The Truth in Greensboro Starts in Brooklyn
Sally Bermanzohn remembers everything that happened the morning of November 3, 1979 in snapshots, every image clear and precise. She and about 50 other demonstrators from the Communist Workers Party (CWP) gathered at 11:00 a.m. near a housing project in the heart of Greensboro, North Carolina’s black community for a scheduled anti-Ku Klux Klan rally. Someone strummed a guitar as college students in red berets sang the civil rights song, “We Shall Not Be Moved.” Many of the demonstrators carried signs that read “Death to the Klan.”
Bermanzohn was 32 at the time and pregnant with her second child. Her husband, Paul, stood nearby talking with friends. Suddenly a caravan of Klansmen and Nazi Party members pulled up to the crowd and opened fire. In 88 seconds, 39 shots were fired, wounding 11 people and killing five, including Bermanzohn’s first husband, Dr. Michael Nathan. The attack became known as the Greensboro Massacre.
Footage of those 88 seconds aired on major news networks, but the attack was quickly eclipsed in national headlines by the Iranian hostage crisis. Local media and Greensboro community leaders framed the event as a shootout between two radical groups of outsiders. Two subsequent criminal trials ended in acquittals. Though a civil trial found two Greensboro police officers and seven Klansmen and Nazi Party members responsible for the wrongful death of one of the victims, Nathan, the city of Greensboro still refuses to account for the attack nearly 25 years later.
Like much of the South, Greensboro has a history steeped in the civil rights movement; the Greensboro Four were one of the nation’s first “sit-in” demonstrators, demanding service at a segregated Woolworth’s counter in 1960. But beneath the town’s pride in its civil rights successes lurks shame and guilt: a difficult legacy that its current residents are struggling to unearth. Bermanzohn and other survivors of the 1979 massacre want the truth, and they are applying a surprising mechanism to expose it: a truth commission, the first ever convened in the United States. The Greensboro Truth and Community Reconciliation Project (GTCRP) plans to revisit that November morning to examine what happened and why it happened. Its purpose is to transform the division and bitterness rooted in the town’s past into a fresh, unhindered future for Greensboro. If the commission is successful, the model may be extended to other U.S. cities seeking to heal communities ravaged by a history of race riots, police corruption, and violence.
“It is time now for us to model for our children, for our city and indeed for our nation a capacity to hear each other honestly, to forgive each other and to build a future based on the truth: not on fear and not on a blame of each other, but on a serious examination of what happened and why it happened,” says Nelson Johnson, a survivor of the Greensboro Massacre.
The GTCRP could set a precedent in the United States for a new form of urban healing and renewal. Its model is the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, assembled in the aftermath of the apartheid to confront the human rights abuses of that nation’s past. The GTCRP has enlisted consultation from the New York City-based International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), formed by leaders from the South African commission, and it is being guided by an advisory panel that includes an all-star list of international human rights activists, mediation experts, local lawyers, and Southern academic historians.
“All eyes are on Greensboro,” says Lisa Magarrell, a consultant from the ICTJ who works closely with the GTCRP. The Greensboro Massacre continues to haunt the town of 230,000 people. Twenty-five years later, many questions remain unanswered and powerful suspicion surrounds the event. The survivors, never satisfied by the three trials or the city’s efforts to pursue an investigation into the attack, argue various conspiracy theories, and any account—official or speculative—seems, at best, incomplete.
Bermanzohn, now a political science professor at CUNY in Brooklyn, describes herself as a victim-turned-scholar, and she looks the part of a slender, hip professor in a brightly striped blouse and an army-green zippered blazer. She wears her light brown hair styled short, resting just above simple silver hoop earrings. She grew up in Long Island and chose to attend college in the South in 1965, drawn there by the civil rights movement and a belief, instilled by her mother, that segregation was morally wrong. Her husband, Paul—father of her two daughters, now grown—suffered a gunshot wound to the head that morning in Greensboro and was partially paralyzed by the attack.
