City Council splits along racial lines over truth process
The Greensboro City Council voted 6-3 on April 19, in a decision split along racial lines, to reject the truth and reconciliation process set up to examine the murders of five communist activists in 1979 by members of the Nazis and Klan. Mayor Keith Holliday, who voted with the white majority, said he opposed the truth process because it risked leading people in Greensboro and around the nation to conclude blood was spilled because of race.
About 40 supporters of the truth process sat in City Council chambers at midnight listening to sometimes lengthy statements from the mayor and city council members. On the opposition side, the statements ranged from an anguished and conciliatory rejection by the mayor to an angry denunciation from council member Florence Gatten. The three black council members, in contrast, expressed support for the truth process and two of them urged citizens to testify before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Council member Claudette Burroughs-White revolted against the city government’s longstanding tradition of papering over differences with artificial consensus and harmony by proposing a resolution that would in some fashion recognize supporters of the truth process. When council members Tom Phillips and Robbie Perkins expressed dismay at the motion, Mayor Holliday revealed that he had tried unsuccessfully to negotiate a resolution behind the scenes that would allow the council to maintain unity. When that failed, he said he had expected that no resolutions either for or against the truth process would be proposed.
‘“Greensboro was a progressive city in 1979 and is even more progressive today,’” the mayor said. ‘“I believe harm can come from an inaccurate truth leading to inaccurate accountability, non-forgiveness and especially non-reconciliation.’”
Holliday proposed as an alternative that a consortium of Greensboro colleges offer a class every few years open to the public that would provide civic education about the 1979 killings. Modeled after a similar program at Kent State University in Ohio, where four college students were killed by the National Guard in 1970, he said ‘“it would be a non-threatening atmosphere that I believe could produce the positive impacts that allow us to reconcile the events of the past with efforts to improve the future.’”
Gatten’s statement contained a more confrontational variation of the theme that Greensboro has made progress without thoroughly examining the issues surrounding 1979 and that to do so now will only hinder the city’s development.
‘“We are an evolving city ‘— not the same city we were in 1979 and to suggest otherwise is a slap in the face to all of those of us, myself included, who have worked so hard to make changes,’” she said. ‘“It dishonors the memory of those who have toiled in the cause of justice and gone on to their reward.’”
Perkins, addressing his remarks in particular to former mayor Carolyn Allen, a co-chair of the Truth and Community Reconciliation Project’s local task force, said: ‘“Go do what you have do and I’m going to do what I have to do, which is go the other way.’”
Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson contested previous statements by Holliday and others that the truth of 1979 was too subjective for the community to ever come to any agreement about what occurred.
‘“I don’t believe it’s impossible to have all sides come together and come to an understanding,’” she said. ‘“I don’t have to experience the inhumanity and horror of the holocaust to understand on some level what it was like. I don’t have to be full-blooded Native American to understand what it means to have your homes destroyed and your people killed.’”
Burroughs-White took an even more explicit stance.
‘“This tragedy ruptures the life and soul of our community,’” she said. ‘“We should encourage the community to seek the truth and the citizens to come forward with their stories, and for those with the facts to share them.’”
Supporters of the truth process then spoke, several of them expressing willful optimism despite the fact that a majority of the council had already gone on record in opposition.
‘“A lot of people who have had difficult, tragic events happen to their communities look to us with the hope that this process can happen in a healing way,’” said Rev. Z. Holler, also a co-chair of the local task force. ‘“I hope people will say: ‘Thank God for Greensboro. They can do it; we can do it too.’ Thank God for Greensboro.’”
Burroughs-White offered a resolution stating that the city would maintain a public policy ensuring fairness and equal protection in its public safety services and the city council would remember the tragic events of 1979.
Phillips responded: ‘“I’m not going to support any resolution that could be construed as support for this. I’m frankly surprised that it came up tonight.’”
Then Perkins offered a substitute motion to reject the truth and reconciliation process.
The two motions pained Holliday.
‘“I request that we table these motions because I think we’re going to regret it,’” the mayor said. ‘“I should say at this point that I’ve been working behind the scenes to try to work out some motion that could lead to some resolution. I regret that I didn’t accomplish that. I was surprised it came up too.’”
Gatten was visibly angry at the prospect of a divided city council voting on the truth process.
‘“A council that over ninety percent of the time votes in harmony is being manipulated by these people,’” she said, referring to supporters of the truth process.
With both Burroughs-White and Perkins refusing to back down, the council voted 6-3 to reject the truth process.
Rev. Gregory Headon, pastor of Genesis Baptist Church and with Allen and Holler a co-chair of the local task force, tried to allay the fears of white city council members that the truth process is fixed to produce a pre-planned result, which will lead to the punishment of city leadership.
‘“Many come because the law requires it, but we come because you’re our council and we want your heart to be with us,’” he said. ‘“We’ve searched our motives and we believe they’re good. We do not view your endorsement of the process as endorsing any particular outcome.’”
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