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Melvin and Swing owe it to GSO to tell what they know

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By now Klansmen past and present, former communists, labor organizers, community activists and academics have stood before the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission and told what they know about the ugly rending of the city’s social fabric on Nov. 3, 1979.

Conspicuously absent as the commission undertakes the difficult challenge of constructing a single, unified narrative, with the notable exception of the District Attorney’s office, has been the testimony of official Greensboro, specifically former Mayor Jim Melvin and former Police Chief William Swing. Their participation is critical for the commission to have a full picture of the specific causes of the killings, their social context and their abiding effect on the city.

Those who have given statements to the commission and who have stood in front of hundreds of their fellow citizens to tell their stories have displayed leadership by sticking their necks out and risking their reputations to serve the greater good of community understanding. Now we need those from official Greensboro who were in decision-making positions in 1979 to come forward and help clear up the nagging questions of whether the police had prior knowledge of the impending confrontation between the white power groups and the communist labor organizers, and whether they made a conscious decision to allow the killings to happen.

If the police’s absence from Morningside Homes on Nov. 3 was simply an incomprehensible blunder, then officials have nothing to fear from their fellow citizens by coming forward to explain that. If that’s the case, then they in fact have a responsibility to set the record straight; otherwise, the lasting impression will be the survivors’ contention that they were the victims of a government-sponsored death squad.

If, on the other hand, city officials and figures in the police department bore some greater responsibility for the carnage, then it is time for them to come clean and to perhaps ask the forgiveness of those who lost loved ones in 1979. The five widowed spouses of the slain Nov. 3 victims have requested that District Attorney Stuart Albright publicly assure local and federal officials willing to testify they will be granted immunity from prosecution. And in this political climate it seems highly unlikely that the Alberto Gonzales Justice Department would launch a government prosecution.

Nov. 3 has cast a long shadow over Greensboro. Taking place at the end of the civil rights era, the killings at Morningside gave extended life to notions of the South as a region of terror and white supremacy. As a consequence, we live and work together in a Greensboro where we operate with deficit of trust in each other’s motives, and our city’s social and economic development has remained unnecessarily stunted.

The truth commission presents a grand opportunity for Greensboro to establish a proud legacy of embracing justice and transparency, but without full participation the city is likely to limp along for another 25 years under the heavy burden of shame and distrust.

Jim Melvin and William Swing, please help us dispel the shadow with the illuminating light of your testimony.

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