Greensboro squints through haze of history

by Jordan Green and Amy Kingsley

In the sweltering heat of Memorial Day many Greensboro residents interviewed about their impressions of the report recently released by the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission struggled to recall the basic outlines of the events surrounding 88 seconds of tragic violence that took five lives and exposed raw nerves over race, labor, communism and police-community relations more than 26 years ago.

From the moderately busy sidewalks outside shops on Elm and Tate streets, to the movie theaters and grocery stores, and to the city parks providing refuge from the sun, few people appeared to have heard that the commission had released a massive report four days earlier apportioning responsibility for the killings among the various participants. Many were not aware that a ‘“truth and reconciliation process’” was taking place. But most demonstrated a vague familiarity with the killings, noting that Klansmen and Nazis drove into an African-American neighborhood, shot people and escaped conviction for the killings.

‘“I’m not sure of the reasons it has been brought back up,’” said Lynette Guill, who was on South Elm Street looking into the possibility of renting commercial storefront property.

Her mother smiled. Anna Mae Guill, 91, came to Greensboro in 1931 to attend Women’s College, married a young man from Greensboro, and settled down. She’s seen a lot of history but shrugged her shoulders when asked to describe its arc.

‘“I doubt you can get to the bottom of it,’” she said, in reference to the question of how five communist anti-Klan activists came to be killed on Nov. 3, 1979.

Lynette Guill said on balance she believed reexamining the killings was healthy for Greensboro.

‘“There’s a fine line there because there can be some good publicity and bad publicity,’” she said. ‘“I guess the truth is always good.’”

Jesse Ashford, a 60-year-old homeless man resting on a bench across the street, said he thought people studying the shootings should leave well enough alone. He was in prison when the violence took place.

‘“I think they ought to let it die,’” he said. ‘“It’s the past. Nothing can be done about it. It’s bad enough as it is. The city is quiet. You can look around and see how much the city has changed.’”

The streets of Willow Oaks, the mixed-income housing development of tidy townhouses built after the troubled Morningside Homes public housing project was torn down, were no more animated with talk about the report. The violence unfolded there, catching many residents off guard, but the public memory seemed as buried on this holiday as ever before.

Devin Faust, a 16-year-old boy looking for his aunt at the nearby Lincoln Grove apartments, said he didn’t know five people were killed just two blocks away when Klan and Nazis opened fire on demonstrators back in 1979.

At Barber Park to the southeast, families and friends relaxed at the picnic tables, grilled hamburgers and played Frisbee. One of them, 42-year-old Josephine McKinney shook her head quizzically when asked if she was familiar with the truth and reconciliation process. She did know something about Nov. 3, 1979. McKinney lived with her grandmother at Lincoln Grove at the time.

‘“I am very familiar; my two brothers were there,’” she said. ‘“We turned on the TV and saw my one brother. My grandmother asked, ‘Where are they?’ My oldest brother called me and told me it was on TV. My younger brother, the one that was on TV, he has become a minister now. He doesn’t talk about it at all.’”

Many of those interviewed seemed to harbor misconceptions about both the 1979 shootings and the truth process set up a quarter century later to examine it. McKinney recalled that a pregnant woman had been shot, and said she believed either the baby or the mother was killed. Communist Workers Party member Frankie Powell, whose legs were hit with birdshot, was eight months pregnant, according to the report. Both she and her child survived.

Another person interviewed said he believed that the Klan and Nazis were never charged for the killings. In fact, they were charged but not convicted, although a jury in a federal civil trial found Klan and Nazi shooters jointly liable in 1985 for the death of one of the protesters, along with the city of Greensboro and the police department.

Others betrayed confusion about the role and power of the truth commission. One man expressed the mistaken belief that the commission had been able to offer legal amnesty in exchange for testimony. Another expressed skepticism about the commission’s integrity while seeming to associate it with the Greensboro City Council. In fact, the city council voted to oppose the truth process.

At the Quaker Village shopping center across from Guilford College, students and others seemed disengaged and uninformed.

‘“Huh?’ said Kristie Armenter, a student from Ohio who has lived in Greensboro for three years. ‘“My response is ‘huh?””

The one person interviewed who said he was aware of the report said it confirmed his suspicions.

‘“I wasn’t surprised,’” said 38-year-old Michael Burns, an unemployed man visiting with friends at the Borders’ café on High Point Road. ‘“I think the police were far more culpable than has ever been revealed.’”

‘“I think it has been beneficial, and we needed it twenty years ago,’” added Burns, who grew up in Greensboro. ‘“It was a forum designed to give every player a place to come forward.’”

Neil Shepherd, a 47-year-old UNCG theater student who was waiting to meet some friends outside the Grande movie theater on Northline Drive, said the passion of a UNCG professor, Marsha Paludan, got him interested in the shootings. Paludan directed the play Greensboro: A Requiem, whose dialogue was based on court transcripts, for UNCG Theater. Between school and work Shepherd said he’s been too busy to keep up with the truth process.

Kenneth Wolf, who was headed into the Target store on Lawndale Drive, said he had never heard of the truth commission, but he was familiar with the events of Nov. 3, 1979.

‘“I think it’s been run through the mill so many times,’” the 49-year old man said. ‘“It comes up in the news every year. You can only beat a dead horse so many times.’”

Ken, a Vietnam war veteran who declined to give his last name, expressed misgivings about both the Communist Workers Party and the Greensboro Police Department as he walked towards an ice cream shop at the corner of Holden Road and Spring Garden Street. He said he has little faith in any institution to sort fact from fiction.

‘“They botched the Klan-Nazi rally,’” he said of the Communist Workers Party. ‘“They came into town and announced, ‘Death to the Klan.’ It’s no surprise what happened. As far as the Truth and Reconciliation, I can’t make up my mind whether it’s a whitewash or a bunch of BS.’”

The veteran said his government lied to him when he was sent to fight in Vietnam. As a result, he distrusts the Greensboro City Council. As for an institution that calls itself a truth commission, he had this judgment: ‘“The Russians had a newspaper called ‘Pravda.’ That means ‘truth.’ You can slap ‘truth’ on anything, but that doesn’t make it true.’”

‘“I think both sides were wrong,’” he continued. ‘“If I fault anybody it’s the city of Greensboro. The police were a day late and a dollar short. You can’t sleep at night. When a car backfires you don’t know if it’s a war breaking out in the next neighborhood or what.’”

Matthew Davenport, a 20-year-old UNCG student who grew up in Greensboro, spoke for many students when he said examining a painful chapter of local history could help the city progress. Like most people interviewed he was unaware that the truth commission has been doing just that.

‘“I’d say it’s a sore spot on our history,’” he said. ‘“It has some racial overtones. [A truth process] would show that our city is more open-minded. I’m pretty sure it makes our city look better to look back at something that was difficult and maybe see if we can come together more.’”

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