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"Truth and Reconciliation in Greensboro, North Carolina: A Paradigm for Social Transformation,"

by Signe Waller & Marty Nathan, MD January/February 2006 issue of Poverty & Race

Race and class oppression form the backdrop of everyday reality in the United States. Popular culture is blind to the endemic and systemic nature of racism in our political and economic institutions. Mostly, we tell ourselves comforting stories about who we are and what we have done. Told most often from the point of view of those whose power and fortunes depend on institutionalizing disunity and fragmentation, these stories rarely lay bare the social structures of domination that continue to perpetuate oppression for the vast majority.

The twin oppressions of race and class are implicitly denied or covered up with a veneer of normality. But reality is not to be denied: It continues to be and to influence all that is. Sometimes reality breaks through the veneer, as it did with the videotaped savage beating of Rodney King or as it did with the criminal neglect of the poor and people of color population of New Orleans following Katrina. When this happens, we are, momentarily at least, shocked out of our denial. A veil is removed, and society’s structure stands exposed before us. We see what was there all along. We have a frightening glimpse into where we are heading. Thankfully, we are also offered a teachable moment with a window of opportunity for wholesale social transformation. Such a precious gift signifies no less than a way toward truth and wholeness, a possibility for healing, an opening to resist oppression, to liberate ourselves and to discover new forms of authentic democracy.

The city of Greensboro, North Carolina, is witnessing what may happen when the veil is removed, as a three-year-old truth and reconciliation process unfolds, flying a banner of truth, civic accountability, restorative justice, healing, and reconciliation. The Mandate for Greensboro’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, charged with engaging one of the worst civil rights atrocities in U.S. history, reads in part: “The passage of time alone cannot bring closure, nor resolve feelings of guilt and lingering trauma for those impacted by the events of November 3rd, 1979. Nor can there be any 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.”

What follows is a brief summary of the incident at the heart of the Commission’s investigation, as well as a description of the truth and reconciliation process. All who are dedicated to overcoming poverty and racism need to reflect on what is happening in Greensboro and its relevance to your own city, to our nation and to the world. After all, similar histories of race and class conflict and similar social structures to those in Greensboro are found in all regions of the country.

The History

On November 3, 1979 in Greensboro, an anti-Klan march and educational conference was planned. However, neither occurred. On that day, just before the march was to begin, nine carloads of Ku Klux Klansmen and American Nazis drove into Morningside Homes, a Black housing project, and opened fire on a group of 100 Black, white and Latino men, women and children preparing to march. The attack took place in broad daylight in front of local TV cameras set to film the march. No police were visible.

The organizers of the march, local members of the Workers Viewpoint Organization, soon to be known as the Communist Workers Party, worked, organized and led unions in local textile mills and nearby hospitals. Jim Waller was president of his Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Worker Union local at the nearby Cone Mills Granite Finishing Plant and had led a strike there in 1978. Bill Sampson was a shop steward for his local at the Cone Mills White Oak plant in Greensboro, and Sandi Smith had been the co-chair of an organizing drive to unionize another Cone Mills plant in Greensboro and had recently moved to Kannapolis to take on organizing Cannon Mills.

All three were shot and killed by Klansmen and Nazis leisurely picking their targets and shooting fleeing demonstrators. Dr. Mike Nathan and Cesar Cauce, both labor activists in nearby Durham hospitals, also were killed. Ten others were injured.

When the shooting stopped, police appeared on the scene.

Later it would be revealed that police had surveilled the 40 KKK-ers and Nazis as they gathered on Greensboro’s south side and that Detective Jerry Cooper had had phone contact with KKK leader Edward Dawson. Dawson, a paid informant for the Greensboro Police Department, had called Cooper, his control agent, twice that morning to report that the racists had gathered and were armed. That report was shared on the morning of November 3rd at a police briefing with the tactical squads charged with protecting the march. Yet, instead of warning the marchers, increasing march security or stopping the caravan as it was followed by an unmarked police car on its route across town for the attack, the tactical squad was sent to an early lunch. Later it would be discovered that a patrol car serendipitously in the neighborhood of the attack at that time had been told by police headquarters to “Clear the area,” leaving the demonstrators completely unprotected by police. One of the attackers’ vans was stopped leaving the murder scene by two officers who arrived there moments after the last shot. They were not ordered to go there.

Fourteen Klansmen and Nazis were ultimately indicted and, of those, six were brought to trial. In the Fall of 1980, an all-white jury found innocent the six shooters clearly seen on videotape firing their rifles and shotguns as they advanced on unarmed demonstrators.

Regional protest and outrage engendered by the acquittals forced the Civil Rights Division of a reluctant Reagan Justice Department to prosecute the Klan and Nazis on civil rights charges in 1984. However, the federal case was tainted. By then, it was well known that federal agencies were also implicated through the person of Bernard Butkovich, an agent of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, who had infiltrated the Nazi Party prior to its participation in the attack. He had attended and participated in key meetings, egging on Klansmen and Nazis to violent acts; had reported to his superiors in the ATF, to local police and to the FBI; and yet had left town the day after the killings without making any arrests.

