What’s wrong in Greensboro?

by Jordan Green

This is the second in a three-part series about the Greensboro City Council’s votes on human relations.

On Election Day 2006 a groundswell of dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq ushered voters to the polls. When the results were tallied, Congress would tip from Republican to Democratic control. Locally, bond initiatives to pay for a downtown civil rights museum, an aquatic center, new fire stations and the refurbishment of War Memorial Auditorium hung in the balance.

The Greensboro City Council was otherwise preoccupied.

Members had gone into closed session to receive a report from the Raleigh consulting group Risk Management Associates identifying a leaked document detailing abuses within the police department. The consultants identified the leaked document as having belonged to District 1 Councilwoman Dianne Bellamy-Small.

Back in open session, a unanimous council – with the exception of Bellamy-Small and District 2 Councilwoman Goldie Wells, who were both absent – voted to reveal that information to the public. Among those who voted in favor of disclosing the results of the forensic investigation was at-large Councilwoman Yvonne Johnson, a candidate for mayor and, like Bellamy-Small, one of the three African-American members of council,

After the meeting adjourned at 8:40 p.m. an upbeat Mayor Keith Holliday walked over to the Old County Courthouse, where a crowd had gathered to monitor the election returns. He readily accommodated questions from reporters about Bellamy-Small’s alleged transgression.

For the record, Bellamy-Small has maintained that she was not responsible for leaking the report to the News & Record or anyone else, for that matter.

“A majority of the city council approved this action in order to maintain the public trust in the ongoing investigative process and to fulfill the commitment to openness and transparency, as legally appropriate by this city council,” Holliday had said in a prepared statement during the council meeting.

Bellamy-Small’s estrangement from her fellow council members would deepen the next year when at-large Councilwoman Florence Gatten, also an at-large representative, called for Bellamy-Small’s resignation. Johnson has kept her own counsel throughout the storm of controversy that has beset her colleague from District 1.

Gatten would claim in February 2007 that Bellamy-Small’s alleged responsibility for the leaked RMA report, a traffic incident in which she was accused of using her position as an elected official to get out of a ticket, her demands on staff time, her supposed discourtesy toward a group of Honda executives and her practice of distributing bus passes to poor people made her unfit for office.

The incident prompted charges of racial paternalism by the Pulpit Forum, a network of African-American pastors in Greensboro.

“The day is gone when someone outside of our community dictates who our leadership should be,” said the Rev. Eva Ratliff, president of the Pulpit Forum, reading from a prepared statement following Gatten’s public pronouncement. “We would caution our brothers and sisters in City Council District 1 to take the time to meet and talk in detail with Ms. Small before rushing to judgment on the basis of charges by a person who has opposed almost everything positive from our community perspective.”

The truth will not die

The pastors left unsaid what Gatten had opposed in the past. Chiefly, that was the truth and reconciliation process, a grassroots effort to examine the causes and consequences of the Nov. 3, 1979 shootings. On that day communist labor activists led by one Nelson Johnson – now a pastor at Faith Community Church and a prominent member of the Pulpit Forum – were killed by Klansmen and nazis in the Morningside Homes public housing community.

They did pointedly ask whether Gatten was planning a run for mayor and whether her call for Bellamy-Small’s resignation was an appeal to the worst racist instincts of the electorate’s white majority. And later, Bellamy-Small’s supporters would frame the resignation call as part of an effort to drive a wedge between outspoken black leadership and more moderate black leaders in local elected office. As it turned out, Gatten would later announce her retirement from local politics and Yvonne Johnson would launch her campaign for mayor.

The attack against Bellamy-Small antagonized those who had been frustrated by the white political establishment’s unwillingness to support the truth and reconciliation process. Bellamy-Small has been a vocal supporter of the truth process, and in that matter she and Yvonne Johnson were in alignment. The two, joined by then-District 2 Councilwoman Claudette Burroughs-White, had voted against a motion to oppose the truth process in April 2005. That vote would set the pattern for the council’s handling of the truth process, with the council’s six white members for the most part overriding its three black members.

