Greensboro Truth and Reonciliation participants look back and ahead during community dialogue

by Jordan Green

The Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission hosted a community dialogue on Nov. 5 that let hundreds of small conversations bloom about how distrustful and fearful community members could overcome hurdles such as police abuse, criminal behavior, substandard housing, poor education, uneven economic development and racial tension.The day-long event at Mt. Zion Baptist Church allowed Greensboro residents to take stock of what they learned from three hearings over the summer. A city councilwoman and two candidates for the office participated in small-group discussions, as did an undercover Greensboro Police officer, who sat in on an off-the-record session about government accountability. The mayor made an appearance and listened to angry criticism. Others came from thousands of miles away to learn how to set up truth and reconciliation efforts in their own communities.’“The fact that I got to see a Klansman say that Greensboro should be proud of its rich civil rights legacy is something I never thought I would hear,’” said city council candidate Ed Whitfield. ‘“And I acknowledged the pain that his family felt going through Reconstruction. This process has been better than a lot of people thought it could be.’”The other candidate who took part in the day of dialogues was Joel Landau. Councilwoman Claudette Burroughs-White was present, along with Guilford County School Board member Dot Kearns.The least likely participant was perhaps Mayor Keith Holliday, who appeared at the end of the day following three sets of small-group discussions on personal experiences with the truth process, issues of injustice and recommendations for reform. The mayor, who is on record as opposing the truth process, gave a public statement and then listened as other participants vented their frustrations.’“My position has not changed and it is important that my presence here today not be misconstrued as a sign of necessarily support and encouragement of the process and the work that has been conducted by the commission,’” he said. ‘“After a lot of study and contemplating, I do feel it is wise to attend this afternoon’s session to listen and absorb the recommendations of the small-group discussions.’”He added: ‘“I have always had as one of my goals as mayor to help build bridges for those who disagree in Greensboro’… While we might not agree on the path to get us to these goals, I am encouraged that so many people are trying to make a better community for Greensboro’s future.’”He said he has no problem with addressing the attack by Klansmen and Nazis on Nov. 3, 1979 against a group of lightly-armed communist demonstrators at Morningside Homes that resulted in the deaths of five labor activists. He just doesn’t believe the truth and reconciliation model is an appropriate means to do it. As an alternative, he championed his Mosaic Project, which encourages leaders from different communities to get to know each other better.’“How many people in this room were invited to participate in that Mosaic Project?’” asked Lewis Brandon, a community activist with the Beloved Community Center. Two hands went up.’“A lot of people are excluded from this process,’” Brandon concluded. ‘“I want you to think about that.’”A woman named Terry Austin noted that she and Holliday both belong to the Quaker faith.’“One of the most important precepts of being a Quaker is speaking truth to power,’” she said. ‘“So I would respectfully say to you: ‘Lead us, follow us, or get out of the way.””Others thanked the mayor for his presence.The head of a New York foundation that has been the truth process’ primary source of funding applauded the people of Greensboro.’“The courage of Greensboro to take this on is real,’” said Steve Kelban, executive director of the Andrus Family Fund. ‘“People’s first inclination is to not talk about history and conflict because they believe doing so will lead to a future with less conflict. I believe from afar that people are relating differently in Greensboro. All these people around the world are looking at Greensboro now.’”One of those was Myron Eschowskey, a consultant from Madison, Wis. who works with the Ho Chunk Nation.He said youth members of the Ku Klux Klan have been attacking Native American students in Wisconsin schools.’“The ones who are joining the youth KKK are the children of the powers that be,’” he said. ‘“That’s what prevents the kids from going to the mayor, the police and the principal. The schools are saying: ‘No, this isn’t happening,’ even though the Native kids are ending up in the hospital. People who got shot end up getting charged with felonies. They get blamed for what happened to them like the members of the [Communist Workers Party] here in Greensboro.’”During one conversation, Bennett Judkins, a former professor at NC A&T University, who is white, asked two African-American women whether they perceive that relations between the police and black people have improved. The question was relevant, he said, because of perceptions that the police, who were not at the scene of the 1979 killings, might have collaborated with the Ku Klux Klan.’“There’s just this general distrust between the African-American community and the police,’” responded Tiffany Butler, a doctoral student at UNCG. ‘“I found that to be the case in Mississippi where I grew up, in Florida where I did my undergrad work, and now here in Greensboro’… Elders felt like the police didn’t patrol enough to get the drugs off the street, but the young people think they’re harassing them all the time. But altogether the trust is not there.’”Joyce Johnson, who lost five friends in the bloody Morningside Homes confrontation with the Klan and Nazis, said: ‘“African-American officers will crack heads harder to prove themselves to the fraternity, and that drives them further away from the community.’”She added: ‘“Traditionally, the black police officers have left town and we don’t know why. Maybe they’ve learned some things. We’ve tried to get them to come back and talk and they have not come back.’”During the following session, another small group grappled with how to winnow a laundry list of issues down to three that would be considered for further discussion.’“’Police and justice system’ is running a close second and a close first,’” said Tony Scott, who traveled from out of state to volunteer as a facilitator. ‘“Can we relate them directly back to November third?’”’“’Economics’ with the wages in the factories that the CWP was dealing with,’” Terrence Muhammad suggested. ‘“’Police and justice system’ ‘– that’s kind of clear. ‘Education,’ I don’t know.’”Signe Waller, whose husband Dr. James Waller was killed in the confrontation, said education should be thought of in the context of how local history is presented to the public. ‘“The civil rights museum should include an unbiased representation of all civil rights history, including the A&T insurrection of 1969 and what happened here in 1979,’” she said.During the final session, the small groups developed recommendations that were posted on the walls of the chapel. One proposed establishing a civilian review board to address complaints about police abuses. Another called for monthly meetings between media organizations and community leaders. Still others dealt with educational quality for black students and economic opportunities for poor people.’“We need government, and we need everybody, not just the people usually considered leaders,’” said former Mayor Carolyn Allen, a long-time supporter of the truth process. ‘“Through this truth and reconciliation process people have been encouraged to come forward and speak their minds, and we’ve learned where some of the aches and pains exist.’”To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at