City Council Skates Around Truth Inquiry
Supporters of the Truth and Community Reconciliation Commission discomforted Mayor Keith Holliday and members of the Greensboro City Council March 15 when more than a dozen of them urged the Council to support a public inquiry into the killing of five communist labor organizers by right-wing extremists at the start of a permitted march.
‘“The memories and shadows of the nineteen seventy-nine Klan-Nazi murders haunt our community,’” former Mayor Carolyn Allen told the City Council.
The pleas of pastors, students, retired folk, the former mayor and one survivor of the massacre over more than an hour prompted hard stares, grimacing and squirming among some council members, but Mayor Holliday listened politely before indicating in his remarks that he was unlikely to lend his personal prestige to the effort.
Supporters of the truth commission packed Council chambers. An organizer, Joseph Frierson, said they had 5,000 signatures from Greensboro residents who wanted the City Council to back the effort.
The City Council mainly hashed out procedural points rather than speaking about the truth and reconciliation process itself. Mayor Holliday expressed the antipathy of many council members when he suggested that the truth commission’s supporters risked dividing the city by asking the Council to take a stand.
‘“If this council does not support it, whatya got then?’” he asked. ‘“Be careful what you ask for, because I think you’re going to regret it.’”
Mayor Holliday said people know where he comes down on the issue; he has been quoted extensively in the national media saying he thinks revisiting the 1979 massacre could harm the city’s efforts to attract business. Councilwoman Florence Gatten also tipped her hand, saying she would not vote to endorse the truth commission. The vote on whether to even consider the request for official endorsement on April 19 betrayed the Council’s reluctance to address the issue.
Mayor Holliday and Councilman Donald R. Vaughan joined the three African-American members of the Council, Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson, Claudette Burroughs-White and Dianne Bellamy-Small, allowing the measure to pass with a bare 5-4 majority. Council members Robbie Perkins, Tom Phillips, Florence Gatten and Sandy Carmany voted against.
Rev. Nelson Johnson, a figure who is the object of much fear and loathing in Greensboro and who organized the 1979 march that was attacked by the Klan and Nazis, made a stark appeal for City Council’s approval.
‘“When people are killed in public while exercising their constitutional rights and the reasons are swept aside by demonizing those who were killed and their work, a cancer is growing in the body politic, and it will continue to grow,’” he said.
He urged the council to not look away from the unpleasant facts, as he believes the city did 25 years ago after the massacre. He also acknowledged his own shortcomings.
‘“I just want to say that I and those associated with me made mistakes,’” he said. ‘“I’m very sorry we used the slogan, ‘Death to the Klan.””
Others spoke about what they characterized as a gap between image and reality in Greensboro.
‘“If this council continues to say it is not going to give its support because you are worried about the image of Greensboro, you are speaking and acting a contradiction,’” said Rev. Mazie Ferguson, president of the Greensboro Pulpit Forum, an organization of black churches. ‘“The image is already bad with regard to this, so the only opportunity you have to address the image is to support this process.’”
Allen, the former mayor, tried to appeal to the City Council’s economic sensibilities.
‘“People have said, ‘Suppose the memories of a wretched time drive away business,”” she said. ‘“It may be that some businesses would look favorably on a community that deals forthrightly with its problems.’”
It still remains to be seen whether the supporters of the truth commission will succeed in gaining the City Council’s endorsement, or even getting council members to talk in depth about the repercussions of 1979 ‘— which itself would fulfill the commission’s mandate of engaging the city in a self-appraisal that could lead to reconciliation.
‘“What I had hoped for was that they would have a discussion of it,’” said Rev. Z. Holler, a retired pastor of the Presbyterian Church of the Covenant who works closely with Rev. Johnson. ‘“That’s perhaps not the way they deal with things. It may be that my expectations were too high.’”
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