Mary Alice Thatch, a crusading third-generation newspaper publisher in North Carolina who led the fight to exonerate 10 civil rights activists wrongly convicted of arson in the 1970s, died on Dec. 28 at a hospital in Durham, N.C. She was 78.
Her daughter Johanna Thatch-Briggs confirmed the death but did not provide a cause.
Ms. Thatch had already had a long career in education when she took over the reins of The Wilmington Journal from her father, Thomas C. Jervay. Like him, she saw the Black-owned newspaper as a vital source of information for the city’s Black population and a force that spoke truth to power, white or otherwise.
“She was particularly committed to making sure that news that often is not represented in the mainstream media was always represented in The Wilmington Journal,” the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, a civil rights leader, said in a phone interview.
Ms. Thatch’s reporters uncovered corruption and took on unchecked gentrification, while The Journal’s editorials pushed for voting rights and education reform. But her greatest achievement came in the early 2010s, when she took up the cause of the so-called Wilmington 10.
The Wilmington 10 became a cause célèbre. Some 10,000 people joined a protest march in 1977 in Washington calling for their release. That same year, Amnesty International embraced them as a cause, and Andrew Young, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, cited them in an interview as an example of domestic political prisoners.
A review by the Department of Justice persuaded Gov. Jim Hunt of North Carolina to commute the rest of their sentences in 1978, and in 1980, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit overturned the convictions. What remained was for the state to formally exonerate and compensate them through what, in North Carolina, is called a pardon of innocence.
At a 2011 meeting in Washington, Black newspaper publishers, including Ms. Thatch, listened to one of the 10, Benjamin F. Chavis, plead for their help in publicizing their case.
A few days later, Ms. Thatch called her lead reporter, Cash Michaels, and asked him to oversee a campaign to uncover the truth about the Wilmington 10 and make the case for a formal pardon.
Over several months Mr. Michaels and his team reinterviewed witnesses and lawyers from the trial, and uncovered damning documents that showed how, for example, the prosecutor, faced with a Black-majority jury, faked illness to get a mistrial, then connived to get a white-majority jury when the case restarted.
Their reporting appeared in The Journal and was reprinted in Black newspapers around the country. Other news outlets, including The New York Times, published editorials in support.
What had seemed like history was once again news, and by the end of 2012 pressure was building on Gov. Bev Perdue of North Carolina to issue a pardon of innocence — which she did on Dec. 31, her final day in office.
“Without Ms. Thatch, there would have been a lot less pressure on the governor to do something,” said Kenneth Janken, a historian at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the author of “The Wilmington Ten: Violence, Injustice, and the Rise of Black Politics in the 1970s” (2016). “I wouldn’t underestimate the power of the press.”
Mary Alice Jervay was born on July 6, 1943, in Wilmington. Her family lived in an apartment above The Journal’s offices, and during the day her mother, Willie (DeVane) Jervay, would help with production, as would Mary Alice, before she could even walk.
Her grandfather, R.S. Jervay, had founded the newspaper as The Cape Fear Journal in 1927. It was Wilmington’s first Black-owned paper since The Daily Record, whose offices, once located across the street from where The Journal now stands, were burned down in 1898 when a white supremacist coup overthrew the biracial City Council and killed 24 Black and white residents.
Despite that legacy, Ms. Thatch did not initially pursue journalism as a career. She received a bachelor’s degree in business education from Elizabeth City State University and a master’s degree in the same subject from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. She then worked as a high school teacher in North Carolina and Ohio and as a consultant for the North Carolina state government.
She married John L. Thatch in 1970. Along with him and her daughter Johanna, she is survived by two other daughters, Shawn Thatch and Robin Thatch Johnson; seven grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.
By the time Ms. Thatch took over from her father in 1996, The Journal had become one of the best-known Black newspapers in the South, highly regarded for its fearlessness in the face of racist violence. A white supremacist had blown up The Journal’s offices in 1973, a calamity that her father quickly brushed off.
“She never forgot how even though the paper’s building was destroyed, he still made sure a paper came out that week,” Mr. Michaels said in an interview. “That’s the sort of strength and resilience she embodied.”
She was honored as publisher of the year in 2013 by the National Newspaper Publishers Association. And she continued to crusade for the Black community in Wilmington: Starting in 2016, she ran a weekly photo of Ebonee Spears, a Wilmington girl who had gone missing, on The Journal’s cover, according to The Raleigh News & Observer.
Like most newspapers, The Wilmington Journal has recently faced financial challenges. A campaign in early 2021 raised $95,000, enough for the paper to keep its office building. Where it will go without its indomitable publisher at the helm remains an open question.