City Council: 6-3 on truth, again

by Jordan Green

Painfully, haltingly, the Greensboro City Council reentered the discussion about the city’s responsibility for grappling with the legacy of the 1979 Klan-Nazi shootings in Morningside Homes at its June 6 meeting.

In an awkward, fumbling conversation, the city’s governing body seemed to confirm critics’ assertions that its own divisions reflect the racial fault line of how the event is understood across the city, and the assertions that white elected officials are reluctant to engage with the consequences of the bloodshed.

Though more conciliatory, the proceedings repeated a pattern set in April 2005 when the city council voted 6-3 along racial lines to oppose the truth process. At that meeting, District 2 Councilwoman Claudette Burroughs-White ‘— whose district covers northeast Greensboro ‘— proposed a vaguely worded resolution in support of the truth process that resulted in pointed rejection by her white colleagues.

On June 6 Goldie Wells introduced a motion to have the council study the findings of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report, discuss them and respond. Wells replaced Burroughs-White after her predecessor decided against running for reelection.

‘“The process has been completed; truths have been revealed,’” Wells said. ‘“We need to move expeditiously to restore trust. Every citizen needs to feel safe in their neighborhood.

‘“As a governing body I think we have a responsibility to say something as a collective,’” she added. ‘“I know [the truth commission] didn’t just come up with it off the top of their head. It sends a bad message to the citizens if we ignore it.’”

Mayor Keith Holliday suggested as an alternative that the city council hold an informal session a couple hours before its official meeting on July 18 at which members could attend voluntarily and hold a roundtable discussion about the report. Then following comments at-large Councilwoman Yvonne Johnson and District 1 Councilwoman Dianne Bellamy-Small, the mayor acknowledged the rift on the council.

‘“There are a whole lot of us that moved on from this horrible event,’” Holliday said. ‘“I’m trying to get past it. I can’t get past it for some reason’…. I would like a commitment from the other side ‘— well, there were three who were very much in favor of this ‘— to say there is an end to this thing that we can reach out and grab.’”

The mayor also said he thought the survivors would never get over their loss ‘—’ a point contested by Johnson.

‘“When [Archbishop Desmond] Tutu was here, I heard two of the children of the people who were killed say how much closure they experienced from testifying,’” she said, also making reference to a public and private apology made by Winston-Salem Nazi Roland Wayne Wood to Signe Waller for the death of her husband, Dr. James Waller.

‘“That’s great,’” Holliday responded.

District 4 Councilman Mike Barber, who represents an affluent, majority-white western section of Greensboro, said he believes city officials have no obligation to discuss the report.

‘“I’m the attorney that incorporated the truth and reconciliation process,’” he said. ‘“That is their right to do what they did and it is our right to not get involved.’”

Wells let it be known that she disagrees.

‘“We should be able to negotiate and compromise on some things for the betterment of our community,’” she said. ‘“If you don’t understand me and I don’t understand you, how are we going to make a better city?’”

Councilman Tom Phillips, whose District 3 comprises a pie slice through the city’s cardinal northern section, said he could not support any resolution that would even require the city council to discuss the report.

With that, Barber proposed a substitute motion to set up a roundtable discussion during an informal, voluntary session before the official meeting in city council chambers, as suggested by the mayor. The new motion made no reference to the city council making an official response to the report.

The city council voted 6-3 to make Barber’s substitute motion the main motion. Voting in favor were Barber, Holliday, Phillips, Mayor Pro Tem Sandra Anderson Groat, at-large Councilwoman Florence Gatten and District 5 Councilwoman Sandy Carmany. Against: Wells, Johnson and Bellamy-Small.

Holliday announced that the second vote, which was conducted by a show of hands, passed 7-2. The vote was taken so quickly it was difficult to tell how each council member had voted, although it was clear that Barber’s motion had the support of the majority.

‘“I hope everybody reads the report,’” the mayor concluded.

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at