TRC recommendations met with awkwardness
Jackie Clapp was a 12-year-old girl in November 1979 on the day the Communist Workers Party decided to hold an anti-Klan march in Morningside Homes and an armed caravan of white supremacists crept up the street past her home ready to answer the militant leftists’ taunts with violence.
No one told her to expect a confrontation as she walked to the community center at the intersection of Everitt Street and Carver Drive, so she was taken aback when she saw white men unloading guns from a car trunk. Then gunfire erupted and she ran for cover.
‘“Many of our people that were living in Morningside Homes, they never got over it,’” she said, speaking for the first time about her experience during a ceremony to mark the release of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report at Bennett College on May 25.
‘“It took the heart out of them,’” she continued. ‘“Our spirits were very broken. A lot of people lost their minds. They’re crazy. Now they’re in institutions or walking around in the streets and don’t know what they’re doing.’”
The most surreal part of the legacy of Nov. 3, 1979 is the city’s reluctance to acknowledge the pain, she suggested.
‘“When you don’t talk about it, it’s like it didn’t happen,’” she said. ‘“If our city would acknowledge they knew, maybe things would be better in Greensboro. Our spirits are still roaming’….’”
Among the official receivers of the report was Greensboro City Council member Goldie Wells, representing an elected body that voted along racial lines to reject the truth process more than a year ago.
‘“I accept this document, remembering the commitment that the former council made to studying it,’” said Wells, who was elected last November. ‘“It is my hope that the truths, though they may be ugly, will be confronted so that Greensboro may become the beloved community that Martin Luther King spoke of.’”
The commission’s voluminous report, posted on the internet at greensborotrc.org, contains detailed recommendations for the city of Greensboro, along with Guilford County, the local school system, and institutions ranging from news media to houses of worship.
‘“We find that deep brokenness existed prior to Nov. 3, 1979, and led to the violence,’” the commissioners wrote in a general summary. ‘“The harm from this event extended beyond those who were killed, wounded or psychologically traumatized to include all residents of Greensboro, which lost ground on human relations progress made after school desegregation.’”
Responses from area leaders gleaned through dozens of phone calls on May 26 ranged from studied indifference to cautious engagement. Many elected leaders were out of town on the Friday before Memorial Day.
An outgoing message from Mayor Keith Holliday’s office at First Citizens Bank noted that he would be ‘“out of the Greensboro area on an extended weekend vacation.’”
The city’s second ranking official, Mayor Pro Tem Sandra Anderson Groat, was in Rome, an employee of her building company said. Councilwoman Yvonne Johnson planned to be out of the office until Tuesday. Councilman Mike Barber’s law office was closed on March 26. A post dated May 25 on Councilwoman Sandy Carmany’s blog was headlined, ‘“Off to the beach.’”
Official response to the commission’s two central recommendations would have to wait.
The seven-member truth commission called on the city to ‘“make a proclamation that lifts up the importance of’” Nov. 3, 1979 in the city’s history, and more significantly urged the city and the Greensboro Police Department to ‘“issue public apologies for their failure to protect the public.’”
An administrative assistant said Chief Tim Bellamy was out of town, and the department had been told to direct all inquiries about the report to the city manager’s office. City Manager Mitchell Johnson did not return a call on March 26.
The truth commission also recommended that the city issue annual reports on race relations and racial disparities, and establish a police review board to provide for police accountability to citizens.
Another recommendation was directed at the city’s Human Relations Commission: ‘“A public monument should be built on the site of the shootings to honor those killed and wounded on Nov. 3, 1979.’”
Vice Chairman Wayne Abraham declined to comment on the proposal.
‘“The whole commission is going to have to review this carefully,’” he said. ‘“I feel I should let everybody read the report, and we’ll go from there.’”
There had been some question about whether Human Relations would even review the report considering that the citizen board had not signed on as an official receiver ‘— a consequence of a state prohibition against boards and commissions signing contracts.
Abraham said he was certain the report would be reviewed by Human Relations.
The truth commission also makes several recommendations for both the city and Guilford County categorized as ‘“institutional reforms’” to address ‘“local disparities,’” including ‘“committing to a living wage for all workers, providing anti-racism training, establishing short-term and permanent citizen review committees to ensure police accountability, and creating a community justice center.’”
Two Democrats on the Guilford County Commission, Kirk Perkins and Chairwoman Carolyn Coleman, said they supported living wages and anti-racism training, and believed county government was already moving in large part to make them a reality. Another Democrat, John Parks of Jamestown, said he preferred to not comment until he read the report.
Human Resources Manager Carol Campbell said Guilford County does not have a cost-of-living formula to set salaries for its lowest paid workers ‘— generally the means by which a living wage is set ‘—’ but instead surveys comparable government agencies and private employers across the state to establish a competitive pay and benefits package.
Republican Billy Yow blasted the truth commission’s recommendations.
‘“Perhaps the people that served on this committee has fallen out of touch with time,’” he said. ‘“We’re in a whole new era when people are treated equal. We can’t just dole out raises to county employees’…. Racialism is not tolerated, so it’s not fair for the taxpayers to pay for educating them against it. These folks need to raise their eyelids, and go get some healing themselves.’”
Seven other Guilford County commissioners, including both Democrats and Republicans, did not return phone calls on May 26.
The report calls on Guilford County Schools and two of Greensboro’s museums to institutionalize an acknowledgement of the historical significance of the 1979 shootings.
