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Seeking Closure on 'Greensboro Massacre'

"A group of them got out of a light blue Ford Fairlane, went to the back and took out an arsenal of weapons," Bermanzohn said. "They very calmly began firing them at people."

Bermanzohn said he noticed Cesar Cauce, a Latino organizer, fighting off two men. He ran from his hiding place to help, he said, and "I was very quickly hit with bullets on my head and arm and was unable to get up. I went through a moment of almost peacefulness. I was bleeding like crazy from my head."

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)

As all this happened, a police intelligence officer, Jerry "Rooster" Cooper, watched, and a police photographer snapped pictures. Cooper's car was not far behind the Klan caravan. Other officers did not arrive until 15 minutes after the shooting ended. Police said the organizers asked them to stay away, an assertion the activists strongly deny.

Labor organizers Cauce, James Waller, Bill Sampson and Sandi Smith were killed, and 11 others were wounded. Smith was shot between the eyes as she peeked from her hiding place to see whether the gunfire had ended. Mike Nathan, another rally organizer, died later of his wounds.

Activists accused police of collusion with the Klan. Court proceedings revealed later that a man named Edward Dawson, a police informant who had infiltrated the Klan, was in the lead car of the caravan. An officer had provided him with a copy of the march permit, and Dawson had secretly driven the route with a North Carolina Klan leader the night before the rally.

Two criminal trials, both with all-white juries, ended in acquittals. Jurors later gave several reasons for their decision: The organizers seemed to be asking for trouble, some said, and others were disturbed by demonstrations during the trial.

The victims did not prevail until 1985, when a civil jury with a single black member found the city, the Klan and the Nazi Party liable for violating the civil rights of the demonstrators. The city paid a $350,000 judgment on behalf of all parties.

Commission Gets to Work

Johnson, now a Baptist preacher, and Marty Nathan, the widow of one of the victims, seized on the parallel with South Africa's emergence from apartheid in initiating the project. They believe that race relations in Greensboro can never move beyond the shootings until the role of the police and the city is explored, and leaders of the Klan and the activists admit their mistakes.

On a recent, biting cold Thursday, the commissioners -- three blacks, three whites and one South Asian -- gathered to begin the process of trying to erase Greensboro's most stubborn stain. They sat around a table in a cramped meeting room downtown to discuss how to take statements if and when residents volunteer to give them.

The session was led by Lisa Magarrell, an associate with the International Center for Transitional Justice in New York, which is advising the commission and has provided similar assistance in East Timor, Ghana, Paraguay and Peru.

"Generally, truth commissioners see themselves as listeners," she told her rapt audience. "What do we look for? It's not just the suffering. It's an acknowledgment that people have suffered, that a wrong has been done."

Patricia Clark, a commissioner and executive director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a New York organization that advocates nonviolent change, said she wanted to know how the demonstration was organized.

And Angela Lawrence, a nursing assistant who witnessed the shootings as a girl, wanted to know why Johnson led his band of mostly white pro-union advocates to her black neighborhood to hold an anti-Klan rally.

"So many children were there," she said. "We had no prior notice."

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