Over 25 years of history was unearthed July 15 and 16 as the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission convened a hearing to explain the Nov. 3, 1979, shootings. The first of three hearings, the weekend's speakers focused on the events leading up to the Greensboro "Death to the Klan" rally that left five people dead and 10 wounded. Among those giving statements and answering the commission's questions were current and former members of the Ku Klux Klan and survivors of the violence.
Nobody will be punished for any criminal acts that come to light during the hearings; instead, the commission is looking for a single recitation of what happened and a way to reunite Greensboro. "This is about restorative justice, not retributive justice," says Joya Wesley, communications director for the commission. "There are a whole lot of truths. We're hoping to come upon an agreed upon truth."
On the strength of video recordings of the incident, Klan and Nazi members were tried in state and federal court. The accused claimed self-defense, and both the trials resulted in acquittals. But a civil trial found the City of Greensboro responsible for the wrongful death of one of the protesters.
Though the commission is clear on its intent to reveal the truth surrounding the Nov. 3 shootings, the public's opinion on the truth varies.
Lewis Pitts, lead attorney in the civil lawsuit, says the city is involved in "a massive cover-up" and says legal action failed because of an "unwillingness to draw the logical conclusions."
"I think it's a single truth that a grave injustice occurred," he says. "For [police] not to have intervened and prevented this, for me, is a major issue and a major injustice."
The rally, organized by the Communists Workers' Party, erupted in violence when a caravan carrying Klan members came to protest the event.
Each speaker at the hearing had already given a statement to the commission, and the event was simply a way of informing the public of the commission's findings. These statements will be combined with research from documents and books in a report to be published after the commission's inquiry concludes in March.
The official story--that the shooting was between two fringe groups--is different than the truth, says Paul Bermanzohn. He was at the march as a CWP demonstrator and was wounded in the shooting.
"It appears to me that there is a lot of lying going on," he says. Bermanzohn is pleased with some aspects of the hearing process and is hopeful that the commission will reveal clandestine factors in the event.
The hearings will ultimately be good for the city, Pitts says, because the conversation is now out in the open.
"This is like the first effort with machetes to go through the jungle and clear a path," he says.
Pitts says these hearings should empower the people of Greensboro, and may lead to a citizen's tribunal that fields complaints against the city.
It will also expose divide-and-rule tactics used to subjugate African Americans, Bermanzohn says. "It's all about race. I don't know how you can live in the South and think it's about anything else."
Si Kahn of Grassroots Leadership testified July 15 that the goal of the hearings is to stop future violence.
"We have to find a way to move beyond it. I hope that we reestablish a level of hope. I think that it can begin in Greensboro and it can spread to other places."
Virgil Griffin, Imperial Wizard of the Cleveland Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, says the hearings should never have occurred.
"I don't think this commission's gonna solve anything," he told the commission. "I think it's a total waste of time, and this thing would've been forgotten 20 years ago if it hadn't been for people like this commission and the news keep bringing it in the papers."
He says the truth was realized in the two acquittals of members involved that day and that bringing it up again is bad for city business.
"I think you're hurting Greensboro and bringing more harm to Greensboro than anything. You should forget 1979 and get on with your life."
Yonni Chapman, a doctoral candidate at UNC, was present at the Nov. 3 rally and gave testimony at the hearing. He explained in an e-mail what needs to be reconciled and how it will be done.
"The media needs to be held accountable for not doing its job to inform the public and for its one-sided, blame-the-victim approach," he says. Chapman also points out that the "failure of police and official Greensboro to protect demonstrators" and the black community are issues that need to be explored.
"I believe I am looking for the same truth as the commission. That truth must be based on an honest, complete and accurate evaluation of the evidence."
The Greensboro City Council voted 6-3 along racial lines not to endorse the commission's work--with white members in the majority. But the evaluation will only be complete, Chapman says, when everyone involved agrees to help the commission.
"The commission has affirmed its values, but it cannot make useful recommendations unless it also has the full participation of all involved--including Greensboro police and public officials--to discover the facts."
The second hearing, scheduled Aug. 26 and 27, will concern the actual events and how they shaped events after 1979. The last hearing, "What does the past have to do with the present and future?" will be Sept. 30 and Oct. 1. The commission's report will be available in the spring.
For more information about the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission, go to www.greensborotrc.org.