Race relations effort includes controversial Justice Department unit

by Jordan Green

As the Greensboro Human Relations Commission prepares to request support from the city council for a communitywide effort to improve race relations, members and staff have held discussions with a prominent local philanthropy and a section of the US Justice Department that appeared in the city during the volatile period following the 1979 Klan-Nazi shootings and played a controversial role in efforts to address the violence.

Those planning the newly named Ad Hoc Committee for Improving Race Relations also say they anticipate that the new project will coordinate with a preexisting effort championed by Mayor Keith Holliday that is designed to increase trust and cooperation by facilitating one-on-one meetings between people of different races.

The human relations commission approved a basic plan for the race-relations effort on Jan. 10 with the understanding that it could be modified to include input from other stakeholder groups before it is presented to the city council for approval on Feb. 6, said Chairman Wayne Abraham. Those groups include the Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro and UNCG’s Center for Youth, Families & Communities. The commission also plans to accept an offer of assistance from the Justice Department’s Community Relations Service.

“We have a model that the Justice Department had come up with for initiating community dialogue,” Abraham said, “but we’re going to take it past dialogue and come up with a plan of action.”

The commission has held preliminary discussions with the Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro but so far the topic of financial support has not been broached, said Tara Sandercock, the foundation’s vice president for programming.

“We at the Community Foundation are very interested in finding ways we could collaborate,” she said. “Our mission is to promote philanthropy by supporting efforts such as these…. We have as part of our vision working towards an inclusive, caring community. The Community Foundation exists to serve the wide variety of people that live in the community.”

The Community Foundation is among the financial supporters of the Mosaic Project, the city-sponsored effort to pair off people of different races and encourage them to build lasting friendships. The foundation also provided funding for a community dialogue sponsored by the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2005.

Abraham indicated that the human relations commission’s proposal to the city is still taking shape.

“We will seek council support for the project,” he said. “I’m not sure what form it will take until we’ve negotiated with all the groups. Initially we thought the whole price [would have to be covered by the city]. I think we will ask for some support in [terms of] financial commitment, but how much is unknown at this point.”

The human relations commission hopes to establish a collaborative relationship between the Ad Hoc Committee to Improve Race Relations and the Mosaic Project, said John Shaw, an employee of the city. As an indication of the tangled web of organizations involved in supporting and carrying out human relations work in the city, Shaw is both the staff director of the city’s human relations department and a co-director of the semi-official Mosaic Project.

Whether the human relations commission expends commensurate effort to reach out to the Greensboro Truth & Community Reconciliation Project, an informal group that is hosting an ongoing series of community discussions about the implications of the Klan-Nazi shootings, remains to be seen.

“When last we met on Tuesday [Jan. 9], no one had mentioned any contact,” said former Mayor Carolyn Allen, a co-chair of the project’s local task force. She added: “It seems to me that all undertakings are worthwhile. Who does them does not seem to be as important as how effective they are.”

The community discussions hosted by the truth project are designed to respond to the findings of a report released in May 2006 by the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and independent body that was disbanded when its work was concluded.

“The mayor tasked [the human relations commission] with recommending a suitable response to the report, as I recall,” said the Rev. Zeb Holler, also a co-chair of the local task force. “And I haven’t heard anything since.”

At-large Councilmember Yvonne Johnson said in a December interview that she shared Holler’s recollection that the city’s elected officials had agreed months earlier to have the human relations department fashion a response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report. Maxine Bateman, vice-chair of the human relations commission, said in an interview around the same time that she expected the proposed race-relations discussions to encompass the legacy of the 1979 shootings.

Another more contemporary conflict also spurred the initiative. Citizens “among major sectors of the community” had lost trust in the police department, following a polarizing power struggle within the force that saw the resignation of Chief David Wray in January 2006, Bateman said. The proposed race-relations dialogue comes at a time when the State Bureau of Investigation is expected to wrap up a criminal investigation of administrative practices in the Wray administration sometime in the next two months.

It was the embattled chief’s departure from the police department that brought the Justice Department into the picture, Shaw said, noting that he received a call from Charles Phillips of the department’s Community Relations Service “shortly after the news broke that David Wray resigned.”

“He said they do community dialogues and they would be more than happy to help,” Shaw said. “I said, ‘We do a lot of dialogues too.’ We always need resources though. I think the individual we talked to agreed to be a facilitator, and that would be welcome because we do need a facilitator.”

The federal agency’s mission statement describes it as the department’s “peacemaker for community conflicts and tensions arising from differences of race, color and national origin. Created by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, CRS is the only federal agency dedicated to assist state and local units of government, private and public organizations, and community groups with preventing and resolving racial and ethnic tensions, incidents and civil disorders, and in restoring racial stability and harmony.”

Shaw said members of the human relations commission have reviewed the Community Relations Service’s “Community Dialogue Guide.”

“I don’t see them as being a key player,” he said. “We probably will use some of those methods, but I don’t think we’re going to follow it straight down the line.” George Henderson, the agency’s general counsel in Washington described the guide as “a model that has been used in certain communities to address community concerns and tensions, and to have fair and candid discussions about issues of importance.

“If the community feels that there are certain levels of tension that could possibly be based on race, ethnicity or nation of origin,” he added, “then this office will offer a neutral, third-party person to facilitate the discussion.”

The Community Relations Service’s track record for addressing tensions and encouraging dialogue is decidedly troubling for some. The last time the agency sent representatives to Greensboro may have been late 1979, as the city reeled from the shooting deaths of five communist labor activists and elected officials braced for civil disorder.

Leah Wise, now the executive director of the Southeast Regional Economic Justice Network in Durham, became active with the hastily formed Triangle Vigil Committee after the shootings. She said visits by Community Relations Service representatives to African-American pastors helped scuttle a planned demonstration to express outrage about the violence.

“The Community Relations Service had a reputation, and it certainly surfaced after the murders in Greensboro,” Wise said. “I think they thought they were trying to defuse tensions, but they played a very negative role in red-baiting activist leaders. The first mobilization was in late November or early December 1979. We couldn’t pull it off because they so scared the ministers by showing them the dossiers of activists.”

Later, Wise served on the steering committee for a Feb. 2, 1980 march in Greensboro. Organized in Atlanta by a coalition of progressive groups concerned about the resurrection of the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups, the Feb. 2 march marked the emergence of the National Anti-Klan Network.

“From the standpoint of those of us who were trying to protest the murders and the horrors that they represented to peace and justice activists all over, they were not an ally for us,” Wise said. “Their role was not a positive one.”

The Community Relations Service’s Henderson said he was unaware of charges that the agency has acted to disrupt progressive movements.

“I have no knowledge of those allegations ever having been made,” he said.

Abraham, of the city human relations commission, said he sees the Justice Department’s role in the current effort as different from what might have taken place after the 1979 shootings.

“This is mainly a model for how to have a community dialogue, so that’s the model that human relations is using,” he said. “I think this was more generating community dialogue about race relations.”

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