From behind thinly rimmed glasses, Bermanzohn’s eyes betray her emotion as she describes that November morning, moving between looks of pain and defiance. No one expected trouble, she says. Demonstrators from the CWP gathered near the Morningside housing projects, the heart of Greensboro’s black community, and many of them remarked on the absence of police officers, who by 1979 were attending demonstrations in the South in order to prevent violence. Nelson Johnson, the primary organizer of the event, carried a police permit approving the parade, but officers failed to arrive until moments after the attack. During the civil trial, one Greensboro officer would testify that she received a suspicious order to “clear the area” just before 11:00 a.m.
Footage of the incident shows nine cars pulling up to the crowd. CWP members pounded on the hood of a car and an exchange of angry words ensued with the caravan of white men—some with beards, some with cigarettes dangling from their mouths. One man opened the trunk of a vehicle and others joined him in unloading an arsenal, distributing guns to the Klansmen and Nazi Party members. In subsequent testimony by FBI sound and ballistic experts, the source of all 39 shots would be debated, particularly shots 3, 4, and 5. Police experts would testify that the CWP demonstrators returned fire in self-defense only after the firing of more than a dozen shots from the caravan.
Either party may have had reason to lie. Shortly after the attack, newspaper accounts revealed the involvement of a former FBI informant, Edward Dawson, who was allegedly paid by the Greensboro police to find out if the Klan planned to come to Greensboro for the November 3 march. According to some accounts, Dawson played an instrumental role in rallying Klansmen from throughout the South to Greensboro that morning. Local newspapers also reported that Bernard Butkovich, an undercover agent from the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), infiltrated the Nazi Party and participated in meetings where plans for the Greensboro attack were formulated. Dawson was acquitted in a federal criminal trial but was later found liable for the wrongful death of Nathan in a civil suit. Butkovich was cleared of any wrongdoing by the ATF.
After a decade of near silence, the KKK had recently burst into activity in 1979, and Bermanzohn recalls the suddenness with which their presence was felt again across the South. The CWP pressed to stop the Klan from driving a wedge between black and white workers in North Carolina’s textile mills and intended to expose how the Klan disrupted union efforts across the South. And while the Greensboro demonstration may not have been about initiating a clash with the KKK, the palpable tension between the two groups suggested that both sides were eager for confrontation.
The local media and city leadership immediately framed the attack as a conflict between two disparate groups: communists and Klansmen, all strangers to Greensboro, taunted each other to the point of violence. “No one wanted a black mark on the page of history for the city,” says Carolyn Allen, mayor of Greensboro from 1993 to 1999, and co-chair of the GTCRP.
Many of the demonstrators were union organizers in local textile mills and hospitals or were students and graduates of local colleges. Some of them were born and raised in Greensboro or had spent much of their adult lives there, such as Nelson Johnson, who had lived in Greensboro for more than 15 years by 1979, according to Bermanzohn. Sandra Smith, who died in the attack, was president of the student body at Greensboro’s Bennett College. But community leaders, eager to distance Greensboro from the event, insisted the demonstrators were outsiders. “To say [Sandra Smith] is an outsider? Maybe it had something to do with the fact that she was African-American? Maybe African-Americans are always outsiders in Greensboro,” says Bermanzohn.
“We were activists, we were radicals, and at that time, most of us were communists,” she continues. “Certainly in terms of how were we portrayed in the press that explained everything: you didn’t have to say any more. It’s like calling someone a terrorist. If you’re called that, then no more questions, you deserve to be killed. On the other hand, we were human beings. We were human beings before we became communists, and we were still human beings then.”
Survivors of the attack, such as Bermanzohn, felt the subsequent criminal trials dehumanized them, casting them as demons because of their communist affiliation. Bermanzohn felt so terrorized from the aftermath of the attack that it has taken her 23 years to write her account of the event: Through Survivors Eyes: From the Sixties to the Greensboro Massacre, to be published by Vanderbilt University Press this fall. The two criminal trials ended in acquittals, and five years passed before a settlement in a civil trial awarded $300,000 to Nathan’s estate. Marty Nathan, Dr. Nathan’s widow, donated the settlement money to fund the Greensboro Justice Fund, the fuel behind the GTCRP.
The GTCRP headquarters are housed within the offices of the Beloved Community Center, a local community organization fostering Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of a “beloved community.” Its task force meets over lunch once a month—twice if needed—and its members are currently working on the nomination process for the project’s selection committee. They are also producing a video for Greensboro’s public access station, hoping to raise awareness of the project and its goals.
