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.
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.
"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."
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."
Lawrence does not have far to look, said Michael Schlosser, the former prosecutor who is now a lawyer in private practice. She should ask Johnson, he said. He was the leader.
Schlosser is among those who believe the commission is a waste of time. How will the panel produce a balanced report if former Klan and Nazi Party members do not testify? he asked.
The commission has no official support from the city of Greensboro or the state of North Carolina and is funded by grants from two New York foundations.
In contrast, the South Africa Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which investigated generations of human rights abuses under apartheid, was backed by the government and possessed authority that the Greensboro commission lacks. These include subpoena power that would compel former members of the Klan and Nazi Party to come forward, and the ability to grant amnesty.
Without such tools, the effort seems fated to be at best one-sided, the mayor and other opponents said.
Besides, Schlosser said, reconciliation between the races has already occurred in Greensboro. As an example, he pointed to Willena Cannon, a black resident who believed that Schlosser was biased against the rally's organizers. A few years ago, Schlosser said, Cannon called on him to represent a son who was accused of a crime. "In my mind, that's reconciliation," he said.
"Ain't that a bip?" Cannon said when she learned of Schlosser's comment. "White people have a tendency to speak for black people here. I didn't choose him to represent my son. My son is grown, and he chose him. I never would have chosen him."
She said, "I have not reconciled."
That is why the project is moving forward, supporters said, and the mayor accepts that. "While I don't encourage it," Holliday said, "there's nothing I can do to stop it."
"If I had been in the jury, I definitely would have found someone guilty, if not everyone," he said. "But while I don't agree with the decision of the jury, it's our system, and I respect it."
Black residents are not so forgiving of the city or the judicial system that allowed defense attorneys to weed out black potential jurors.
Cannon said she plans to give a statement soon. "I think the city was involved in that shooting, and I'm doing everything I can do to show that," she said.
"They're fighting against it because they know, too. You cannot seriously reconcile until the truth comes out."