In June 2006, shortly after the release of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Report, Burroughs-White’s successor, Goldie Wells, introduced a motion to have council members read the report and give their reactions. Councilman Mike Barber, who represents District 4, introduced a substitute motion for council members to read the report and voluntarily meet for an unofficial round-table discussion. His motion passed 6-3, again along racial lines.

“The process has been completed; truths have been revealed,” Wells had said. “We need to move expeditiously to restore trust. Every citizen needs to feel safe in their neighborhood. As a governing body I think we have a responsibility to say something as a collective. I know [the truth commission] didn’t just come up with it off the top of their heads. It sends a bad message if we ignore it.”

Barber responded, “I’m the attorney that incorporated the truth and reconciliation process. That is their right to do what they did, and it is our right to not get involved.”

The council would end up holding an informal discussion about the truth process a month later at which Barber, like other white council members, would say little. Without taking formal action, council members proposed tasking the city’s Human Relations Commission with leading a forward-looking citywide conversation about race and inequality that would encompass immigration as well as traditional black-white issues.

That project remains in the planning stages, said Wayne Abraham, chairman of the Human Relations Commission. The commission has been reluctant to draw too bold a line between its project and the truth process even though Abraham acknowledged that it was spawned by the city council’s reaction to the truth report. He added that he was unaware of any specific plans to address immigration.

“It will be bringing people together, educating them, and having them work to solve mutually identified problems as well as developing personal relationships,” he said. “It’s a different kind of process, but I think it’s responding to our mission as a commission. Our goal is to bring people together in the community and help improve relations between all people.”

Six months later the truth process would be considered dead in the minds of white council members, but later discussion would prove that the matter was far from settled.

At a city council retreat in January 2007, Wells asked her fellow council members to set a date to officially respond to the truth report. Holliday responded that he had polled four other white members and determined that they felt as he did – that council should pursue the matter no further. Five being a majority, he did just that. Black council members – Yvonne Johnson in particular – were outraged that they had not been consulted.

Holliday later acknowledged that the whites-only consultation was a misstep.

“Without a doubt I was wrong,” he said. “I apologized profusely.”

Wells didn’t give up, but nor did Holliday or other white council members revise their views.

Wells introduced a motion in March 2007 to rescind the April 2005 vote to oppose the truth process, to have the council officially receive the truth report, to seriously consider its recommendations, to urge citizens to read the report and to encourage respect for all people. The motion failed, again with the three black officials voting in the minority. In a twist, they were joined by one white member. Just before casting her vote, at-large Councilwoman Sandra Anderson Groat said, “In the spirit of unity, I’ll support it.”

Bellamy-Small suggested in her remarks that the vote constituted an important symbolic threshold for the city.

“Harm has historically been done to people of color,” she said. “In many instances, that has been done by the government. Greensboro stands at a crossroads. We can become a global city or remain a small Southern city with an unfair good-old boy system.”

Yvonne Johnson also spoke up in support of the truth process. What’s more, she would volunteer later in March to facilitate a town meeting to discuss the truth report. She told organizers with the Greensboro Truth and Community Reconciliation Project, one of the sponsoring organizations, that she felt so strongly about the value of the truth process that she was willing risk losing her bid for mayor if voters considered her involvement a liability.

For Holliday, the motion was something else: an unnecessary source of division. With no way out of the deadlock, he reasoned, the council would only reopen an old wound by deliberating and taking official action.

“I was so opposed to having a vote [in April 2005],” he said. “I tried to talk the council out of having the vote. I got outvoted on the vote. As a result we ended up with a line in the sand which was maybe symbolic, and we’ve been paying the price for it ever since.”

And though she voted with the three black council members, Groat suggested she also viewed Wells’ motion with distaste.

“We’re pitting groups against each other,” she said. “Quite frankly, my support and commitment to the African-American community has nothing to do with whether I agree with these resolutions. I really think reconciliation is at the heart. It’s an inside job.”

