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Speakers point the way forward for truth process

by Jordan Green

People have begun to discuss issues of class and race that exploded in the death of five protesters on Nov. 3, 1979 because of the work of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission, speakers said at last weekend’s hearing.

But some also warned that conditions for the least fortunate in this country have grown more dire in the past 26 years, creating the climate for similar incidents in the future.

‘“Some of those forces that created a 1979 still exist today,’” said Millicent Brown, an assistant history professor at NC A&T University. ‘“These horrors of the past have every opportunity of repeating themselves.’”

Historians, activists, politicians, victims and their children gathered at UNCG’s Elliot Center on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1 to discuss what the events of 1979 have to do with the present and future. The commission has operated in the face of opposition from Mayor Keith Holliday and a 6-3 majority of the Greensboro City Council.

Some of the criticism leveled at the commission comes from those who believe the events are best forgotten. Others defined the violence as a clash exclusive to two extremist groups who had little in common with most Greensboro residents. At the last of three public hearings, the commissioners heard from speakers who addressed the issue of relevance to the community of proceedings held 26 years after the fact.

Timothy Tyson, author of the critically acclaimed book Blood Done Sign My Name, about a racially motivated killing in his hometown of Oxford, NC, spoke on Sept. 30. When Tyson was 11 years old a playmate ran up to his house to tell him, ‘“Daddy and Roger and ’em done shot themselves a nigger.’” The subsequent acquittal of the murderer sparked violent protests in the county and a code of silence in the community about the incident.

Tyson’s fascination with the case led to an undergraduate research paper that became his master’s thesis at Duke and finally evolved into a full-length book. He talked about how pages describing the murder were torn from a copy of his master’s thesis left at the Oxford Public Library. Since the publication of the book, the community has opened up about the murder and the conditions that led to it.

‘“In Oxford, thousands of people have read this book,’” Tyson said. ‘“I’ve been shocked and amazed at what has happened. I’m not going to say multiracial utopia has descended on Granville County, but people have gotten together to talk about this.’”

‘“I was kind of a one-man truth and reconciliation commission,’” he said.

Tyson shared the final panel with Brown and another A&T assistant history professor, Michael Roberto. One question aimed at the group involved how to bring public officials into the dialogue about what happened in 1979 in order to engage the entire community.

‘“I’m very disappointed in your public officials,’” Tyson said. ‘“I think it is the height of folly.’”

Roberto suggested bringing a large group to a city council meeting to discuss the issue until some agreement could be reached. Lisa Magarrell, a senior associate with the International Center for Transitional Government, said that government officials in other countries often resist the work of truth and reconciliation commissions. The center has advised commissions in Peru and Indonesia as well as the Greensboro project.

‘“The truth commissions we’ve dealt with were usually created after regime changes,’” Magarrell said. ‘“There is resistance within those governments because often even though we’re dealing with huge changes, that doesn’t mean everything has changed.’”

Some local government officials have said that Greensboro is not the same place it was in 1979, and that there is no need to reexamine the events of Nov. 3. Two members of local government who have supported the process opened the third public hearing: Greensboro Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson and Jeff Thigpen, Guilford County register of deeds and a former county commissioner.

Johnson, an African American, pointed to the larger number of elected officials of color as an improvement since 1979. But she also referred to a recent ‘State of the Piedmont’ meeting in which the only minority participants were a group from Malachi House that sang the national anthem. She also noted the disappearance of the textile jobs the Communist Workers Party was working to unionize in 1979 and stressed economic development as a way to bridge the gap between rich and poor.

Johnson, one of the three members of the city council who supported the truth and reconciliation process, said the current, stable city government would prevent a Nov. 3 from happening today. Even without the threat of racial violence, the city deserves a full account of its history, she said.

‘“We celebrate so much history that is old,’” she said. ‘“We all celebrate lots of things in this country. That argument sounds real shallow to me.’”

Thigpen addressed the issue of relevance of the CWP and the Ku Klux Klan to the entire community. The majority of Greensboro residents sympathize with neither the Klan nor the communists, he said.

‘“The message we send is that people don’t matter as much because we disagreed with what they stood for,’” Thigpen said.

How the commission frames the issue, whether it is about unions, race or the community, might make the difference between whether the city officials endorse the final report, he said. He also suggested that the commission educate themselves about how the media work to better communicate their goals.

Joyce Johnson, who is married to Nelson Johnson, and Willena Cannon, a CWP member who arrived on the scene after the shooting, also spoke Friday. Both of them recalled not only the friends they lost that day, but also an aftermath marked by job discrimination and economic hardship. Cannon, who was arrested that day, implicated the police in the shootings and District Attorney Mike Schlosser in the acquittal of the Klansmen who fired at the protesters.

