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Truth And Reconciliation In North Carolina

Truth And Reconciliation In North Carolina

By William Fisher

"The committee say they want truth and reconciliation, then forget it and move on, it'd have been forgotten 20 years ago if it didn't keep it in the news... you ought to be tryin' to create jobs and get this mess behind and forget it, get people comin' in here to create jobs... .My boys in the Klan, they's deer hunters and things, they hunt for food. Maybe them city slickers didn't. Maybe they don't have as tough a times as the poor people. My people's huntin' for food. I don't know why. Maybe God guided the bullets... ."

These are the words of 78-year-old Virgil Griffin, Imperial Wizard of the Cleveland Knights of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), spoken in testimony before one of the most unusual - and controversial - hearings in U.S. history.

Griffin appeared before the first of three public hearings sponsored by the Greensboro (North Carolina) Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Commission was created in 2004, over strenuous objections from city officials and other powerful interests in this once prominent textile manufacturing community of more than 230,000.

Its mission is not to prosecute, but to help local residents to understand what happened on an autumn day in 1979, in the belief that there can be no "genuine healing for the city of Greensboro, unless the truth surrounding these events is honestly confronted, the suffering fully acknowledged, accountability established, and forgiveness and reconciliation facilitated."

The events took place on Nov. 3, 1979, when members of the KKK and the American Nazi Party killed five people and wounded ten others gathered in Greensboro for a 'Death to the Klan' rally for racial, social and economic justice. The event was organized by the Worker's Viewpoint Organization (WVO) --later known as the Communist Worker's Party.

Despite the fact that four TV crews captured the killings on film, the shooters were twice acquitted of any wrongdoing. In a third trial, a federal civil trial, Klansmen, Nazis and members of the Greensboro Police Department were found jointly liable for one of the deaths.

Although the City of Greensboro paid a $350,000 civil judgment on behalf of all three defendant groups, it has never apologized or publicly acknowledged any wrongdoing.

Greensboro, home of the giant Cone Mills, developed in the 1970s into a textile manufacturing center. Activists worked on behalf of black workers and others who they felt were not sharing equally in the city's growing prosperity.

As they win increasing victories, the KKK predictably began a resurgence, which the WVO fought in North Carolina through efforts culminating in the Nov. 3 "Death to the Klan" rally.

Believing that the city's wounds never healed after the 1979 massacre, in 1999, a grassroots movement known as the Greensboro Truth and Community Reconciliation Project (GTCRP) began working to create a democratic process through which an impartial body could be created to examine the event.

Out of that project came the seven-member Truth and Reconciliation Commission, created through a public nomination and selection process. It now has a five-member staff, volunteers and collaborations with a wide range of community organizations.

In 2004 and 2005, the GTCRP collected more than 5,000 signatures on a petition asking the Greensboro City Council to endorse the process. The petition was designed to raise community awareness and support for a reexamination of the 1979 events, as well as to seek support for the Commission's work from the Council, which instead voted 6-3 to oppose the truth and reconciliation process

In his testimony, Klan member Griffin seemed unrepentant. Asked about the views the KKK shared with the American Nazi Party, he said, "They don't believe in race-mixing... They believe in - well, we're trying to get prayer and Bible back in schools. We're working on that. They are too. I believe in that. I think we should have prayer and Bible back in schools, and drugs and weapons out."

Joya Wesley, the Commission's communications director, says, "We are very pleased with the first hearing. Nearly 400 people attended and we've heard a lot of feedback indicating that the hearing did increase people's understanding of some of the issues surrounding Nov. 3 and of how this process works, which is what we hoped it would do."

The Commission's work is modeled on truth-seeking efforts in South Africa, Peru and elsewhere. The International Center for Transitional Justice, which organized similar efforts in other countries, has served as a consultant since the beginning of the Greensboro effort.

As in South Africa and elsewhere, public hearings, play a key role in international truth and reconciliation efforts. The Commission plans three public hearings, and will submit a final report early 2006. It will include specific recommendations for the Greensboro community and its institutions for concrete healing, reconciliation and restorative justice.

The first public hearing, held on July 15, drew a large audience and received substantial press coverage. But the local newspaper, the Greensboro News and Record, commented, "If there was hope on Nov. 2, 1979, that Greensboro was ready to abandon such bad habits as resisting change, blaming "outsiders" for any challenge to the status quo and maintaining racial separation, that hope died on Nov. 3."

According to Allen Johnson, the newspaper's editorial page editor, "Some say the event so shook the city's psyche and so rattled its conscience that it stood still for awhile in a fog of self-doubt (and) became an also-ran during that time among the state's major cities."

He cited a report by McKinsey & Company, management consultants commissioned by city leaders to help Greensboro plot its path forward, identifying poor race relations among key hindrances.

Meanwhile the KKK, which has embarked on a 'complete makeover' during the past few years, has sought to use the Truth Commission's activities to burnish its 'new image'.

A press release issued by KKK Imperial Wizard Daniel F. Barrett, said, the Commission must realize that one... old leader from the last Era of the Ku Klux Klan does not in any way represent the true leadership of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan Inc., as it exist (sic) today. There is no excuse for people being gunned down on the streets of America... Many of the new leaders of the Ku Klux Klan... disagree with these wanton acts of violence."

The GTRC's first hearing included experts in race relations, those who were wounded and family members of those killed, and others directly affected, in addition to KKK witnesses.


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