Unwilling to pursue official lawlessness, the U.S. Department of Justice chose to prosecute the KKK and Nazis using a Reconstruction-era federal civil rights law requiring that it be proved that the killings were racially motivated. Klansmen and Nazis said, No, we didn’t kill them because they were Black; we killed them because they were communists. That made it all right to the all-white North Carolina jury that, once again, issued blanket acquittals.

The Civil Rights Suit

In 1985, a civil rights suit, using federal civil rights laws and state wrongful death and assault laws, was filed on behalf of the victims. The result was a judgment, paid in total by the City of Greensboro, against six Klansmen and Nazis and two Greensboro police officers for the death of one demonstrator. The proceeds ($75,000) were used to create a foundation, the Greensboro Justice Fund, for the support of community-based organizations working against racism and the oppression of workers in the South. Although far from perfect justice, the verdict represented a tremendous victory for all justice- and truth-loving people: It was the first time in an American court of law that Klansmen, Nazis and police officers were found jointly liable.

But the civil suit was not sufficient. There was no public acknowledgement of wrong-doing, no involved police or federal agents were fired, demoted or even rebuked. Some officers involved were promoted! The Commander of the Tactical Support unit, Lt. Daughtry, became Greensboro’s Chief of Police a few years later. The City Government’s official position was that the incident had nothing to do with Greensboro: It happened in the city but was not of the city. The media portrayed the incident as one in which violence between two equally abhorrent and violent outsider groups simply erupted. Survivors, isolated from communities of support and treated as pariahs, protested that they had been targeted because their organizing work in the textile mills and in the community was perceived as a threat to the status quo. From business and governmental centers of power came the message to Greensboro citizens that we needed to put the whole affair behind us—in other words, sweep it under the rug and go about business as usual.

The effect in the aftermath was a quelling of dissent, particularly of labor and anti-racist dissent, and a deepened distrust between Black and white communities in this divided city. As stated by one leading Black activist at a gathering commemorating the 19th anniversary of the Massacre: “No matter what you try to do, it all comes back to the Morningside Homes incident. They think they can get away with anything and the people are still scared and distrustful.”

Creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Several of the surviving victims were the driving force for the movement that led to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Determined to “reinvestigate,” to unearth the connections between local, state and federal police, textile mill officials, and the KKK and Nazis, they contacted the Andrus Family Foundation. Andrus’ interests focus on “communities that are searching for a way forward that will bring real, just and sustainable change on these issues. We refer to that path forward very broadly as ‘community reconciliation’.” Andrus adopted the project, taking upon itself the funding of the first Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the United States. The entire process has been guided, and has unfolded, in such a way that its rich spiritual basis and profound implications for community building and democratic renewal are daily manifested in Greensboro and beyond. A judicial model that promotes adversarial relationships, divisiveness and punishment is being superceded by one that promotes loving relationships, unity of purpose and healing of the whole community.

The Greensboro Truth and Community Reconciliation Project is based on the South African model of soliciting public and private “truth-telling” by victims, witnesses and perpetrators as a way of basing change, and community transformation, on a full and truthful understanding of the violent historical events. Since the first truth commission established in Uganda in 1974, this model has proven to be an effective method for addressing human and civil rights abuses. At the outset of the Greensboro project, the International Center for Transitional Justice (, experienced with truth commissions in East Timor, Peru, Morocco, Ghana and many other lands where violence and injustice had destroyed lives and social fabric, became involved. The Center has provided guidance and support for the at times beleaguered Greensboro Local Task Force, a large and diverse group of residents that helped bring into being the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (via another equally diverse and democratically constituted group of citizens that formed a Selection Panel).

The promotion of community dialogue and education has been and continues to be the essential work of the Local Task Force of the project and other supporting groups in the city. Understandably, those doing this work encounter resistance and opposition, some of it from the same forces that were guardians of the status quo in 1979 and that feel a stake in preserving what they take to be their prerogatives today.

The history of November 3, 1979 is all too alive in the present. The same newspaper that had transformed an “ambush” into a “shootout” more than two decades ago has found it very difficult to fully appreciate the truth and reconciliation process without some major distortions and misrepresentations of what lies before its eyes. Perhaps it is not surprising, but some media sources from outside the city appear to have had less trouble in covering the process more accurately and grasping its amazing potential. An ultimate expression of official hostility came in the Greensboro City Council vote to oppose the truth and reconciliation process in April 2005, despite 5,000 residents’ signatures on a petition asking for City Council support. The Council voted on strict racial lines – all white members against the Commission, all Blacks supporting it. Yet Greensboro contends it has moved beyond racism! Current and ongoing is a recently-breaking scandal that has resulted in the forced resignation of the Police Chief. As details of the lawless conduct of a “secret police” within the Greensboro Police Department surface, one of many trails leads to the nefarious role that some police officers played in 1979 in enabling the Klan and Nazi terrorist attack at Morningside Homes.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the city-wide project that spawned it were very solidly established over the past three years. Despite opposition, and with a fanfare worthy of a city and a movement steeped in civil rights history, the first Truth and Reconciliation Commission of its kind was sworn in on June 12, 2004. With District Court Judge Lawrence McSwain, Chair of the Selection Panel of the Truth and Community Reconciliation Project, United States Congressman Mel Watt and former Greensboro Mayor Carolyn Allen blessing the proceedings, seven Commissioners took a solemn oath to revisit an unresolved episode in the city’s past by reviewing evidence, hearing testimony and issuing a report.