“The media has its way of telling its story. We’re making sure the public hears from us,” says Joe Frierson, 23, staff support for the GTCRP.
Like the Beloved Community Center itself, the project is grossly understaffed. Frierson makes up exactly one-half of the project’s staff support, and the advisers and chairpersons of the GTCRP boast other full-time titles: minister, professor, lawyer, dean. The lack of bodies presents only one of the challenges the GTCRP faces: the group is currently fielding objections in Greensboro that the project is opening old wounds and conducting a witch hunt.
Jim Melvin is one objector. Melvin served as Greensboro’s mayor from 1971 to 1981 and today is a leading voice in Action Greensboro, a coalition formed to draw new business to the town. The coalition regards Greensboro as a “forward-looking community,” according to the organization’s website. Melvin doubts the value for Greensboro holding a truth commission. “Sure it was a tragic event, but why talk about what happened 23 years ago? Frankly, I think they’re better off spending their resources looking forward from here,” says Melvin. “I don’t know what they’re trying to prove.”
Melvin and other community leaders are concerned that the commission will disrupt Action Greensboro’s strong push forward and scare off potential newcomers to the town. Current Greensboro Mayor, Keith Holliday, whose soft Southern drawl carries his words slowly and carefully, also regrets the timing of the truth commission, though he sympathizes with the wounds of those intimately involved in the event. “If I had been on the jury, someone would have been found guilty,” he says. “But the timing of this is not good for the city of Greensboro.” Supporters of the GTCRP, however, say the postcard view of Greensboro needs to be examined before the town can make any substantive move forward.
“We’re opening a wound, but that wound is scabbed over and infected and making the whole body sick,” says Z. Holler, retired Greensboro minister and co-chair of the GTCRP. “The community would willingly have forgotten it if the group that was essentially victimized hadn’t said, ‘Look. This is murder in our streets.’”
The GTCRP is not sponsored by an official government body, but instead has grown out of the activism of survivors who refuse to be silenced. Unlike its international counterparts—truth commissions in South Africa, Peru, and other nations haunted by human rights abuses—the Greensboro commission will not boast subpoena power; this may limit the scope of the commission’s inquiry since anyone who comes forward must do so willingly. The commission therefore faces a real challenge in presenting itself as a safe forum for conversation: an essential factor in any chance for success.
The organic, grassroots nature of the GTCRP is the key to building an image of the Greensboro commission within the community, says Vaughn Crandall, staff member of the ARIA Group, a conflict resolution firm instrumental in the mediation efforts in Cincinnati, Ohio following the city’s 2001 race riots. The Greensboro commission must be perceived as a neutral body, but this is complicated by the divisive nature of the event itself. It is further complicated by the fact that much of the energy driving the project comes from survivors such as Nelson Johnson. Johnson’s involvement, to some, immediately negates any image of neutrality the commission might hope to convey.
“Out of the gate, there’s nothing neutral about it,” says Mayor Holliday, who considers the venture admirable but doubts that the reality of the truth commission will come to pass. “[Johnson’s] friends were shot beside him, he was hiding under a car: it’s hard to imagine him being objective,” he says.
The situation is rooted in conflicts as old as the Civil War, according to Crandall, who also sits on the commission’s advisory panel. The GTCRP is perceived by objectors in Greensboro as one-sided—representing only the perspective of the survivors and victims—and funded and advised by outsiders to the community. Major funding for the project comes from a New York City-based foundation, the Andrus Fund, one of the nation’s dozen largest family foundations with over $600 million in assets. GTCRP advisors and investors are primarily unfamiliar to the Greensboro community. More than that, says Crandall, they are Northerners. “The GTCRP is attempting to investigate an incident in a Southern city using resources from up north and an advisory board stacked with people from above the Mason-Dixon Line,” he says. This creates concern in Greensboro: what kind of concern, Crandall can’t name, he says, because he’s not a Southerner. “The perception is: ‘Northerners are coming in to make us look bad,’” says Crandall.