The commission recommends that Guilford County Schools ‘“create a curriculum based on the events of Nov. 3, 1979, for use in public elementary and secondary schools.’”
Guilford County School Board Chairman Alan Duncan said he would need to discuss the idea with district curriculum staff before seriously entertaining it.
‘“The board is not the curriculum-setting body, as you know; we’re a policy-setting body,’” he said. ‘“The state of North Carolina tightly proscribes curriculum. That’s a direct result of the accountability and testing measures in the state of North Carolina.’”
Cautioning that she had not yet seen the report, Dot Kearns, an at-large board member from High Point, said she thought the events of Nov. 3, 1979 could be useful knowledge for Guilford County children to learn. She said the state of North Carolina should incorporate the material into curriculum, not the local school board.
‘“My view has long been that the standard course of study should incorporate curriculum about all the history of our country and our state and our region,’” Kearns said. ‘“Not just in our state but in our whole country, we need to have a full array of history for the early settlers, and African Americans. We do teach North Carolina history. It would seem to me that it has a place in the knowledge of our children.’”
Board member Kris Cooke said she would prefer to not comment until she’s read the report. Eight other school board members did not return calls on May 26.
Similarly, the report calls on the Greensboro Historical Museum and the International Civil Rights Museum to create exhibits commemorating the 1979 shootings.
Fred Goss, director of the history museum, said he wouldn’t comment before reviewing the executive summary of the report, which he planned to read the following week.
Amelia Parker, executive director of the civil rights museum, said her board of directors plans to discuss the possibility of creating an exhibit about the shootings at its next meeting in mid-June. Chairman of the board and museum co-founder Skip Alston, who is also a Guilford County commissioner, declined to comment, saying he was getting ready to go out of town.
NC Rep. Earl Jones, who is the vice chairman of the board, said the civil rights museum currently treats the Nov. 3, 1979 shootings as a ‘“footnote,’” and that 90 percent of the museum’s focus is reserved for the four men who initiated the lunch counter sit-ins in 1960 and the effect of their act on world history.
‘“These events are totally separate, and I think it’s a disservice to the people who died on November third to try to pile it on in one place,’” Jones said. ‘“Both deserve stand-alone institutions that acknowledge the full extent of the implications’….’”
Jones said he views the activism of the Communist Workers Party as being part of a phase of the civil rights movement.
‘“I think it was a phase in my opinion, because race and class are intermingled,’” he said. ‘“It was more focused on class than race. That’s why the Klan was involved because the Klan is used by the system against blacks and progressive whites who are challenging white supremacy. That’s a very powerful coalition.’”
The report also contends that local print media outlets can play a constructive role in bringing about truth and reconciliation.
‘“A diverse citizen group could improve local journalism and the community-building role it can play,’” the executive summary states. ‘“Citizen input should be solicited for: story development, source development, recognizing other perspectives, critique of news coverage, commentary on newspaper practices and suggestions for better addressing community concerns.’”
John Robinson, editor of the News & Record, said he was still trying to process the commission’s recommendations on March 25.
‘“My initial response was, hmmm,’” he said. ‘“I’m not entirely sure how that would work and what to think about it. There are different purposes in this statement by the commission. It’s one thing for all the print media to get together and talk about all these things that the commission recommends, and another thing for newspapers to have advisory committees.’”
Robinson said he sees no reason to rebalance the scales between accountability and independence in his publication’s newsgathering enterprise.
‘“Our view of accountability is that we try ‘— to use the journalistic clichÃ© ‘— to pursue the truth and follow that wherever it leads us in our reporting,’” he said. ‘“There are people throughout the political spectrum that try to persuade us to do what they want us to do, whether it’s to report a story through their point of view or report a certain story that’s important to them. To the best of my belief, we don’t sacrifice our independence to them. People disagree with us, and we publish that too. Accountability is if they stop buying our newspaper, I guess.’”
YES! Weekly publisher Charles Womack said he agrees with the idea of establishing a citizen input group for print media outlets.
‘“Any media outlet should help out in any way they can,’” he said. ‘“It would be great if we could have some kind of panel discussion in a neutral location where everyone would feel comfortable, if we could band together and promote an event together.’”
Finally, the report calls on the religious leadership of Greensboro to ‘“facilitate a healing workshop for the children of Communist Workers Party members, shooters and others directly involved in the events of Nov. 3, 1979.’”
Calls to more than a half dozen pastors of the largest churches in Greensboro and to the rabbi at Temple Emanuel on March 26 garnered no comments.
The commissioners have themselves acknowledged the indifference that has greeted the truth process over the past two years, and the report identifies that phenomenon as a significant hurdle for Greensboro to surmount.
‘“A pattern of resisting change and suppressing the efforts of those who seek it continues in Greensboro,’” the executive summary states. ‘“It became clear to the entire city with the revelations that prompted the police chief’s sudden resignation earlier this year. They involved high-level misconduct including institutionalized racial profiling and wire surveillance of private citizens including our own executive director.’”
The executive summary also states that the commission dealt with ‘“mysteriously broken filing cabinets containing research documents and personnel files’” in the course of its examination of the 1979 shootings.
‘“As the GTRC met with surveillance, intimidation and rumor-mongering at the institutional level, at the personal level we found indifference, fear and resistance,’” the report states. ‘“The discomfort and its roots must be honestly examined by individuals and the community as a whole. As Thoreau said, it takes two to speak the truth: one to speak and another to hear.’”
To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at firstname.lastname@example.org