Cannon said she couldn’t get a job until 1990. Police conducted surveillance on her home, including tapping her phone, and followed her car. But many of the relationships frayed by the shootings have been mended in the last few years, she said.

Johnson described a difficult childhood surrounded by loving and supportive community members as the inspiration for her commitment to social justice in college at Duke University and beyond. She also discussed both the bad and the good things that happened to her family after 1979. Her children endured the depiction of their father as a villain in the media, but supportive community members provided food and protection.

‘“We need to look past the posturing and bravado from 1979,’” Johnson said. ‘“All of us must take responsibility for the words we spoke. But it is not the same to speak as it is to commit murder.’”

Although her statement focused on the past, she referred to Hurricane Katrina as ‘“a bolt of lightning’” that revealed racial and economic divisions still existing in this country. She and other speakers referred to the racial achievement gap in schools, rising unemployment and inner city violence as problems worse now than in 1976. Johnson thanked the commission for creating a space where the community can address the past with an eye toward helping future generations.

On the second day of hearings, Carlton Eversley, a pastor who worked to exonerate former death row inmate Darryl Hunt, detailed his 20-year journey to justice and how it divided the city of Winston-Salem. After DNA evidence proved Hunt innocent, the mayor convened a Commission on Racial Healing to address the racial division surrounding the murder of a young white woman.

‘“There is something remarkably redemptive about a community surrounding somebody who’s been injured,’” Eversley said.

One of the Nov. 3 widows, Dr. Martha Nathan, spoke before the commission about the work and goals of the Greensboro Justice Fund, which was formed after the killings. The fund provides money to Southern grassroots work fighting homophobia, racism and religious violence. She also described the tragedy of losing her first husband and the father of her oldest daughter that day.

‘“You can’t replace the brilliant, young lost lives but you can tell the world the truth and tell our society how to prevent this from ever happening again,’” Nathan said. She challenged the commission to present a report that acknowledged police and Klan responsibility in the killings, a point which a civil court agreed with in 1985 when it awarded Nathan $350,000 for her husband’s death. Nathan also said she and other widows were not approached by prosecutors in the criminal cases, which contradicts the testimony given by the district attorney.

Two children of parents involved in the CWP gave testimony on the second day of the public hearing. Cesar Weston, who was named after his mother’s first husband, the slain Cesar Cauce, talked about how the event determined his commitment to social justice. Nov. 3 also scarred his mother ‘— an injury that was passed down to him, he said.

‘“To say this event is a piece of the past is a crime against the survivors,’” Weston said. ‘“This is a lived experience for a number of people.’”

Another Guilford College student Alison Duncan, the daughter of CWP members, gave a statement about how 1979 affected her life. She expressed a mixture of cynicism and hope that the world could become a more just place. Commissioner Barbara Walker pointed to Weston and Duncan’s testimony as proof that the commission is already starting to heal the community.

‘“Those two children said they had never been able to talk about what Nov. 3 meant to them,’” Walker said. ‘“Just providing the place for them to be heard we hope will provide some measure of healing.’”

A number of community activists shared the forum with survivors and historians. Many of them made suggestions for a police review board to improve relations between the police and the community. Other suggestions included building a monument to the five lives lost that day. The commissioners expressed satisfaction with the suggestions, which they said proved the commission was not a retrial or a body bent on revenge.

‘“The healing has been demonstrated by expressions of regret and the apologies,’” said Commissioner Bob Peters. ‘“There will be no revenge; everybody has made mistakes. We learn by mistakes to not make them in the future.’”

The president of Greensboro’s Pulpit Forum, Mazie Ferguson, delivered the final statement on Oct. 1. In it, she described a life filled with struggle against racial injustice. Despite her and others’ years of struggle, she talked about a world still marked by inequality.

‘“The wounds are still here,’” she said. ‘“The wounds are quite present. These wounds walk up and down our streets. They are known by the name of racism.’”

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission will take both the documentary evidence and participants’ statements into their deliberations. A Community Dialogue open to the public is scheduled for Nov. 5. Once the commission has considered all the information, it will draft a final report that will include an evaluation of different parties’ accountability and suggestions for local government.

Audience members applauded the testimony delivered in last weekend’s public hearing. As the commissioners ended the session, they expressed their feelings about how the process has affected them.

‘“We had seven very different people on this panel,’” said Commissioner Mark Sills, ‘“but somehow they were the seven right people.’”

Greensboro’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which is the first empanelled in the United States, is being evaluated as a model for dialogue in places such as Flint, Mich., Atlanta, Mississippi and Florida, Magarell said.

‘“We need to look with new eyes and innovative methods while reviewing this monster called racism to make sure we get rid of it,’” Ferguson said.

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com.

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