Present bumps up against past in truth discussion
A town meeting hosted by the Greensboro Truth & Community Reconciliation Project at the Central Library on Sunday drew about 60 people, many of whom expressed grave concerns that the city and its citizens have failed to acknowledge the significance of the Nov. 3, 1979 killings in Morningside Homes.
Five members of the Communist Workers Party were gunned down in the streets by a coalition of Klansmen and Nazis who responded to provocative “death to the Klan” language in rally literature. In addition to the rise of white supremacist groups, the slain activists had also been calling attention to poverty, police brutality and what they saw as poor working conditions in area textile mills. The Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission determined in its 2006 report that the absence of police was the most significant factor in the death of the activists.
Combatants on both sides had firearms, but the sequence of shots and the number of shots fired by each side remains in dispute. Klan and Nazi defendants were acquitted in a state criminal trial and a federal criminal trial on the basis of self-defense. A third civil trial found the city of Greensboro and individual Klansmen and Nazis jointly liable for the death of one of the demonstrators.
“The whole idea of balancing what [the police] did against what the CWP did is ludicrous,” said Ed Whitfield, an employee of Lorillard Tobacco and a writer who ran unsuccessfully for city council in 2005.
“The CWP doesn’t exist anymore. The police department continues to exist. Besides that, the police department is our organization. When are we as citizens going to demand that they take responsibility for it? The police department has yet to own up to any part of it.”
Some of the meeting’s participants suggested that present-day injustices threaten to overtake efforts to address past injustices.
“One of the challenges I’ve found in the community is the question of relevance,” said the Rev. Nelson Johnson, the principal organizer of the fateful 1979 anti-Klan demonstration. “‘That was then; this is now.’ Every generation denies its culpability at the point it was raised. I want to stay in the moment right now. People say, ‘I don’t really know what happened; I wasn’t here.’ I say, ‘Have you heard what happened to Dianne Bellamy-Small?'”
A special election has been scheduled to allow voters in District 1 to decide whether to recall Bellamy-Small, an outspoken African-American councilwoman who earned the ire of fellow councilwoman Florence Gatten for allegedly leaking a confidential report on problems within the police department, distributing bus passes to poor people and complaining about a white police officer’s treatment of her during a traffic stop.
Gatten publicly called for Bellamy-Small’s resignation – a gesture Signe Waller, who was widowed by the Nov. 3, 1979 shootings, suggested reflects a continuing climate of racial paternalism.
“I had a picture of Florence Gatten saying to T. Dianne Bellamy-Small, a duly elected official, ‘Your rights extend only as far as I say they do.'”
Bellamy-Small prompted a round of applause when she rose to comment. She noted that she served as a police officer shortly before the 1979 shootings, and reiterated her assertion that she was not responsible for leaking the confidential police report last year.
“There was a report given to us before the RMA report that moved me to tears,” she said. “What I saw led me to tears because I saw that nothing had changed. Black officers [still] have reason for fear.”
Bellamy-Small suggested that proponents push for the city council to acknowledge the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Report after the November elections, adding that they should also ask the council to establish a police review board and request a meeting with City Manager Mitchell Johnson and police Chief Tim Bellamy.
Comments by a 38-year-old political science student at NC A&T University suggested that the official intransigence might not be the only hurdle to getting past and present concerns addressed. Activists might also have to contend with the passivity of citizens.
The student, who declined to give her name, said she grew up in Morningside Homes and that she faulted the communist activists for bringing trouble to her community.
“In 1979 I lived in Morningside Homes,” she said. “I want to let you know that there are some young people who know what happened. We saw the dead people lying in the streets. You didn’t live here, but you brought your violence.”
Despite her firsthand connection to the bloodshed, the woman downplayed the significance of the shootings.
“I’m going to choose to make my master’s in public administration,” she said. “It’s not that it’s out of our minds. People just don’t like to talk about it. You don’t need to keep hammering the nail and figuring out who to blame. If you want to get it in the history books I’m sure some of you have some connections. I’m only here because I have to be here. I’m trying to get ten points [to pass a class].”
Johnson suggested that concerns about redressing past injustices might soon be overshadowed by ominous current developments.
“We were having a pilgrimage here today,” Johnson said, “and a Latino sister came to us. She said, ‘I’m literally afraid to leave my house.’ Our sheriff signed on with [Immigration and Customs Enforcement]. There’s an immigration situation that has to be resolved. You’d better believe that the solution is not to be running down people in the street, particularly a helpless Latino woman. Fifty years later, will we say, ‘How did we allow that to happen?'”
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