Five months later, over 1,000 people marched in Greensboro on the 25th Anniversary of the Massacre. They marched to continue the unfinished work of economic and racial justice for which five people gave their lives in 1979; to protect free speech and the right to public assembly and dissent—rights under siege today through the Patriot Act; and to support the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in carrying out its Mandate to examine the “context, causes, sequence and consequence of the events of November 3, 1979.”

2005 Developments

In 2005, three public hearings were held in Greensboro, with scores of witnesses testifying, reading prepared statements and answering Commissioners’ questions. Many more have spoken to the Commission privately. Without government support, amnesty or subpoena power, why would perpetrators, their supporters and witnesses come forward?

The answer to that question has been one of the most interesting of all, opening political and philosophical gates to terrain most victims never even imagined.

At the start, the widows declared that they would not seek further indictment of those found responsible for the violence in the course of the Commission’s work. It was an attempt to shield those perpetrators willing to divest themselves of their guilty memories before the Commission from the potential legal consequences and thus to maximize the possibility for truth to emerge.

One of the most dramatic events was the televised apology by of one of the shooters to the widows of the murdered. On November 2, 2005, 26 years after shooting down demonstrators, the previously-flamboyant, now-ailing former Nazi Roland Wayne Wood spoke before cameras from his home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, of the regret he felt for his actions. Since then, he has testified to the Commission.

In addition to the moving testimonies of Massacre survivors, others whose testimony had never been heard before included:

  • A TV news editor speaking of the censorship of the media at that time.
  • The prosecutors and the judge in the first trial, who let fly with their hostility to the anti-Klan demonstrators, illustrating the mindset that could have chosen that first all-white jury that acquitted the murderers.
  • An eloquent African-American former co-worker at Bill Sampson’s textile mill who spoke of the hope that the union activity of those years brought to workers.
  • A member of the Morningside Homes community, where the attack took place. A child in 1979, she was told by her father who worked “downtown” at City Hall not to go out that day because the KKK was coming to Morningside.
  • Police officers whose persistent staunch support of their Department’s actions in 1979 revealed its continued entrenchment in now-indefensible excuses.
  • Community activists who placed the Massacre in the context of decades of ongoing violent police and City attitudes toward those on the wrong side of the tracks.

For many of the victims, the process has been a chance to proclaim their humanity after years of vicious dehumanization. Most of them have found new strength in the opportunity to publicly air a history that had long been suppressed or distorted, and, for the first time, to be listened to.

What is to come? What can we hope for?

Already gained for victims, friends and present-day activists is the pride in a history of resistance to race and class oppression and the public acknowledgement of the viciousness of the attack on November 3rd, 1979 by the KKK and Nazis in complicity with lawless and politically motivated officials. We expect a report this spring that is, at the very least, critical of the lack of oversight of law enforcement in the city. Such a finding would support a civilian review of police, state and federal officials acting in the bounds of the city. Further, we would expect recommendations for injecting a truthful account of the events of 1979 into educational and cultural institutions as well as other creative ways to memorialize those who were killed and continue the struggle against racism and classism that their lives and deaths exemplified. Already gained too is a living example of what genuine democracy could look like on a community and municipal level when people, with a great deal of organization and compassion, are able to confront their history and speak honestly about it. When people are motivated by a desire to be responsible to each other for their collective destiny, through a process of truth and reconciliation, and when they are willing to do the hard work necessary to promote healing and unity in the civic body, what social problem would not yield? Greensboro is showing what is possible.

Necessary but less likely in this process would be a dissection of the power structure in Greensboro that led to the targeting of those seeking change in the then-dominant textile industry to the point that, it is charged, the police arranged a goon squad for the activists’ demise. That is the alternate paradigm that makes most sense of the testimony so far. Yet it is not clear that the Commissioners, most of them Greensboro residents, have the courage to address the underlying issues at such a deep level.

Whatever the outcome, citizens in communities with histories of civil and human rights abuses, such as Wilmington, North Carolina; Tulsa, Oklahoma; Birmingham, Alabama; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Miami, Florida, are turning their gaze toward Greensboro as providing a model for truth and healing in their own communities. Greensboro’s unprecedented truth and reconciliation process has once again placed the city at the forefront of America’s perennial and hard-fought struggle for civil and human rights.

Signe Waller is Vice President of the Board of Directors of the Greensboro Justice Fund, a member of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Project's Task Force and survivor of the Greensboro Massacre, widowed in the incident.
Marty Nathan, MD is Executive Director of the Greensboro Justice Fund, and survivor of the Greensboro Massacre, widowed in the incident.

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