The report undoes once and for all Greensboro’s cherished mythology that the shootings were the sole responsibility of two extremist groups who came from somewhere else to perpetrate violence in the streets of an innocent and disinterested city...
...We own this thing.
The 1979 Klan-Nazi killings are a part of Greensboro's history. We are unlikely to achieve consensus as to what they meant, and what they mean now, any more than we have consensus about other events in our past. I think the report makes a mistake by viewing things too often through the political lens of the CWP survivors. But we can reconcile ourselves to some basic truths that run counter to the story we've told ourselves for a quarter-century, and the report is a valuable step in that direction.
A flawed but useful TRC report
by Edward Cone
News & Record
The report of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission is a flawed but highly valuable document. It does not deliver the final word in this city's long-running debate over the Klan/Nazi killings of November 3, 1979, and it is often credulous and politically biased, but it does reframe the conversation in some important ways.
The report undoes once and for all Greensboro's cherished mythology that the shootings were the sole responsibility of two extremist groups who came from somewhere else to perpetrate violence in the streets of an innocent and disinterested city.
Yes, there were two extremist groups at Morningside Homes that morning, and the TRC –- contrary to the expectations of some critics -- does a reasonably good job of acknowledging the responsibility of the Communist Workers Party for its part in inviting the disaster that befell it (the nature and culpability of the Klan and Nazis have never really been in doubt).
But the report illuminates the ineluctable truth that there was a third party in play that day that must be seen as central to the story: the Greensboro Police Department, which failed to keep the peace despite extensive intelligence as to the nature of the two groups, the hostile relationship between them, and their activities in the run-up to the shootings. "The GPD showed a stunning lack of curiosity in planning for the safety of the event," says the commission, and it backs up that assertion with a litany of facts.
The central role of our police force helps to bring home another truth that Greensboro has tried to avoid for more than a quarter-century: we own this thing. It is a part of our history. The killings took place in a Greensboro neighborhood, and many of the principals lived and worked here; those who traveled to get here did not travel far. The report is full of familiar names and locations, of context and history and place, and the place is Greensboro.
None of this is news to people who have followed the story carefully and with an open mind. The role of the police, for example, was made clear in the 1985 civil suit
that found in which the City of Greensboro paid a judgment liable for the wrongful death of one of the marchers. But to have it all summed up in a single document is a powerful thing. And make no mistake: this report will be read for years to come. It will pop up high in Google searches and find its way into libraries and onto conference agendas.
And that makes its flaws all the more frustrating.
One of the report's great failings is that it tries so hard to empathize with the slain and their survivors that it goes beyond explanation into apologetics. This comes through in the choice of particular words, and in the structure and emphasis of the document as a whole.
For example, the report says members of the Communist Workers Party bear responsibility for their rhetoric and actions in challenging the Klan, but then gives these educated people, who had faced off with the Klan once before and seen bloodshed as activists and labor organizers, something of a pass for being "very naïve about the level of danger posed by their rhetoric and the Klan’s propensity for violence." The commissioners criticize the decision by the march organizers "to undertake this highly risky strategy in a marginalized poor neighborhood," but then allow for a possible "benevolent spirit" behind that choice.
In the same vein, the report makes it clear that the CWP (previously known as the Workers Viewpoint Organization) was less interested in building unions than in fomenting revolution, and that it had limited success in organizing workers. "The WVO's aggressive tactics and hard-line communist ideology made it difficult to collaborate with other groups working to unionize the workers and may have kept supporters away," say the commissioners. "Jim Waller [a leader of the group who was killed on 11/3/79] was direct about the WVO’s interest in unions: 'We will struggle against any tendency to raise building this union as the principal goal, to elevate it above building the Party to prepare for revolution.'"
Why, then, does the report devote almost 100 pages to a left-leaning history of the labor movement in the textile industry? The commissioners seem incapable of following their own narrative. They reveal the CWP as a radical group with an agenda separate from the labor movement, but then fall right back into the CWP's own cover story. The report commends the CWP for speaking out "against racist violence, poverty and unfair labor practices." Speaking out against those bad things is laudable, but that was not all that the CWP was doing. This lack of moral clarity about ends and means crops up frequently in the report, including a near-seamless conflation of non-violent protests like the Greensboro Sit-ins with later, more radical movements.
Also troubling is the statement endorsed by a majority of commissioners that "the single most important element that contributed to the violent outcome of the confrontation was the absence of police." Commissioner Bob Peters, the only attorney in the group, couldn’t bring himself to sign off on that one. As he noted in a concurring opinion, "the main wrongdoing must lie with the Nazi/Klan due to their violent hate language and their use of excessive force in the deaths."
The report provides important context as it examines the two criminal trials that failed to convict anyone for the killings, and the unsatisfying response of the City in the wake of the shootings. It also includes several recommendations for future action, aimed at the reconciliation part of its mandate. Some are good ideas, like a formal recognition by the City of the importance of November 3, 1979, and calls for understanding and dialogue across different parts of the community. Some may be good ideas, or not, but seem far afield in any case from the mission of the TRC, such as a push for a "living wage" scale for local public employees. And some, like the formation of a police review board with subpoena powers, revisit long-simmering questions about the way we should run our city.
I wish the commissioners had spent more time humanizing the five people killed in our streets – the accounts of their deaths are horrifying and moving, but we don’t really get to know them as individuals – and less time arguing from a political point of view. The weaknesses in the volume will make it easier for people who want to preserve the mythology and ignore the history to write the whole thing off.
Writing it all off, though, would be a mistake. The report contains some powerful and important truths, and even some of its less-successful chapters add depth and perspective to the history of Greensboro. The comprehensive story of November 3, 1979 and its aftermath remains to be written. This report would be a useful resource in any such an effort, but it does not fulfill the need on its own.
There is plenty of truth in the report, and plenty of opinion as well. Whether it helps Greensboro toward reconciliation is now up to us.
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