Can Greensboro Model a National Truth and Reconciliation Process? | Sojourners

Can Greensboro Model a National Truth and Reconciliation Process?

After 41 years, Greensboro has apologized for a dark day in 1979 when police allowed Klan members and neo-Nazis to kill local activists.
During a hearing of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission, empty seats commemorate the five activists killed on Nov. 3, 1979. Photo: RobinAKirk / CC BY 2.0

Floris Cauce Weston recalls taking cover underneath a car as gunfire rang out in the Morningside Homes public housing project in Greensboro, N.C., on Nov. 3, 1979, and then crawling out to discover that her husband, César, was dead.

César had graduated magna cum laude from Duke University in 1975 and deferred his graduate studies to help organize a union at the university hospital. Along with four friends and fellow organizers — Dr. Michael Nathan, William Sampson, Sandra Neely Smith, and Dr. James Waller — Cauce was killed in 88 seconds of gunfire from a caravan of Klansmen and neo-Nazis who drove into Morningside Homes and violently cut short a march against the Klan led by labor organizers helping local textile workers, mostly Black, form a union.

The man driving the lead vehicle in the caravan, Eddie Dawson, was a Klan member and paid informant for the Greensboro Police Department. Dawson obtained a copy of the march permit and warned the city attorney he would bring “a bucket of blood” when he was told the city couldn’t stop the march from happening. Though Dawson’s handler, Detective Jerry Cooper, knew that Klan members were armed and followed the caravan to Morningside Homes, the Greensboro police did not intervene until five marchers were already dead.

And now, four decades later, the Greensboro City Council has apologized.

On Oct. 6, 2020, in a 7-2 decision, the council adopted a resolution of apology acknowledging that the 1979 Greensboro police department “failed to warn the marchers of their extensive foreknowledge of the racist, violent attack planned against the marchers by members of the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party with the assistance of a paid GPD informant.” The apology further acknowledged that “the GPD failed to divert, stop or arrest” the Klan members and Nazis, “whom police knew were carrying a cache of concealed weapons, as they approached the Morningside Homes Community where the marchers were gathered.”

The council also agreed to annually fund five scholarships in the names of the five slain activists in the amounts of $1,979 to graduating seniors at James B. Dudley High School. The scholarships will be awarded to students who reflect on issues of racial and social justice to help the community reconcile Nov. 3, 1979, and to grapple with ongoing challenges.

Weston was grateful. “For the courage that they showed, I thank them,” said Weston via video chat from her home in Washington, D.C., during a press conference outside Shiloh Baptist Church in Greensboro on the afternoon after the apology.

“It took 41 years, but I’m not going to belittle or dismiss the council’s vote, because it took courage and resolve.”

Rev. Steve Allen, the pastor at Shiloh Baptist Church and president of the Pulpit Forum, a local Black ministerial alliance, agreed and expressed hope that Greensboro would set an example for the rest of the country.

“Today, we celebrate those courageous city council persons, those who God raised up for such a time as this, to begin rebuilding the community,” Allen said. “And perhaps today we recognize an even more significant day. Today, we recognize perhaps the establishment of a role model for these United States of America, where truth shall be valued, where integrity shall be restored, where character does matter, where the land shall be free.”

Long overdue

The truth of that grievous day in 1979 has not arrived easily in Greensboro, a city often commemorated for the 1960 student sit-in at Woolworth’s that helped spark the civil rights movement and ultimately dismantle segregation in the U.S. South.

In a state criminal trial in 1980 and then in a federal trial for civil rights violations in 1984, the members of the Klan-Nazi caravan charged in the deaths of the five antiracist activists were acquitted of all charges by all-white juries. In 1985, six members of the Ku Klux Klan and American Nazi Party and two Greensboro police officers were found jointly liable for wrongful death. The massacre inspired a devastatingly moving and incisive play, Greensboro: A Requiem, which premiered in 1996.

And yet, 20 years after the massacre, the glaring deficiencies in the court cases prompted the survivors to begin discussing an alternative reparative model for justice. In 2004, a panel representing different segments of Greensboro appointed seven members to the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the first body of its kind in the United States. The commission’s goal was to “heal relations between opposing sides by uncovering all pertinent facts, distinguishing truth from lies, and allowing for acknowledgement, appropriate public mourning, forgiveness and healing.” During their work, the commission collected evidence from the trials, law enforcement records, media coverage, and more than 200 personal statements.

But in 2005, months before the truth commission delivered its conclusions, Greensboro City Council went on record opposing the process in a racially split 6-3 vote.

