The FBI is conducting a priority investigation of possible civil rights violations in the "Wilmington 10" case, according to Justice Department sources.
The investigation was ordered Jan. 28 by J. Stanley Pottinger, chief of the department's Civil Rights Division, after he received an allegation that a key witness in the case had committed perjury, department sources said.
In the 1972 case - which has been a cause celebre among civil rights groups - 10 persons were convicted of a strign of charges stemming from the Feb. 6, 1971, burning of a white-owned grocery store in the small port city of Wilmington, N.C.
Those convicted in the state court case - the Rev. Ben Chavis, a black minister; eight black teenagers and a 29-year-old white former VISTA volunteer - received sentences ranging from 10 to 34 years.
Their convictions have been upheld in the North Carolina appeals and supreme courts, and their appeal was turned down by the U.S. Supreme Court in January, 1976.
Reports of the perjury allegation also carried by supporters of the "Wilmington 10" to Attorney General Griffin B. Bell during a meeting Wednesday, and he subsequently checked with Pottinger about the case, according to department sources.
Informed by Pottinger that an FBI investigation was underway, Bell asked that it be given full attention, the sources said.