Greensboro council expresses regret for 79 shootings

by Jordan Green

Greensboro council expresses regret for ’79 shootings

The Greensboro City Council issued a statement of regret about the 1979 Klan-Nazi killings by a razor-thin vote that saw at-large Councilman Robbie Perkins reverse position, bringing along Mayor Pro Tem Sandra Anderson Groat. The two joined the council’s three African-American members, who have been stalwart supporters of the truth and reconciliation process. “This was really interesting,” Perkins said at the June 16 meeting. “I can remember sitting her three or four years ago and making a motion to oppose the truth and reconciliation commission”¦. I’ve often thought about my motion in the context of the rest of my life. I remember where I was on that Sunday, Saturday afternoon, driving back into Greensboro and hearing about this. I remember what I was doing. I remember what I was doing when I heard about the Kennedy assassination. For me, it was something of significance.” Perkins mentioned participating in antiracism trainings and reading Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina and the Black Struggle for Freedom by William Chafe, his history professor at Duke University. Paraphrasing Chafe, Perkins said, “Greensboro will say the right things but it really doesn’t get down to the gut and do the right things, and it has a history in that regard. I think there’s some confusion here. There’s a lot of things in the report that I can disagree with. That’s not what we’re here to do tonight. We’re here to accept a report that was put out by our human relations commission.” On Nov. 3, 1979, a caravan of Klansmen and neo-Nazis rode into the Morningside Homes housing project in southeast Greensboro, led by a police informant. There, they met left-wing labor and antiracist activists who had used provocative and confrontational language and were mustering for a march. Following a brief stick fight and taunts from both sides, Klansmen and neo-Nazis retrieved guns from a car trunk and opened fire on the marchers, killing five and wounding several others. At-large Councilwoman Mary Rakestraw and District 4 Councilman Mike Barber threw up yellow flags about whether language stating the city would “support to the extent of its ability and authority to ensure that nothing like the events of November 3, 1979 ever occur again in our community” would create liability. At council’s direction, City Attorney Terry Wood revised the statement, prefacing it with the clause, “Without acknowledging or creating any city employee or public official liability,” and excising the offending language about ensuring that nothing like the killings ever occur again in Greensboro. Lewis Pitts, a lawyer in the audience who is employed by Legal Aid of North Carolina, said the council was increasing its liability by even discussing whether to withdraw the clause. “I told Terry: They’re creating liability by having a discussion about it,”Pitts said. “If they vote to remove that statement, it’s a statementthat they’re not willing to do what they’re duty-bound to do, which isto take all reasonable steps to prevent another Nov. 3, 1979,” Pittssaid. Rakestraw, Barber, District Councilman Zack Matheny and District5 Councilwoman Trudy Wade voted against the expression of regret. Mostof the speakers from the floor supported the statement, although someargued that it did not go far enough. The Rev. Cardes Brown and otherstold council they would prefer to hear an apology from the city. SigneFoxworth Waller, a survivor whose husband was killed in theconfrontation, expressed criticism of the human relations commission’srecommendation, saying that it does not hold the police accountable.”If there’s no accountability for the past, there can’t be anyaccountability for the present,” she said. “I think we’re seeing policeabuse and the ugly treatment that the police today are giving some ofour youthful brothers in street organizations labeled gangs.” Acomment from the Rev. Randall Keeney was more typical. “You’ve beengiven a gift,” he said. “Receive it, acknowledge it and tell the worldit won’t ever happen in Greensboro again.” The Rev. NelsonJohnson, another survivor, repeated an apology he made during a 2005Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearing. “I very muchregret that a flier was developed in the form of a letter that calledKlansmen ‘cowards’ and challenged them to come out from under a rockand face the wrath of the people,” he said. “I do apologize to mybrothers and sisters who were and may still be Klan members.” Supportersof the expression of regret made concerted efforts to establish arapport with council members, and the statement was calibrated to winapproval by asking for a statement of regret instead apology and bycelebrating the city’s various initiatives to enhance diversity andovercome discrimination. Perkins had previously met with HumanRelations Commission Chairwoman Maxine Bakeman, and Matheny and Barberboth received visits from Human Relations Director Anthony Wade.District 1 Councilwoman Dianne Bellamy-Small, who prodded the humanrelations commission to bring the recommendation to council, contactedsupporters to urge them to show up in council chambers. Opponentsof the truth process were caught off guard by the recommendation, andsome fought hard to dissuade council from expressing regret. During the Rev. Johnson’s remarks, former councilman and local political consultant Bill Burkley leaned in and whispered in News & Record reporterAmanda Lehmert’s ear: “Did you know that Nelson Johnson was a paidinformant for the FBI?” (Although, the Southern Historical Collectionarchives at UNC Chapel Hill contains a flier produced by a rivalcommunist sect in the 1970s alleging that Johnson was an FBI informant,there is no credible evidence to substantiate the allegation.) Duringa recess before the vote, Burckley followed Mayor Johnson out to alanding where she took a cigarette break, and urged her to vote againstthe expression. “It will bring closure,” the mayor toldBurckley. “It will not bring closure,” he argued back. “Not with thiscrowd. I’m trying to give you sound political advice”¦. Table thispuppy, get rid of it, get it out of the way.” Burckley was laterarrested for disorderly conduct outside of council chambers, afterMichael Speedling, the city’s security manager said several peoplecomplained that he was being belligerent and interrupting councilmembers. Speedling said Burckley appeared to be intoxicated and hadalcohol on his breath. Matheny, the council’s youngest member,