Nevertheless, the commission continued, ultimately concluding in its May 2006 report that “the single most important element that contributed to the violent outcome of the confrontation was the absence of police.” Nine months later, the city council voted 5-4 to reject the findings of the truth report. But the history of 1979 lingered as a fault line in Greensboro’s civic discourse, and city leaders delegated the issue to the human relations commission for study. In June 2009, on the recommendation of the human relations commission, the city council adopted a terse resolution of “regret,” again on a 5-4 vote.

Then in 2017, in the wake of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., Greensboro City Council issued an impromptu apology to family members of the five people killed. While survivors of the massacre were heartened by the 2017 apology, they felt it lacked substance because of the absence of any mention of what the city did wrong.

Over the next three years, survivors, including Rev. Nelson Johnson and Signe Waller Foxworth, and the members of the Pulpit Forum, pressed the city council for a formal resolution. In October 2019, the Pulpit Forum held a press conference calling on the city council to make a formal apology for the massacre. The pastors met in small groups with city council members, encouraging them to search their souls and do their own research on the massacre. Council members were initially reluctant but eventually came to embrace the task. “I think we’ve come to a point and a climate where we’ve got to take a hard look at our history when we look at our city,” said Councilwoman Tammi Thurm before the Oct. 6 vote, “and we need to apologize.”

For Foxworth, whose husband Dr. James Waller was killed in the massacre, the timing of the apology — roughly a week after Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement — felt significant.

“I was able to have some reconnection with my original faith, my Jewish faith, and I really do see — it makes sense to me that there is a force in the universe for healing and transformation,” she said, adding that the apology opens up “these possibilities where people can become closer to one another, can have compassion. It opens a lot of doors, and we so badly need it now.”

A model for national reconciliation

The increased tempo of right-wing violence accompanying Donald Trump’s candidacy and election, loudly signaled with the murder of Heather Heyer and neo-Nazi torch march in Charlottesville in August 2017, has reopened psychic wounds for the survivors of the Greensboro Massacre. The violence in Charlottesville particularly affected Floris Cauce Weston, as she recounted during the Oct. 7 news conference.

“I cried all over again,” she said, “and I had several days of personal trauma, and I thought, My God, have we learned nothing? To see protesters who support the rights of Black and brown people take a stand against racist violence are still at risk from right-wing violence in America, and that is not good, to say the least. But across the country in America today, many, many people are saying, ‘Enough.’”

Neither is it lost on the survivors that the collusion between law enforcement and right-wing extremists that laid the groundwork for the Greensboro Massacre in 1979 is alive today. In August, police in Kenosha, Wis., told armed civilians, “We appreciate you guys,” shortly before a young white man with a rifle fatally shot two antiracist protesters; in late September President Trump declared, “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by,” during a nationally televised debate.

Rev. Nelson Johnson, who organized the fateful Nov. 3, 1979 march, noted in a prepared statement in response to the apology that local communities across the United States “are confronting a police culture that has too often seen white supremacists as ‘heavily armed friendlies.’

“The current atmosphere of fear, falsehoods, and threats of massive force in our nation is eerily similar to the atmosphere in Greensboro in the days, months, and years following the massacre,” Johnson said.

Nevertheless, Johnson believes Greensboro’s experience of violent rupture and deliberate self-reflection can lay the foundation for a national truth and reconciliation that would offer a way through the current national impasse of deep cultural divisions and unresolved historical injustices.

But for that to take place, explained Johnson, people have to be willing to listen without condemnation. “It starts, I think, with a reasonable respect for the personhood and dignity even though the other person might not be manifesting that,” he said. And as Johnson knows, this is extremely difficult.

In 1987, as a seminarian, Johnson drove to Salisbury, N.C., and met with a Ku Klux Klan group to plead with them not to come back to Greensboro. He was alone and unarmed. Although the Klan did not heed Johnson’s request, he took the opportunity to sit face-to-face with them and address their anxieties about miscegenation and economic competition.

Johnson and his wife, Joyce Hobson Johnson, co-direct the Beloved Community Center, which was founded in Greensboro in 1991. The organization, which supports organizing around the quest to build an inclusive community that upholds the dignity of all, is assisting with efforts to establish truth and reconciliation commissions in Philadelphia, Boston, and San Francisco. Johnson envisions a national truth and reconciliation process built around 10 regional efforts across the country.

“We’re a long way from it, but the country has to be healed,” he said. “This political rhetoric in the national discourse doesn’t build strong relationships; it does the opposite.”

Johnson modeled a conversation that might form the basis of a larger truth process in the United States: “We don’t have to be enemies. Both of us are better off if we’re not. Let me hear what you got to say, and I promise you I’m going to be respectful. And then I’ll say what I’ve got to say, and I want you to respect me.”

Johnson hastened to add: “We’re not there. This could be the darkness before the dawn, or things could get much worse. One thing is certain: We can’t go on like this. If we go on like this, we’re going into Civil War mode.”