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Wilmington Ten (Photo credit: NNPA)
Stacy M. Brown NNPA Newswire Senior National Correspondent
Published: 28 May 2024

A memorial service for Willie Earl Vereen, a member of the political prisoner group Wilmington Ten, is scheduled for noon on Tuesday, May 28, at the Temple of Truth Light and Life in North Carolina. Vereen died on Saturday, May 25, at the age of 69. A viewing will be held later at John H. Shaw’s Son Funeral Home at 520 Red Cross St. Family members have scheduled a Wednesday funeral.

Vereen, who had battled liver cancer and endured years of dialysis, died at 5:30 a.m. while in hospice care. His death marks the passing of another key figure in the fight for racial justice in the 1970s.

The Wilmington Ten were a group of civil rights activists wrongfully convicted in 1971 for the firebombing of Mike’s Grocery Store and shooting at firefighters. The group, comprising nine Black men and one white woman, included Wayne Moore, Ann Shepard, James McKoy, Marvin Patrick, Reginald Epps, Jerry Jacobs, Connie Tindall, William Wright, and National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) President and CEO Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr.

Wilmington was a flashpoint for conflict during a time of racial unrest, with violent clashes between black activists and organizations supporting white supremacy, like the Ku Klux Klan. Racially biased legal proceedings and prosecutorial misconduct were the leading causes of the Wilmington Ten’s false accusations and subsequent convictions.

The activists received harsh sentences, with their total prison terms amounting to 282 years. They spent almost a decade in prison before a federal appellate court overturned their convictions in 1980. The court cited prosecutorial misconduct, including suppressing evidence and coercing false testimonies.

Amnesty International declared the Wilmington Ten “prisoners of conscience” in 1976, bringing international attention to their case. The organization’s support, alongside public statements from American Ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young, who described the charges as “trumped up,” underscored the political nature of their imprisonment.

In 2012, North Carolina Governor Beverly Perdue issued pardons of innocence for the Wilmington Ten, recognizing the racial injustices that had tainted their convictions. “These convictions were tainted by naked racism and represent an ugly stain on North Carolina’s criminal justice system that cannot be allowed to stand any longer,” Perdue stated. “Justice demands that this stain finally be removed.”

The death of Vereen follows the recent passing of another Wilmington Ten member, James “Bun” Mckoy, in November. NNPA Chair and Westside Gazette Publisher Bobby Henry said he deeply respected Vereen’s legacy. “Brother Vereen has gone on to glory, making his mark alongside other young freedom fighters,” Henry stated. “Because of their tenacity, perseverance, courage, and steadfast belief in their innocence, the Wilmington Ten were ultimately pardoned by Gov. Beverly Perdue, a testament to the enduring fight for justice.”

Chavis., who will help eulogize Vereen, reflected on their shared journey. “Willie Earl Vereen, at the age of 17, was one of the youngest members of the Wilmington Ten,” Chavis remarked. “Yet he was a gifted and talented young freedom fighter for equal and quality education for Black public school students. He was an accomplished musician and drummer who dedicated his cultural genius to proclaiming freedom, justice, and equality for all. We were political prisoners together, and may the spirit of Willie Earl Vereen live on for future generations.”

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