GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Nelson Johnson says he has forgiven the Klansmen and American Nazi Party members who calmly gunned down five labor organizers at a "Death to the Klan" demonstration he led more than 25 years ago.
Still, he says, this city of 220,000 has not gotten past the Nov. 3, 1979, "Greensboro Massacre" that took place in broad daylight and was taped by local television news crews. No one was convicted in two criminal trials conducted with all-white juries.
Police in Greensboro restrain suspects after the shootings on Nov. 3, 1979. Five participants in the "Death to the Klan" demonstration were killed.
(Greensboro Daily News Via AP)
More than 25 years later, at the urging of Johnson and other survivors, a group of civic leaders and activists has begun to organize a South Africa-style "truth and reconciliation commission," the first of its kind in the United States.
The commission hopes to elicit testimonials, confessions and acknowledgment of wrongdoing, and release a report that would help "heal broken relations within our community by . . . distinguishing truth from falsehood and allowing for . . . public mourning and forgiveness," Commissioner Cynthia Brown said.
But so far, instead of bringing residents together, the Greensboro Truth and Community Reconciliation Project has reopened racial wounds. It has rekindled accusations, mostly from blacks, that police intentionally left demonstrators unprotected. Many white residents believe Johnson is out for revenge. The city's white mayor, five white City Council members and the white former county prosecutor who lost the case two decades ago oppose the idea.
When residents were invited to give statements on Jan. 25, not a soul raised a hand. And that is still the case. No one associated with the Klan or the city's police force is expected to participate.
"They've never convinced me or others that this needed to be examined," Mayor Keith Holliday said. "The TRC project is being used as an alternate way to create what never happened, and that is a major investigation."
Greensboro does not need this kind of publicity, Holliday said. He worries that the city's past will turn away the businesses it is trying to recruit.
Johnson, who is black, said it is time for the city to face up to its past. "These deep wounds . . . live just beneath the surface," he said. "It's really not recognizing why this city hasn't come to terms with racial oppression and the treatment of people. Here's an opportunity to be truthful."
Gathering of Activists
The shooting, one of the bloodiest in North Carolina's history, has become as infamous as the 1963 church bombing that killed four girls in Birmingham, Ala., and the 1964 slaying of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Miss.
It happened on a bright fall Saturday under a perfect blue sky. But the days leading to the weekend were tense. The Communist Workers Party and the Klan traded insults almost daily.
In those days, Johnson was a pro-labor activist who wore a black military-style beret. He helped arrange a rally and march supporting labor and denouncing the Klan at a housing project called Morningside Heights. Some say Johnson goaded the Klan, daring them to show up.
Police officials said Johnson asked to carry a sidearm, a request they denied. Several people who survived the shootings said police had promised to protect them.
But as the rally began, there were no police in sight. Paul C. Bermanzohn, then a pro-labor activist who helped organize textile workers, noticed a caravan of cars pulling up alongside the housing project.