Truth Report is discussed despite hostility, disinterest

by Jordan Green

An at-large city councilwoman sat before a crowd gathered in a modestly apportioned library conference room for the second of four town hall-style meetings to discuss a controversial report released by the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission last year in an event cosponsored by the city’s public library on Sunday.

The official trappings of the occasion belied the fact that the body in which Councilwoman Yvonne Johnson serves had narrowly voted down a resolution to embrace the truth process five days earlier. Now roughly in its sixth year, the truth process is a citizens initiative to examine the repercussions of a violent incident on Nov. 3, 1979 that resulted in the deaths of five labor activists and left some in Greensboro with a sense of unease and distrust towards the police because of their absence from the crime scene.

Despite the sharp divisions within official Greensboro over how to treat the truth process and the absence of popular engagement among those who live and work in the city with the succession of documents, public meetings and ceremonies that have comprised this collective effort, some questions were posed and some truths told on Sunday afternoon in the Greensboro Public Library’s Nussbaum Room. About 95 people attended the meeting.

“The main reason I’m up here is because I was wondering if someone could let me know who was the Communist Workers Party and what was it that motivated the Klan to want to kill them,” said Dexter Kendall, who joined the 1979 anti-Klan march as a mill worker drawn to the group’s call for increased wages. “You hear the word ‘communist’ and people want to back off. I didn’t know what was going on; I just knew that I needed to be supportive.”

Willena Cannon, who was then active with the various campaigns of the Workers Viewpoint Organization and its successor the Communist Workers Party, gave an answer, explaining both her attraction to communism and her ardent opposition to violent white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan.

“I witnessed where a black man was locked in a barn and it was set on fire,” said Cannon, recalling an event that took place in 1949 when she was a nine-year-old girl growing in Mullins, SC. “The sheriff came, but he didn’t think it was his business to intervene, and the Klan lit that barn on fire. I can still hear that man’s screams.

“I was a sharecropper and my family was poor,” continued Cannon, who now works as an organizer at the Greensboro Housing Coalition. “I was looking for a way out – freedom – how to be a person and not a thing to be used. I looked at communism, and I’m glad I did because it explained to me that not all white people were my enemy. And I hated white people. It gave me a way to look at the world in terms of [economic] classes. Communism is a way for everyone to share what is on God’s earth.”

Cannon added that her political journey has brought her to a point in which she no longer believes that communism holds all the solutions for social problems, just as she does not believe capitalism is a perfect system. Yet the intervening 27 years have done nothing to diminish Cannon’s view of the Klan as a threat.

“Do any of you see where the Klan’s rising up again?” she asked. “They are rising up against the immigrant and the system is not going to protect them. Look and see what your federal government is doing right now under the Patriot Act.”

Kendall, the mill worker who joined the anti-Klan march, said police absence from the scene only reinforced his distrust of law enforcement, formed after a friend involved in a domestic quarrel was shot to death by the police. He said the attack by a caravan of Klan members and Nazis on the marcher caught him off guard.

“I thought it was crazy,” he said. “I thought we were way past that. I had uncles and great uncles talking about slavery times and about people getting hung and places you couldn’t go.”

Asked if he harbored any ill will towards the labor activists for organizing the march and exposing others like himself to danger, the 51-year-old Kendall, an Air Force veteran who is now homeless and unemployed, replied, “No, I don’t feel that at all.”

Another testimonial came from a Greensboro resident who took little notice of the black freedom struggles, labor battles or economic tensions swirling in the background at the time of the 1979 tragedy. More than a decade later, Bob Foxworth said, he found himself a gradual convert to “a new way of life, a new way of thinking.”

The first thing that stuck with me is a couple groups shooting it out  who cares who wins, Foxworth said. I was a northwest Greensboro resident living over by the airport, what you would call today upwardly mobile, with four cars and a big mortgage payment, not doing anything of significance, and wondering why I was dead inside. I almost killed myself a couple times.

Now married to Signe Waller, who is a former college instructor widowed by the 1979 shootings, Foxworth gave an indication of how far removed he feels from his old life.

“I find very few people who will talk to me about November third, even people I was in the Rotary with twenty years ago,” he said. “They’re not bad people. They just don’t want to deal with the truth.”

A number of meeting participants remarked on the relative heterogeneity of the discussion group, and one critic took organizers to task for not making enough effort to engage adversaries.

“What I really hoped would be further along in the process is real genuine reconciliation,” said Elizabeth Wheaton, author of the 1987 book Code Name Greenkil: The 1979 Greensboro Killings. “I’m talking about the people who don’t see anything in this for them, the people who don’t trust the people who started this. I’d like to see more reaching out to people, even though you may not like what they have to say.”

If the truth process as a community undertaking remains an unfinished work far from realization, personal reconciliation has been easier to accomplish, according to some accounts. Waller noted that she, her son and the Rev. Nelson Johnson met with Roland Wood, who as a leader of a Winston-Salem Nazi group was one of the shooters.

“He was in the hospital and in a place where he was looking for reconciliation,” Waller said. “We did reconcile with him.” She added that she has felt supported by the process, and has also been able to repair relationships with sectarian rivals in competing communist groups with whom the Communist Workers Party was at odds at the time of the shootings.

The next town meeting to discuss the truth report is scheduled for June 10 at the public library. Councilwoman Johnson said she hoped some questions will be framed beforehand, particularly around aspects of the 1979 shootings for which there is disagreement in the community.

“I’d like to know, for instance, what the mayor doesn’t agree with in this process,” she said. “I’m not just being flippant. I encourage people to read [the report] and make notes about what you agree with and don’t agree with.”

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