Looking to the heavens and evoking the fiery spirit of Selma, Greensboro and Resurrection City, the most celebrated defendant in the Wilmington 10 case proclaimed here last night that oppression of blacks in the United States "is worse in the 1980s than it was in the 1960s."
Speaking from a pulpit at All Souls Unitarian Church, the Rev. Ben Chavis told an enthusiastic crowd of about 500, which included many of the city's top black leaders, that the nations's blacks must "organize and stand up to political and economic oppression. . . ."
Chavis, the field organizer for the United Church of Christ's Commission for Racial Justice here, served more than four years of a 34-year prison sentence after being convicted on conspiracy and arson charges along with nine others in the 1971 fire-bombing of a white-owned grocery store in Wilmington, N.C.
He was paroled Dec. 14, after key witnesses for the prosecution changed their testimony. Earlier last year the Justice Department filed an unprecedented brief asking a federal judge to overturn the 1972 state court convictions. The judge refused and the defendants are now appealing.
Basking in tremendous applause of the audience, Chavis opened his remarks with a clenched fist salute. "Power to the People. God bless you," he said. "I'm glad, honored, excited . . . happy to be back home."
When "they imprisoned the Wilmington 10, they wanted to put fear into people . . . they thought it was the final epitaph on the tombstone of the civil rights movements," Chavis said. "But I am back and very eager to get on with the struggle.
"The United States of America doesn't belong to Jimmy Carter, it doesn't belong to the multinational corporations on Wall Street, it doesn't belong to the military-industrial complex in the Pentagon. It belongs to the working people," Chavis said to choruses of "right on" and "tell it like it is, brother" from the audience.
Chavis declared that there is a lack of black leadership in America at a time when blacks should be working toward "some structural changes in this country. We must change the structure of the political and economic system.
Among a large number of city officials on hand was Mayor Marion Barry, who presented Chavis with a Distinguished Public Service Award and a gold key to the city. In making the presentation, Barry recalled the long struggle of blacks to win equality, then quipped that Chavis was being honored "not only because we believe in it," but "because we're in charge."
Chavis congratulated Barry on his accomplishments, but said that blacks "have a task before us . . . to work with our elected representatives and say yes, we're going to have statehood and voter representation in Congress . . ."
"As we marched on Washington in 1963," Chavis said, "we're going to come back in 1983, over one million strong . . . We won't only march on the White House, we will march in the White House."
City council member Hilda Mason gave Chavis a copy of a special council resolution welcoming him back to the city and D.C. school board member Frank Sshaffer-Corona said he planned to propose a "Wilmington 10 Awareness Day" in public schools here this March.
City Council Chairman Arrington Dixon and D.C. Del. Walter Fauntroy also attended.
Leaders of the D.C. Area Alliance Against Racism and Political Repression, which organized the event to welcome Chavis to Washington, also used the occasion to denounce the "holding of political prisoners" in the United States. They mentioned, among others, Terrence Johnson, the black Prince George's County youth serving a 25-year prison sentence in the slaying of two county policemen. CAPTION:
Picture, Mayor Marion Barry introduces the Rev. Ben Chavis at All Souls Unitarian Church. By John McDonnell -- The Washington Post