took ahard stand against the statement of regret. “One thing I’ve noticedabout the city of Greensboro is one thing we never do is celebrate oursuccess,” he said. “I had a very open and candid conversation with Dr.Anthony Wade about race. He came to my office this morning and wetalked for 45 minutes.” The councilman also mentioned that heparticipates in a program called Tapestry that provides a formalframework for social interactions between people of different races. “We’vehealed “” most of a lot of the majority of us have healed,” hecontinued. “We need y’all to let us heal further”¦. You can come backevery two years. I will vote no to say that I regret that thishappened. And I will continue to go to Tapestry.” Mathenyquoted extensively from remarks made by then-Mayor Keith Holliday, whosaid: “This was a confrontation between two extremist groups where over90 percent of the participants were from outside Greensboro.”

FoxworthWaller, who lived with her second husband in Greensboro in 1979 andlives here now, interrupted, “No. Wrong.” To many, an officialstatement of regret from the city of Greensboro over the deaths of fivelabor activists seemed unremarkable and uncontroversial. Even some ofthe council members who voted against the statement on legal groundsacknowledged publicly that the incident was regrettable. “Idon’t think anyone sitting up here would not regret something in ourcity that puts a cloud over us,” Rakestraw said. Barber added: “Thelanguage that I could support is acknowledging that this is aregrettable event. We don’t regret it, but we acknowledge it as a regrettable event.” Infact, the formal expression of regret took a circuitous route to arriveon the council’s agenda. When the Greensboro Truth and ReconciliationCommission released its report in May 2006 with the recommendation thatthe

cityapologize for the incident, many council members had taken holidays forthe Memorial Day weekend in preparation before plunging into budgetdiscussions, and did not bother to read the report. MayorHolliday tasked the human relations commission with bringingrecommendations in response to the report at an informal councilmeeting in which no official minutes were taken. In late 2006,the human relations commission formed something called the Ad HocCommittee for Improving Race Relations in response to the mayor’srequest, but that initiative was subsumed into a collaboration with theCommunity Foundation of Greater Greensboro and UNCG’s Center for Youth,Family and Community Partnerships to launch a revamped version ofHolliday’s Mosaic Project. The new project, dubbed ImpactGreensboro and launched in December 2007, bore no relation to an of theefforts to review the 1979 killings, but the Rev. Nelson Johnson andhis wife Joyce Johnson were invited to participate. A reportdrafted by the human relations commission that contains the recommendedstatement of regret states that “during the spring of 2008, theGreensboro City Council raised a question about whether the HumanRelations Commission (HRC) was assigned the task of responding to the2006 Truth & Reconciliation Report.” The question was raised by Councilwoman Bellamy-Small during a public meeting, said Anthony Wade, the human relations director. “Therewas nobody who volunteered up front to do this, we really had to selectpeople to do it,” said Abdel Nuriddin, vice chairman of the commission.”It wasn’t something that was easy to do. It was very painful to do”¦.Because you all have in fact appointed us to represent people in thedistricts we were under an obligation to do this.”

‘Greensboro will say the right things but it really doesn’t getdown to the gut and do the right things, and it has a history in thatregard.’ “” Councilman Robbie Perkins