Attendance light at truth commission labor talk

by Jordan Green

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission continues to encounter resistance in its efforts to solicit input from people with experiences that might illuminate the causes and repercussions of the November 1979 killings of five communist labor activists by Klan and Nazis.

Only four people attended a discussion about labor conditions held at the Greensboro Public Library’s Glenwood branch on June 8, said Commission spokeswoman Joya Wesley. At least one was a former mill worker. None were former managers.

The five slain Workers Viewpoint Organization activists had been trying to organize more effective unions in area textile mills as well as at Duke Medical Center in Durham. Their union work and their emphasis on interracial class-based organizing is thought to be a factor in bringing them into conflict with the Klan and Nazis. The Commission hopes people with first-hand experience with the Piedmont’s labor climate in 1979 will help them develop a context for understanding the killings.

‘“People don’t seem to have a consciousness of their collective power as workers, or the whole concept of labor and change,’” Wesley said. ‘“I know there are a lot of former mill workers around here that could shed some light on what happened. The commissioners are going to have to explore some reasons that they’re not.’”

Citing a recent internet post by a Maryland Nazi that included truth commissioners’ home addresses and phone numbers with the implied threat that ‘“I’d like to reconcile them with the end of my 12-guage,’” Wesley said she believes fear of retribution by former mill workers is a real factor in discouraging participation.

‘“Speaking for myself, I think there is an apathy and there is a lot of fear,’” Wesley said. ‘“I think with the recent indications that the Klan are active, people feel that by being associated with this effort they may be a target for the Klan. People are also afraid of losing jobs by speaking out.’”

In addition to the four people who agreed to talk to the Commission, the meeting was attended by author and former News & Record reporter Jerry Bledsoe, who Wesley said argued with commissioners about his right to be present. The Commission had hoped to keep the meeting closed to the press so participants would be encouraged to speak more candidly.

Wesley said the Commission plans to hold further closed-door discussions for members of the media and for the police. The first public hearing is scheduled for July 15.

– Jordan Green