Truth and resistance: city leaders divided on call for amends

by Jordan Green

When the seven members of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission released their report on May 25 about the Nov. 3, 1979 shootings in which Klansmen and Nazis drove into a black housing project and killed five communist labor activists with police absent from the scene, they did more than just apportion responsibility among the participants of that tragic event.

They called on Greensboro’s present-day residents and political leadership to acknowledge the lingering pain of the day, and to address what the commissioners point to as continuous racial and class disparities that allowed violence to break out in 1979 and, they contend, still leave Greensboro human relations on a knife’s edge. Highlighting the Greensboro City Council’s 6-3 vote along racial lines in April 2005 to oppose the truth process, the report pointed to a ‘“deep brokenness in our community and leaders’ tendency toward suppression of truth-seeking and other efforts to insist on accountability.’”

‘“Greensboro has a reputation for civility, but civility based on superficiality is silly,’” said Commissioner Mark Sills, an ordained Methodist minister who is the executive director of the immigrant services organization Faith Action. ‘“Civility that is based on ignoring past injustices is foolish. Civility that is based on intentional falsehood is ultimately self-destructive.’”

As the commissioners and their staff handed out copies of the report’s executive summary to a capacity crowd in the Annie Merner Pfeiffer Chapel on the campus of the historically black Bennett College, they had some international support, even as most of Greensboro’s elected leadership stayed away from the event.

Speaking at the end of the ceremony, the Rev. Peter Storey, a visiting Duke University professor and former president of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa, said: ‘“We know what it is like to deal with a past we are ashamed of, a past we thought we had buried, but which like toxic waste can still seep to the surface. It is now up to Greensboro. Your truth and reconciliation commission has not failed you; do not fail your truth and reconciliation commission.’”

Two years in, the reactions of black and white elected officials show that whether that challenge is embraced or not continues to reflect how the truth process is viewed through the prism of race. [See ‘“Council: 6-3 on truth, again’” on page 7]

‘“I do believe that all the council members are committed to having a better life for all citizens, so I think they will look at the report and study its findings to make an informed decision,’” said Councilwoman Goldie Wells, who represents majority-black District 2 and who was the only city council member present at the ceremony. ‘“It can’t really be ignored, but how we recognize the day is going to require a lot of discussion. I just believe in apologizing when I find out I’ve made a mistake; that’s my personal policy. What the council decides to do is anybody’s guess.’”

Councilwoman Yvonne Johnson, the only African American elected as an at-large representative and someone widely viewed as a future contender for mayor, said that all parties, including the former members of the Communist Workers Party and their white supremacist adversaries, should be more willing to express contrition for their respective roles in the violence.

That also goes for the city of Greensboro, she hastens to add.

‘“There is a place for apologies from everybody,’” she said. ‘“That includes the Communist Workers Party folks, the Klan and the Nazis, and the police. We should apologize for that negligence that we never apologized for. The fact that the [federal] court found the police department civilly liable [in 1985] ‘—’ if I had been on the council at that time, I would have apologized to the community.

‘“It is time for us to hang up those banners of hatred,’” she added. ‘“You don’t have to accept everybody’s ideology. This is one of the greatest countries in the world, but if we cannot live and accept that people have different belief systems, and at least respect for them to have them, then I think we are on shaky ground.’”

In contrast to Johnson and Wells, reaction from members of the city’s white political leadership has ranged from caution to indifference and distrust.

Mayor Keith Holliday, who has not responded to repeated requests for comment from YES! Weekly, has told other media outlets that he believes continued expressions of regret are more appropriate than an apology.

Other members of the city council said the Memorial Day holiday and the city’s budget have distracted them from looking at the report.

At-large Councilwoman Florence Gatten said ‘“the executive summary just makes me crazy because there are all these assertions,’” and she wanted to read the full report to see how the claims were substantiated.

