City commission to propose race relations dialogue

by Jordan Green

More than six months after the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued a report calling on official Greensboro to acknowledge the wounds of the 1979 Klan-Nazi shootings and undertake a formal examination of race relations, the Human Relations Commission is preparing a proposal for a citywide discussion about race relations.

The Human Relations Commission lacked a quorum to vote on the proposal at its most recent meeting on Dec. 6, but Vice-Chair Maxine Bateman later said she expects a majority to vote in favor of the plan next month. It would then go before the City Council for approval.

Bateman, a retired alumni director at Bennett College, said the proposal called for a half-day session that would bring together city, county and school officials, as well as religious and university leaders. The group would “leave with an agenda with what we’ll do to solve the problems,” and representatives of varying races and ethnicities would agree to engage in structured dialogue across lines of cultural and ideological difference.

The Human Relations Commission will recommend that the city fund the project with $40,000 to pay a staff person to coordinate the dialogues over an extended period of time, Bateman said.

“Generally we see a number of things going on that are race related,” she continued. “We look at the police department and the loss of trust in the police department among major sectors of the community.”

Bateman added that she expects the legacy of 1979 to be part of the discussion. The truth commission concluded in its May 2006 report that “the single most important element that contributed to the violent outcome of the confrontation was the absence of police.”

“We can’t overlook the past,” Bateman said. “We can reflect on the past and assure that it doesn’t happen again.”

The Rev. Gregory Headen, who was involved in early efforts to launch the truth process, said he would welcome an official effort to engage citizens in dialogue.

“I hope the elected officials would strongly stand behind, encourage and hold the Human Relations Commission accountable, and that they would honor any recommendation that came out of the Human Relations Commission,” said Headen, who is the pastor at Genesis Baptist Church and is a co-chair of the local task force of the Greensboro Truth and Community Reconciliation Project. “As a result of having the discussion much would be learned and specific recommendations would come out of it back to the city council. I hope they would take them seriously, and act on them instead of saying, ‘We did the discussion.'”

The truth project has already begun a series of community-wide discussions about the impact of the 1979 shootings. Headen said the two efforts should complement each other.

“I would hope the Human Relations Commission would ask for a meeting with members of the local task force, and let’s sit down and talk about how we can make this happen,” he said. “We don’t really care about who gets the glory; we just want it to happen. We want reconciliation, forgiveness, and we want people to acknowledge the wrong they may have done.”

He added: “The city bears its responsibility. The police department bears its responsibility. We in the community bear our responsibility. [Dialogue] helps us all trust each other more. We can sit down and make things happen together.”

News of the city initiative was greeted with guarded optimism by Cynthia Brown, a Durham consultant who co-chaired the independent truth commission.

“I am delighted that somebody who is in some official capacity’… is at least taking this report seriously,” she said. “I devoted two years of my life with six other people to address issues related to this tragedy. There are other people who have been involved with trying to deal with the tragedy over twenty-five years. Addressing race as well as any other issue connected with that day is a step in the right direction.”

Brown cautioned that the city panel should take care to include its grassroots counterpart.

“It it’s an open process where people who have already been discussing this come together with new people that would be good,” she said. “It the city-led dialogue is not one that is open to full participation there could be conflict.”

Whether the city council will embrace an official initiative to engage citizens in a dialogue about race relations remains to be seen. The council has split along racial lines twice in the past two years over decisions related to the truth process. Councilwoman Yvonne Johnson, an at-large representative, said she recalled Mayor Keith Holliday suggesting in an informal meeting in July that the Human Relations Commission be tasked with responding to the truth commission’s recommendations.

“I have no reservations about it,” Johnson said. “I can remember in the late sixties and early seventies Carolyn Allen and I worked on a dialogue on race relations and it was positive. What can it do but make for a better city?”

Allen, a former mayor, co-chairs the local task force of the truth project with Rev. Headen.

“Lots of changes were happening,” Johnson recalled. “It was an initiative from the YWCA. I was working for the Y and I believe [Allen] was on the board. We did it and maybe we need to do it again.”

Johnson was asked if city leaders would try to distance the new effort from the truth process.

“That’s a good question,” she replied. “I just don’t know.”

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