Bellamy-Small, champion and martyr of the truth process

In May, a citizens committee in District 1 gathered a sufficient number of signatures to mandate a special election so voters could decide whether Bellamy-Small could keep her seat. Given the city’s recall ordinance, the council was narrowly constrained to setting a date for the special election. Nonetheless, the vote summoned a host of longstanding grievances among African Americans, and Bellamy-Small’s supporters filled council chambers.

“What is taking place in our city is a travesty that was birthed and initiated by this council,” said the Rev. Cardes Brown, pastor at New Light Baptist Church. “I want to say that I think this council has done more to divide this city than any that I have had the privilege to know. It’s very blatant in its decisions, very biased in its decision, and in most cases those issues that affect African Americans – persons who contribute to this city – are very racially decided.

“The issues that have been of concern to us, the pain that we have lived with over the years from Nov. 3, 1979 – I pastored a church between Everitt Street and McConnell Road,” he continued. “I could look out the door of my church and see the blood-spattering of what happened in this city. My members were there at the site of that rally. No, it hasn’t gone away. And yet along racial lines you decided that, ‘No, we would not even consider a report that was only offered to see what benefit it could be, so nothing like that would happen again.'”

Brown warned the council members to take heed of mounting racial tensions.

“The truth of the matter is all these awards and recognitions that I’ve heard you receiving earlier – that’s not what everybody thinks of Greensboro. I’ve traveled the length and breadth of this nation, and people ask the question: What’s wrong in Greensboro? And I know they’re talking about racial tensions.

“Your report card is not that good with the black community,” he continued. “And I know, Mr. Mayor, you’re getting ready to step down, and I’ve had a lot of respect for you over the years. But I want you to know that the perception is that you really don’t care what happens to us.”

Nothing in speakers’ comments about what council members might have done to create an environment where distrust of Bellamy-Small flourished nor its voting record on the truth process appeared to make much impression on Barber, the district representative for northwest Greensboro, which is predominantly affluent and white. In fact, he suggested that it was wrong for Brown and other Bellamy-Small supporters to have a platform to express their grievances at all.

“I was just reminded that this was a process, but when this council takes up an issue and the comments are completely unrelated to the issue than this process has become a flawed process,” he said. “No one here signed the petition. And I would certainly be criticized if I suggested to you why you thought or voted a certain way. It is just as atrocious for you to do the same to me. I emphasize again that we are here to choose a date; we are not here to stand and be criticized.”

Moving forward?

As mayor pro tem, Groat finds herself in a position to mediate between the black bloc of three and the more unyielding white members of council. By profession, she is a homebuilder, and has made low-income African Americans her target market.

“I really want to be a bridge builder,” she said in a recent interview. “I would really like to be a peacemaker. I know that I’m not African American. I think I have really lived and worked in the African-American community. I understand a great deal about what they’re talking about. Because of who I am I understand what it is to be white. I understand the other side of that racial thing too.”

Almost half a century after four NC A&T University students desegregated the Woolworth’s lunch counter on Elm Street, comments by Holliday in his last year in office as mayor suggest that city leaders remain lodged in a thicket of competing tugs burnishing Greensboro’s progressive self-image on race relations, making modest concessions to aggrieved opinion and resisting radical change.

“It is a moving target,” Holliday said. “You are never done. Human relations work is never completed. You’ve got to always instill openness. The city government does have a role to play in terms of trying to foster better human relations. One of the ways is instigating program, whether it’s a racial basis or a religious basis, to do the things necessary to bring the sides together.

“Celebrating diversity is a must as far as Keith Holliday is concerned,” he continued. “Don’t look at it as an impediment that we’ve got eighty different nationalities. We’ve got to be constantly trying to tear down walls, and trying to reinforce the ideal that this is a melting-pot city.”

He hedged then, and reflected that diversity might actually be a liability.

“From a human relations perspective it would be a whole lot easier to get along if we were the same race – heck if we were the same gender,” he said. “The more alike, in theory, the better we would get along. The more diverse you are the more challenges you’re going to have.”

To those who will take his place leading the city, Holliday suggested that the least they could do is listen.

“If you’re going to run for public office,” he said, “you better be patient and learn to open up your ears, not just your brain, but your heart.”

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