On Sept. 29, 2005, the eve of the final hearing of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission, I sat in the sanctuary of the Presbyterian Church of the Covenant in Greensboro, North Carolina. At the front, former Mayor Carolyn Allen welcomed us to a prayer service. The audience was made up of white, black, old, young, Jew, Baptist, Episcopalian, and Presbyterian.
This commission, the first of its kind in the United States, is modeled after those held all over the world, such as South Africa’s post-apartheid commission, clerked by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Tutu himself wrote to the Greensboro commission about the special importance of this task force, “Many will be looking to you to assess whether similar commissions might be helpful in their communities.”
The commission promised to address a question that had stayed with me since Zeb Holler, a retired Greensboro pastor, introduced me to this process, the massacre of 1979, and his own journey toward peace through reconciliation. When I asked him why he thought the commission mattered, he said, “If we can begin to look at ourselves honestly and use that self-knowledge, and use what we learn from one another, we might just experience healing in ourselves and become a source of healing in a world that very much needs it.”
How appropriate, I thought, as a seven-member gospel choir sang out “Glory, glory, hallelujah, since I laid my burden down,” that I was sitting in the church that Holler pastored at the time of the killings.
On Nov. 3, 1979, men, women, and children gathered in Greensboro to attend a “Death to the Klan” rally. They were publicly demonstrating their opposition to the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in their community. Music played as members of the Communist Workers Party (CWP), the organizers of the event, attended to details. As the sun rose in the sky, the group seemed concerned with just one thing—getting the march underway.
Like the scene of a car accident, there are many versions of what happened next.
Tammy Tutt was 10 years old at the time. A resident of Morningside Homes, the public housing complex that served as the staging area for the march, Tutt says that people in her community knew something bad might happen. Their children were not allowed outside. Some adults didn’t go to work that day. Rumors had been spreading that the Klan was coming. She’d never seen the Klan, and her idea of what could happen if they came was terrifying.
Perhaps more demonstrators should have been worried—they had clashed with the Klan in the nearby town of China Grove just two months earlier. Following the China Grove incident, CWP planned the rally in Greensboro, and an angry challenge was sent to the Klansmen: “We invite you and your two-bit punks to come out and face the wrath of the people.” Two days before the march, a Klan member pasted counter-signs over the rally signs. Along with a drawing of a lynching were the words, “It’s time for old-fashioned American Justice.”
Some claim that because some of the organizers carried side arms, they knew there could be bloodshed. In 1979 in North Carolina, however, it was legal to carry a weapon, and the organizers consistently report that they had no idea there would be violence. One of them, Sally Bermanzohn, testified, “It’s the kind of legal political action that we’d been doing for a long time.” Pregnant with her second child, Sally was increasingly focused on motherhood, but she was wholly in support of the demonstration and thought they would be safe. “I told people to bring their children.” As in the past, she knew the police might harass them, “but we always assumed they’d protect us.”
Local television station WFMY arrived to cover the march. Snaking its way through the street was a caravan of vehicles containing heavily armed members of the Klan and the American Nazi Party. As the cars pulled up, some demonstrators began yelling and hitting the cars. The convoy stopped. Men got out—and opened fire.
Eighty-eight seconds and 39 shots later, five CWP organizers—Jim Waller, Bill Sampson, Sandi Smith, César Cauce, and Mike Nathan—were dead. Ten other demonstrators were wounded. A few of the protesters shot back in self-defense. None of the Klansmen or Nazis were injured. A WFMY photographer, caught in the crossfire, had the entire horrific scene on videotape.
Twenty-five years later, in one of the first commission hearings, former Klan Imperial Wizard Virgil Griffin was asked if he thought it odd that no Klansmen were shot on Nov. 3. He replied, “No ma’am, I don’t.... Them Commies might be doctors, they may be lawyers. My boys...they’s hunters...I don’t know...Maybe God guided the bullets.”
During the six years following what has come to be known as the Greensboro Massacre, two expensive and lengthy criminal trials brought acquittals for the Klan and the Nazis, based on the premise that they acted in self-defense. A later civil suit found both the Klan and the police department guilty of “wrongful death” of just one of the victims, resulting in an award of $350,000.
Greensboro City Council member Florence Gatten said that at the time she was “incredulous at the outcome of the trial.” But, she added, “The court system has addressed these events in three different trials. Whether we agree or disagree with the outcomes...we, as Americans, are called upon to respect the work of the judicial systems.”
In 1999, following the 20th anniversary of the massacre, a coalition gathered to discuss reviving a process that felt very much unfinished. They met with the International Center for Transitional Justice, an organization that assists countries wishing to pursue accountability for past mass atrocity or human rights abuse, to discuss establishing a truth commission in Greensboro—an official inquiry seeking to establish an accurate historical record. The ICTJ currently has similar efforts in Peru, Colombia, Iraq, and Northern Ireland.
The Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission, inaugurated in June 2004, selected commissioners from more than 70 nominations. A broad array of Greensboro’s social, religious, and political sectors worked to select seven commissioners recognized for their integrity. Still, the process was met with mixed regard. Some wanted the “past to bury the present,” whereas others wanted nothing short of seeing those “murderers” put behind bars. Mayor Keith Holliday and the city council voted—along racial lines—to oppose the commission’s work. Council member Gatten opposed the project because she was not convinced it would do what it promised. In an April 2005 council meeting, Gatten said, “I have listened for two years with respect to those promoting this project. But, with two notable exceptions, I have been neither heard nor respected in return. I have had distressing reports from citizens who wished to tell their story that they have been rudely treated or ignored when it was determined that they wished to offer opposing points of view.”
From July to October 2005, the commissioners, trained to hear conflicting views and difficult stories, held three public hearings. Those affected by the events of Nov. 3, 1979, shared their experiences—many for the first time. Despite the fact that the GTRC holds no subpoena power, people both for and against the commission offered testimony at the hearings, including Klan leaders Virgil Griffin and Gorrell Pierce, former Grand Dragon of the Federated Knights of the KKK.
A chime sounds at the beginning of each day of the hearing. Eighty-eight seconds of silence are observed. Sally Bermanzohn’s eyes are closed. I can’t help wondering what she relives each time she observes this ritual. Her husband, Paul, one of the injured organizers, was shot in the head and still suffers from semi-paralysis on the left side of his body. He reaches his healthy arm around his daughter’s back—this is the child Sally was pregnant with at the time of the massacre.
Over the course of 15 hours of testimony, I heard arguments that this process toward reconciliation is warranted for the simple reason that five lives were lost, and as a result, we need to understand and learn from this tragedy. I heard arguments that this process was needed so that the victims could find healing and move on in their lives. The most compelling argument was perhaps the simplest, though not the easiest, spoken by Joyce Johnson. “The truth sets us free,” she said.
Joyce Johnson and her husband, Nelson—a lead organizer in 1979 for the CWP—now eschew violence and run the Beloved Community Center in Greensboro. Recently, the Johnsons were awarded a $100,000 grant from the Ford Foundation’s Leadership for a Changing World program. The foundation cited the Johnsons’ work at the center, along with their efforts to start the truth and reconciliation commission.
“The truth provides the basis for reconciliation,” Joyce Johnson concluded. “That’s why I am here.”
But what is reconciliation? Carlton Eversley, a Presbyterian pastor in Winston-Salem, addressed this question during his testimony. “Reconciliation is when we bring together those parts that were torn apart and make them whole again...it’s a metanoia experience,” he said, using the biblical term often translated as repentance or conversion.
Richard Koritz, a representative of the Letter Carriers Union to the AFL-CIO, and one of the most vocal critics of the truth commission, struggles with this idea of reconciliation. He questioned, “Who exactly is being reconciled?” In a private conversation during a break, Koritz said, “I think, if I understand the CWP leaders correctly, the five who died would be rolling over in their graves about what is happening here.” The powerless, Koritz believes, cannot be reconciled to the powerful—not without a fight. At the conclusion of his testimony, a commissioner thanked Koritz for sharing his perspective—a working-class, activist voice that she had not previously heard. “I’d like to point out,” she continued, addressing his skepticism, “that I wouldn’t have heard from you today were it not for this process.”
Koritz smiled, and gesturing his plastic bottle of water in her direction, “Touché,” he said. “Touché.”
Tammy Tutt, a little girl at the time of the massacre, is now a powerful voice on behalf of her community. Tutt believes that entering the conversation is what matters right now. She said, “When things happened the way they did, of course they blamed the people that marched. But marching is not murdering. We are doing better because we are at the table—whether we are fussin’ or fightin’ or eatin’, we’re at the table.”
“Who, or what, do you think you are trying to reconcile with?” Tutt was asked. “Truth,” she said without hesitation. “We are being reconciled to truth.” She is not swayed by the argument that this process is stirring up fear. “Every time I talk about Nov. 3, I feel fear. The fear’s always been there. Just like planting a garden, we need to dig that stuff up, throw out the stones, turn over the soil—make room for something better.”
The hearings were followed by a series of community forums. Jill Williams, the Greensboro commission’s executive director, wrote on the commission’s Web site about her own response to one of the forums. “In the search for truth and reconciliation, we all have to examine our own behaviors to figure out how we are maintaining systems that keep people from being able to speak and hear each other’s truths. Such examination is unsettling...it is much easier to keep looking ahead...to plan for the future rather than looking back to history or inward at our own actions and intuitions so that we can make more fundamental changes.”
The commission’s final report will be released in April 2006. Other U.S. cities have expressed interest in a similar process—specifically Cincinnati, Ohio (to investigate numerous police shootings), Philadelphia (for the 1985 MOVE bombing), and Philadelphia, Mississippi (for the 1964 murders of civil rights workers).
I recall the conclusion of my conversation with Rev. Zeb Holler. “This commission,” he said, “is being done on the basis of seeking healing for a community—not punishment, and not revenge. Jesus was not on the wrong track when he said, ‘Love your enemy. Pray for your enemy.’”
Deanna Wylie Mayer was an M.F.A. candidate in the Goucher College Creative Nonfiction Program, a freelance writer, and a mother of four living near Philadelphia when this article appeared.