Survivors of 1979 shootings sense unfinished business on anniversary

by Jordan Green

Paul Bermanzohn, Sally Bermanzohn and Willena Cannon (l-r), all survivors of the 1979 Klan-Nazi shootings in Greensboro’s Morningside Homes, sing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” at the beginning of a ceremony to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the incident. (photo by Jordan Green)

Mayor Yvonne Johnson addressed a group of about 50 people — survivors and their friends, clergy and nonprofit professionals, college students and others — at a Nov. 4 conference at New Light Missionary Baptist Church to commemorate the 30 th anniversary of the fatal confrontation between members of Klan-Nazi coalition and leftist activists in Morningside Homes.

“I bring you greetings from the city that 30 years ago gave birth to this tragedy,” Johnson said. “I look at these words ‘truth,’ ‘justice’ and ‘healing.’ They seem to be simple words, doable things, but for so many, so difficult. But for those of us who embrace truth, justice, love and healing, I commend you, I implore you. Because we owe truth, justice and healing to Sandra, to Bill, to Jim, to Mike and to Cesar.”

Several speakers alluded to Johnson’s electoral defeat the night before, and loss seemed to resonate with a mood of sadness, stunted hopes and setback that pervaded the room. A longtime supporter of the truth and reconciliation process, Johnson received a standing ovation from the group.

Five candles were lit for Sandra Smith, Bill Sampson, Dr. Jim Waller, Dr. Michael Nathan and Cesar Cauce, who died that day. Two other candles were lit for “all those who have fallen and for those who will come from here — the future,” explained the Rev. Ched Myers, who with his wife heads Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries in southern California and who helped preside over the ceremony.

Patricia Priest, chair of the Beloved Community Center’s board of directors sounded a set of prayer bells to begin an 88-second moment of silence before ringing them again to close the period of reflection.

“Eighty-eight seconds is all it took to take lives, traumatize a community, and hold a giant mirror up in front of the city and this country,” Myers said.

Some survivors spoke of experiencing healing through meeting with one of the Nazi shooters and a Klan leader; others said they were sustained by mutual support from fellow survivors when others shunned them. Many spoke of an abiding commitment to stand up to injustice, and to frustration about a lack of acknowledgement from the city’s government and residents.

An independent commission held public hearings that featured testimony from the survivors and their ideological foes on the racist right, among others, and released a thick report in 2006. Even though the Greensboro City Council issued a belated expression of regret earlier this year, much of the city has appeared eager to forget about the episode. Former Mayor Carolyn Allen, who was honored along with the Revs. Gregory Headen and Z. Holler as “unrecognized heroes,” is one of the few prominent citizens who has stayed engaged with the truth and reconciliation process.

“Even though it’s here in Greensboro that is the source of the pain,” survivor Sandy Bermanzohn said, “it’s also being here in Greensboro that is the source of the healing.”

Bermanzohn said she spent the first decade after the shootings depressed, but was restored through witnessing a movement to seek justice that arose over time.

“This fall, to my surprise, I felt this gloom, this dread again,” Bermanzohn said. “Here I am, Greensboro. I’m back. I still need to do some healing.”

Her husband, Paul Bermanzohn, who survived being shot in the head during the confrontation, drew a parallel between the 1979 shootings to the Holocaust, of which his mother was a survivor.

“I really think it’s important we not get over it,” he said. “I don’t know if that’s anti-healing, or what.”

The Rev. Nelson Johnson, who organized the ill-fated anti-Klan march in 1979, said his children suffered from the stigma attached to his wife and him for their communist beliefs and willingness to challenge the Klan.

“When you hear people talk about wanting to get yourself killed and being ideologically mad, and our children hear that at school, they carry that pain,” Johnson said.

Johnson, who has embraced Christianity and become an ordained minister since the time of the shootings, said he has tempered his anger with a sense of forgiveness.

“It does something to your soul unless you have a source that sustains you,” he said. “I would not be able to stay in Greensboro if it were not for that source. I’m not ashamed to say I find that in God. I really do get a little joy in this. That when people are venomously against you, it means you’re on the right track. Stay there. Rejoice in it.”

Johnson said that despite the experience of being widely demonized, he still invests his hope in Greensboro.

“It can’t be a great city until it acknowledges a measure of truth that it has not been willing to acknowledge,” he said.