A critique of the Nov. 3 survivors from the left
A member of the group responsible for launching the Greensboro’s truth and reconciliation process fired a figurative shot across the bow in an opinion article published in the News & Record’s ‘“Ideas’” section on April 2. Defying some expectations, the article cautioned the Truth and Reconciliation Commission against letting the survivors of the deadly shootings control the narrative of its final report, which is due on May 25.
The article, ‘“Second thoughts about Nov. 3, 1979,’” by John Young, has been met with dismay by his colleagues on the local task force of the Truth and Community Reconciliation Project and silence by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Young says he hopes his caveats about the role of the survivors in the 1979 shootings will be taken in the spirit of seeking the full truth and allowing all parties to heal. Two of the co-chairs of the local task force indicate they don’t see it that way, suggesting by turns that Young has added to the demonization of the survivors and second-guessed the commission before it has had a chance to complete its mandate.
Young became involved with the Truth and Community Reconciliation Project in 2002, joining with Nelson Johnson, who as organizer of the 1979 anti-Klan march has been a prominent personality in the truth project. Initially, Young’s view of the 1979 violence was largely sympathetic to the survivors, but he said he began to look more critically at their role after reading Elizabeth Wheaton’s 1987 book, Codename Greenkil: The 1979 Greensboro Killings. He said he was further swayed when he listened to testimony by Leah Wise to the truth commission in August 2005. Wise, who played a key role in organizing a coalition of left-wing groups to respond to the killings, spoke somewhat bitterly about difficulties working with the survivors, who were then members of the Communist Workers Party.
In a written statement submitted to the commission last November Young expressed concern that a perspective held by many in Greensboro that the Communist Workers Party members were ‘“Maoist extremists seeking militant and violent conflict’” would not be duly considered. ‘“This perspective has received very little attention before the commission,’” he wrote, ‘“and I and others have concerns that the ‘peaceful labor organizer story’ has become the dominate narrative.’”
Citing communist texts studied by the Communist Workers Party members, memoirs written by the survivors and Wheaton’s book, Young’s statement lists nine points to support the argument that the anti-Klan demonstrators of 1979 were part of an extremist group seeking violent conflict.
Young, a Quaker who believes in nonviolence, cites 20th century writers George Orwell and Arthur Koestler in his critique of the Communist Workers Party.
‘“It needs to be noted that neither Orwell nor Koestler in [1984 and Darkness at Noon] were critical of democratic socialism or leftist democratic movements but condemned the rigid hierarchical models that excluded critical thinking, sanctioned violence and believed the real truth exists only within the leadership of ‘the Party,”” Young wrote.
Young’s statement lists a wide array of constituencies who he says have come to view the anti-Klan activists of 1979 as extremists and who hold an ‘“alternative perspective’” on the Nov. 3 killings. That perspective, he wrote, ‘“is understood by folks like Leah Wise and Liz Wheaton who knew some of the individuals involved on Nov. 3rd. This story is understood by some community progressives who never wanted to come forward because they thought the survivors had already gone through too much misery. Others who share this perspective have no faith in the structure of the T&R process because it was organized by the Nov. 3rd survivors. Support of this strongly anti-CWP perspective comes somewhat from the democratic left, civil libertarians, some civil rights activists, some members of the area media and some ACLU members. Others who share this perspective include many hard nose anti-communists and some right wingers, but mostly people in the community who reject the militancy of the CWP.’”
Both Wise and Wheaton were associated with the Durham-based Institute for Southern Studies at different times, Wise as an editor of the Institute magazine Southern Exposure beginning in 1974, and Wheaton as promotions director in the early 1980s.
Wheaton wrote a special report for the Institute for Southern Studies called ‘“The Third of November’” in 1981 that bolstered the survivors’ claims that official complicity on the part of the Greensboro Police Department and federal law enforcement agents allowed the Klan and Nazis to carry out the killings. When Wheaton’s book, Codename Greenkil, was published six years later, it came as a bitter disappointment to the survivors, who objected to its judgment of the Communist Workers Party. Young’s journey with the survivors of 1979 somewhat mirrors Wheaton’s in that both committed significant time and energy to researching their claims and ended up estranged from them.
(In the interest of full disclosure, this writer is currently employed as a part-time consultant at the Institute for Southern Studies.)
‘“What I saw as a simple morality tale of good and evil has become very complicated,’” Young wrote. ‘“Many wonderful people, with whom I have worked in this process, will be very displeased with my statement to the commission, but I believe that Nov. 3rd was actually about everyone being dehumanized and treating others in a dehumanizing manner.’”
Now, 26 years after the deadly shootings at Morningside Homes, the survivors have found prominent community supporters. Those supporters, among them a former mayor and retired a Presbyterian minister, have put their names and reputations on the line to support the survivors’ quest to have the troubling questions about November 1979 fully answered.
Two of the three local task force co-chairs indicate that beyond disagreeing with Young’s statement, they see his public airing of it as detrimental to the truth process.
‘“I’m disappointed in his statement and somewhat surprised because we’ve had a couple of years of conversations about all this and I thought he was very committed to the process and the work of the commission,’” former Mayor Carolyn Allen said on April 7. ‘“He seems to second guess the commission. At this point I don’t think that’s appropriate because we haven’t seen their report.
Allen said she believes that Young’s concern that the outsized participation of the survivors in the truth process will obscure the facts is unwarranted.
‘“I have over the past three years looked at truth commissions all over the world, and there is no case in which the survivors’ role has not been very significant,’” she said. ‘“If survivors did not raise their issues with communities or states or governments many of these investigations would never have happened.’”
For his part, co-chair Zeb Holler called Young’s News & Record article ‘“poor timing,’” and said he would prefer that ‘“there was no story at all’” in YES! Weekly about it.
‘“I think the CWP has not only been looked at, it has been roundly criticized, blamed,’” he said. ‘“People who were part of it were fired, were in the bad graces of Greensboro and all that. John said nothing new about what had been said before. Nelson’s repented the inflammatory language. Nelson spoke in the hearings about his regret about how they came across and the unfortunate rhetoric the CWP used.’”
Holler became acquainted with the Nov. 3 survivors in 1979 as a new pastor at the Presbyterian Church of the Covenant. He said funeral director John Forbis and Ken Newbold, the commanding officer of the National Guard unit called out to preserve order during the funeral of the five slain anti-Klan activists, were elders at his church then.
‘“I rode with my friend [Forbis] in his hearse at a time of considerable fear to help him through it,’” Holler said.
The retired pastor said Young’s publicly expressed criticism unfairly casts doubt on the truth commission’s integrity.
‘“They are working furiously to get their report done,’” Holler said. ‘“I think we owe them the respect to get that done before we begin passing judgment on their integrity. I hope that this doesn’t sidetrack the main effort. Let’s respect one another’s opinions and await the commission’s report, but not stir up a furor that will cloud the report when it comes out.’”
Spokeswoman Joya Wesley said in an April 7 e-mail message that the final report ‘“will be all the comment the commission has on’” Young’s message.
Young said he believes the commission is doing a good job, and he sees their work as necessarily fraught with controversy.
‘“I think the truth is very bitter for everybody,’” he said. ‘“The CWP and the survivors are going to have to deal with it. The police department is going to have to deal with it. The Klan certainly has to and is dealing with it. Some of the testimony of the Klan shows some ripples there. I don’t think there were really any heroes that day.’”
To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at firstname.lastname@example.org