization’s list of criteria, the activist priest began months of intense investigation of the Wilmington Ten case.
Mayer determined that the crux of North Carolina’s charges against Chavis and his nine co-defendants was that they were holed up in Gregory Church, carrying out “an armed struggle,” meaning, that the Black activists had weapons in the church, and were firing them at firefighters and police personnel who were responding to the firebombing of the White-owned grocery store.
At the time, and to this day, Chavis and the surviving members of the Wilmington Ten deny those charges, with at least three members saying they were nowhere near Gregory Church or Mike’s Grocery.
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, with each serving some of their sentence.
One of the reasons why Stroud was able to convict – beyond stacking the jury with 10 Whites and two Blacks in the second trial with “KKK and Uncle Tom-types,” Stroud’s own infamous notes showed 40 years later – is because the defense’s prime witness, Pastor Templeton, did not testify.
Templeton was the best witness because he was in the church the entire week of the conflict, especially the evening when Mike’s Grocery was firebombed. He knew that , in fact, with the exception of Ben Chavis, none of the Wilmington Ten were in the church.
Rev. Templeton told The Wilmington Journal last month that Chavis was with him when the grocery store was bombed, preparing in case authorities stormed the church with tear gas. Only a handful of older students were with them, providing protection.
The fact that the lives of Templeton and his wife, Donna, had been threatened by the Klan to keep his testimony from being heard in court, was significant to Mayer.
Mayer finally tracked Rev. Templeton down to Morristown, N.J. in the mid-1970s, serving as a hospital chaplain. It was weeks before Templeton returned Mayer’s phone calls, and finally agreed, under certain conditions (no tape recording) 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.”
Mayer also told Templeton that his Amnesty International report could lead to an international campaign for the Wilmington Ten’s freedom, which it ultimately did.
Rev. Templeton began to talk, and he made it clear that despite all of the violence happening outside of Gregory Congregational Church in Feb. 1971, there were no guns inside of his church, and no one was firing weapons from the church, as had been alleged by prosecutor Stroud.
Not only was violence against all that Templeton, who had also met Dr. King, believed in, but it would have violated the trust of Gregory Church’s Trustee Board, which had voted to allow the Black students to use the church for their rallies and classes.
If any church member knew of any weapons there, Chavis and the students would have been kicked out immediately.
The jury in the Wilmington Ten trial, however, never heard any of this.
“[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 says that Templeton’s testimony to him – the “centerpiece” of his 30-page handwritten report – convinced officials at Amnesty International to publish his findings in 1977, 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 55 members of Congress urged the U.S. Justice Dept. to investigate. The CBS newsmagazine “60 Minutes” did an hour-long broadcast revealing that the three state’s witnesses had committed perjury.
The worldwide pressure for pardons forced then N.C. Gov. James B. Hunt to announce on statewide television 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 conservative U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned all of the Wilmington Ten convictions, citing gross prosecutorial misconduct.
North Carolina was directed that if it had any real evidence against the Ten, then commence with a third trial. If not, then dismiss all charges.
But nothing happened. The Fourth Circuit’s decision was never appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court; no third trial ever took place; and none of the charges were ever dismissed, even 32 years later.
Today, the man who started it all, Father Paul Mayer, says it’s time for North Carolina to finally deal with an injustice 40 years in the making. He, like many others across North Carolina and the nation, wants Gov. Beverly Perdue to do justice by granting pardons of innocence to the Wilmington Ten.
“I feel deeply about this,” says Mayer . “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,” Mayer adds, “and [granting pardons of innocence] would be a significant step in rectifying [injustice].”
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