Merlene Davis: Contemplating a proclamation and the issuance of a new stamp

Lexington Herald-LeaderJanuary 2, 2013 

I had heard the U.S. Postal Service was issuing a commemorative stamp honoring the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.

That's nice, I thought. But I wasn't really moved to purchase the stamps, though I have other stamps marking events and people in black history.

Then I watched on TV as hundreds of people waited for a rare glimpse of the original copy of the proclamation, which was on display at the National Archives in Washington for three days.

The proclamation was signed by President Abraham Lincoln on Jan. 1, 1863. It was meant to free all slaves in the South, but of course, the North and South were at war at that time and the South wasn't about to heed an edict from someone it considered an enemy.

Still, it must have seemed like the reawakening of hope to humans who were forced to live their lives as farm animals. What others were bestowed at birth, the slaves received from the tip of a pen.

All of the five handwritten pages weren't on display because of the poor quality of the paper. Visitors saw only pages two and five from the original, with high quality copies serving as the other pages in the display. Only a few pages are displayed at a time during infrequent showings each year.

Then I read a story about North Carolina's Gov. Beverly Perdue issuing pardons for the Wilmington 10, a group of nine black men and one white woman who were wrongfully convicted of firebombing a Wilmington, N.C., grocery story in 1971.

A mistrial was declared in the first trial, with 10 black jurors and two white ones. The prosecutor said he was sick. The second trial, featuring 10 white jurors and two black ones, ended in a conviction in 1972.

The Wilmington 10 received a total of nearly 300 years in prison.

The three key witnesses later recanted their testimonies. In 1978, then Gov. Jim Hunt commuted their sentences, and two years later the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the convictions.

In November, notes purportedly written by the prosecutor indicated he was looking for Ku Klux Klan members for the jury and striking as many black potential jurors he could.

The prosecutor, Jay Stroud, at first told one reporter the notes were his and then later denied it. But no governor before Perdue, a University of Kentucky graduate, had the courage to pardon the Wilmington 10.

The pardon comes too late for four of the 10. One of the surviving group is Benjamin Chavis, former national executive director of the NAACP, who served about five years in jail and prison on the charge.

"This is a historic day for North Carolina and the United States," he said after the pardon. "People should be innocent until proven guilty, not persecuted for standing up for equal rights and justice."

The pardon was signed on Dec. 31, just as people were allowed to view the Emancipation Proclamation in Washington.

I've changed my mind about the stamps and will be buying a couple of sheets of the new stamps and using them.

Roy Betts, a spokesperson for the U.S. Postal Service, said 45 million of the stamps were printed. New stamps honoring Rosa Parks (Feb. 4), the March on Washington (Aug. 28) and Althea Gibson (late August or September) will be issued later.

Knowing what I've learned, the Emancipation Proclamation now seems more urgent to me.

Merlene Davis: (859) 231-3218. Email: mdavis1@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @reportmerle. Blog: merlenedavis.bloginky.com.

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