Many white members of the Guilford County Commission, with the notable exception of vocal critic Billy Yow, have opted to withhold comment on the report’s recommendations for policy changes to address the disparities alleged to threaten Greensboro’s social cohesion by the truth commission.

Commissioner Skip Alston, a former president of the NC NAACP, said he ‘“one hundred percent’” supports the truth commission’s call for Greensboro and Guilford County to require contractors and subcontractors to pay a so-called living wage, to require anti-racism training for local government employees and to increase funding for public health and social services. Chairwoman Carolyn Coleman, who also holds an elected position with the NC NAACP, largely concurred with Alston.

The members of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission acknowledged that it remains to be seen whether a broad base of civil society embraces the process. They are heartened that a wide array of groups have agreed to read the report and discuss it among themselves, the Rev. Mark Sills said, including the Griffin Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in Charlotte, whose leader led white supremacists to Greensboro in 1979, along with the Greensboro Police Department, the NC October 22nd Coalition to Stop Police Brutality and Episcopal clergy of North Carolina.

So far dialogue seems to be the most concrete outcome of the truth process, with local elected officials divided by race on the merits of commission’s work. Non-governmental institutions have been similarly hesitant to embrace the commission’s recommendations.

Representative of the open-ended nature of the commission’s legacy to Greensboro is a recommendation to religious leaders to ‘“plan and facilitate a healing workshop and retreat for the children of CWP members, shooters and others directly involved in the events of Nov. 3, 1979.’”

‘“The best strategy would be for it to be under a coalition of religious leaders,’” Sills said. ‘“We didn’t assign anyone to the task. We hope that someone in the community would be inspired by that concept, and say, ‘I’ll do that.’

‘“You have to understand,’” he added, ‘“we don’t know for sure the names of every shooter. It would be a somewhat complicated process.’”

The Rev. Ken Massey, who as pastor of Greensboro’s First Baptist Church is one of the few leaders of large, predominantly white congregations who has engaged with the truth process, said he was intrigued by the proposal but uncertain how it would be practically implemented.

‘“They would have a different pathology than their parents,’” he said. ‘“Children are the unrecognized victims of what their parents have been through. I think it would have to be done through their own spiritual leaders, assuming they are part of a faith community.’”

The commissioners themselves have expressed doubt about the outcome of their efforts.

‘“The experience of searching for the truth around November 3rd has been a toxic one,’” Muktha Jost, a professor at NC A&T University’s School of Education, wrote in a personal reflection. ‘“To talk about race, class, police, capital and labor all at the same time is not just divisive, but a splintering and shattering activity that can leave you standing on a lonesome precipice for a long time’…. While I hope that our work helps bridge some divides, I am somewhat skeptical.’”

Jost suggests that the survival of democracy itself is at stake.

‘“The findings of the TRC process for me are quite sinister,’” she wrote. ‘“Rifts among people ended in death. Institutions failed the premises of their first principles.’”

Given the official resistance to the commission’s findings on police responsibility for the bloodshed on Nov. 3, 1979, reaction to its judgment on socio-economic gaps might be complete puzzlement.

‘“Today it’s not a very hopeful situation,’” Jost said. ‘“It’s a highly capitalistic system, which is very predatory. The bottom line is money, whether it’s education or healthcare. We really stop being a community, and we become networks of people. A lot of people feel we need to change, but they feel powerless and trapped. I see a lot of disillusionment from the young people toward the older people. We really don’t deserve their respect. We prey on them. We teach them about credit cards.’”

The heart of the tragedy around Nov. 3, 1979 is that police, courts and elected leadership only took stock of the particulars of the moment and neglected to consider the larger context of race and class oppression, she said.

‘“I truly did see the Klan as making some personal mistakes,’” Jost said, ‘“but when I looked at them as a group that did these terrible crimes over more than a hundred years with the institutional backing of society, that’s something different. I don’t think the lawyer and judges understand what it means to hand out a verdict that says two shots fired by the Klan were ‘calming shots.’ That just cries out for them to go study history.’”

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