Many supporters of the GTCRP and similar activism consider the North-South issue irrelevant to the cause, since activists are often pressed to find funding and advice from outside sources schooled in related efforts or able to offer a broader perspective. Martha Biondi, Assistant Professor of African-American Studies and History at Northwestern University, says, while she’s unfamiliar with the Greensboro case specifically, activists concerned with similar events in the region often redefine these problems less as local issues and more as human rights issues. “Moral questions don’t have state borders,” says Biondi, whose new book, To Stand and Fight, looks at how black New Yorkers launched the modern civil rights struggle ten years before the rise of the movement in the South. “It seems to me non-exceptional or controversial that funds have come from New York; many foundations are based there, and people doing experimental things, such as GTCRP, usually have to take money wherever they can get it,” she says.
Nonetheless, the GTCRP is taking careful steps to make it clear that this is a homegrown, community project. The group is seeking new resources at a local level and consultants such as Lisa Magarrell play low-key roles. Selection for members of the truth commission will commence this summer and the GTCRP hopes to cast a wide net to attract the participation of representatives from a broad base of diverse community organizations. Once the commission convenes—in time for the November anniversary of the massacre—the GTCRP expects to provide an open forum for people to come forward and share their knowledge of the attack.
While the project does not foreclose the possibility of legal action, those at the GTCRP say the intent of the truth commission is not accusation and recrimination, but healing and hope. “[Greensboro] continues to labor under a cloud of confusion, division, and bitterness growing from that tragic day,” says Allen. The GTCRP intends to finally answer to that confusion and bitterness.
If the project achieves its goals and the commission succeeds in reaching objective, unbiased conclusions, it will set a precedent for using tragedies in U.S. cities as a catalyst for real social change. A successful commission in Greensboro will set an example for other U.S. cities to use grief as momentum to spark new dialogue about racial conflict. In places such as Rosewood, Florida and Tulsa, Oklahoma, similar attempts have already been made to publicly acknowledge and compensate for crimes against humanity committed within town borders, with varying degrees of success.
In 1923, the small black community of Rosewood was terrorized by a white mob that killed half a dozen of the town’s inhabitants, drove the rest into the dark, neighboring Florida swamps, and burned the town to ashes. In 1994, nine survivors of the massacre received $150,000 each as part of a $2 million compensation issued by the Florida Legislature. In the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, the affluent black community of Greenwood was also burned to the ground by a white mob and as many as 300 African-Americans were murdered. A commission convened in 1997 by the Oklahoma Legislature to study the event issued a final report to state legislators in 2001, but nothing more than commemorative medals for survivors and talk of a memorial came of the study. Survivors, still unsatisfied with the official handling of the event more than 80 years later, filed a reparations lawsuit this spring, represented by Charles Ogletree Jr., a Harvard law professor, and trial lawyers Johnnie Cochran Jr. and Willie Gary.
Even in neighboring South Carolina, towns are reexamining past violence and attempting to make amends. In Orangeburg, steps have recently been taken to reopen the case of the Feb. 8, 1968 Orangeburg Massacre, when a confrontation between black student protestors and police over a segregated bowling alley left three students dead and 27 wounded. In February, Governor Mark Sanford issued a formal apology regarding the event and an independent investigation is being considered by the state’s General Assembly. As State Senator Darrell Jackson, sponsor of the inquiry bill, told a Los Angeles Times reporter: “You don’t apologize for something where there is no guilt.”
In Orangeburg, Tulsa, Rosewood, and Greensboro, activists are trying to break the silence that has cloaked these atrocities; in some cases for more than 80 years. For the activists behind the GTCRP, money and lawsuits are not the issue: they are driven by a fervent, almost desperate desire for the truth. That drive, for Bermanzohn, comes naturally. Since her move to Brooklyn in 1980, she has continued to protest against manifestations of racism, particularly in established power structures. In New York, she has spoken out against police brutality and what she considers unjust incarceration, such as the Rockefeller Drug Laws. “I see myself mainly as a professor, but I see that as consistent with being an activist,” she says.
For many years, Bermanzohn felt reluctant to revisit that part of her life, or to visit Greensboro. “I always hated going back there, and I always felt people there hated me, and us,” says Bermanzohn. “But if we can speak our hurt, our pain, and ask our questions and seek truth, then I feel like there’s a real opportunity for reconciliation.”