Exclusive: Dean Smith’s Pardon letter for Wilmington Ten revealed
By Cash Michaels
From The Carolinian Newspaper
This week, as the world mourns the passing of legendary UNC Tar Heel Head Basketball Coach Dean Smith, he is being remembered as a trailblazer not only for his championship winning hardwood strategy, but also for standing strong for social justice, and against racial discrimination.
“He pushed forward the Civil Rights movement, recruiting the first Black scholarship athlete to North Carolina and helping to integrate a restaurant and a neighborhood in Chapel Hill,” said President Barack Obama of Smith in tribute.
But while many know of how Coach Smith recruited Charlie Scott as the first African American to play Atlantic Coast Conference basketball in the ‘60’s, and how he supported former Chapel Hill Mayor Howard Lee when the Black man tried against all odds to purchase a home in an all-white Chapel Hill neighborhood, it has never been revealed, until now, that Dean Smith also tried to use his considerable influence with then Gov. James B. Hunt in 1977 to secure pardons for 10 wrongly convicted civil rights activists known as “the Wilmington Ten.”
In July 2013, while doing research for the documentary, Pardons of Innocence: The Wilmington Ten at the NC Archives, a Carolinian reporter discovered a previously unknown missive from Coach Smith to Gov. Hunt. Dated July 25, 1977 on “University of North Carolina” letterhead from Smith’s “Basketball Office,” a copy of the extraordinary letter was made for possible use in the film. However it was never used in the production, so the letter copy was held until this week, after Smith, at age 83, died at his home in Chapel Hill Saturday evening.
When Gov. Hunt first took office in 1977, the Wilmington Ten – nine young Black males and one white female led by the fiery Rev. Benjamin Chavis – had already been tried, convicted and sentenced to a combined 282 years in prison in 1972. Defense attorneys were unsuccessful appealing those convictions to state courts, and an appeal to the US Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals was pending.
Upon taking office, Hunt indicated that he wanted to re-view the historic case, and once all of the state appeals ran out, he would step in if needed.
It was during this time that letters from literally all over the country and the world began pouring in to Gov. Hunt’s office, both pro and con.
One of them was from Dean Smith.
Addressed to “The Honorable James B. Hunt, Jr. – Governor,” Coach Smith wrote:
“Lee Upperman, our former basketball manager and now one of the attorneys for the Wilmington 10, has allowed me to read the Petition for Pardon of these ten people,” Coach Smith wrote to Hunt. “Without knowing the full details, other than what I have carefully examined in the Petition for Pardon, I would still urge you as a citizen to truly pardon these ten who have already served what many would consider a just sentence for what they had been determined guilty.”
Smith continued, “Apparently there is no chance for a new trial and for them to serve the number of years given them in a rather strange way would seem to be excessive.”
Coach Smith concluded his letter to the governor with, “As a citizen who supported you for Governor in the November election, I would urge you to pardon the Wilmington 10 if you do have that right.”
“Most sincerely, Dean E. Smith.” The coach signed it simply “Dean.”
But the letter didn’t finish there.
In what apparently was Dean Smith’s handwriting, he adds a postscript:
“Bob Seymour has provided me with some additional material on these 10 people which would lead one to believe injustice was done.”
Smith then initialed the handwritten notation.