Saturday, July 16, 2005

Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 7/16/05. Weaver Center. Greensboro.

Opens with 88 seconds of silence to comemmorate the 88 seconds of deadly violence in the streets of Morningside Homes.

First up, Gorrell Pierce, former Klansman from Belew's Creek. Says he's thought about this for 25 years. Family in same area since 1753, everyone I'm kin to is buried with in 15 miles. Grew up listening to stories of Reconstruction on the front porches of family and friends. "I have a direct tie to the past." Easy to join the Klan for fun and camaraderie.

"Had I been born in New York City I probably would have made a good communist. Where I was, I became a good Klansman."

First confrontation of Klan with CWP (then Workers Viewpoint Org) at Winston-Salem library. "A shouting match in February of 19 and 79."

His group purchased Birth of a Nation after he saw Lillian Gish interviewed on Phil Donahue. On 7/9/79, movie to be shown at a Klan recruitment event in China Grove. CWP showed up, armed with "bats, sticks, a pistol." Takes credit for getting his people inside before bloodshed could start -- "You could feel each other's breath, it was that close."

"I was glad to be alive, I knew right then the next time these people got together something bad would happen." He did not go to Greensboro on November 3, 1979.

Police/Fed infiltration: "You show me a Klan meeting, I'll show you an FBI agent." Wonders if there were agents with CWP, too.

Not sure G'boro was a victim of 11/3, could have happened in Charlotte, Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit. (Says he's proud of G'boro, for the "ass-whuppin'" the Continental Army put on Cornwallis and the Sit-ins at Woolworth.) '79 was no one person's fault.

The police did not anticipate what would happen. Nor the ATF. Not paying close enough attention.

[Questions after testimony in lobby]

Age 52. Served 5 years Fed prison for conspiracy to blow up Colonial pipeline, 3 more for gun possession as a felon.

On Truth and Rec: "I feel these people are trying to do the community a service."

[Overheard in the audience, from a liberal activist]: Unionization in '70s going well despite, not because of, the CWP leaflets and agenda.]

Yonni Chapman, testimony. Overlong history of his discovery as a child of privilege that there was injustice in US.

Rejects "progressive mystique" of Greensboro and North Carolina. Cites "secret supporters of the Klan among Greensboro's industrialists," no names or evidence.

Says Jim Waller, who recruited him to CWP, told him that he (Waller) almost got beat up at union organizing meeting for radical politics.

Elizabeth Wheaton testimony. Says she is accused of blaming vicitms, but research led to "Disturbing conclusions about methods of CWP...Can't do justice to tragedy if we hold players to different standards." Lots of quotes to support view of radical nature of organization, says it was more interested in building a party than a labor movement. "Not just slogans for CWP, they were truths." More quotes to support idea CWP activity hurt brown lung and union efforts.

No evidence Feds incited Klan, no evidence of conspiracy. She attended trials.

CWP took China Grove to mean Klan wouldn't fight back. "Under delusion they could challenge the Klan with impunity."

Cites bravery of Greensboro Police officers Art League and Sam Bryant, who stopped the yellow van leaving the scene of the shootings, knowing it was full of killers, and apprehended the men.

Says Jim Waller tried to take a shotgun from a pickup truck during confrontation, says there were three handguns used by marchers.

KKK voted unamimously to come to G'boro before the law-enforcement guys ever got involved.

Question from Commissioner: Who was responsible, you seem to blame CWP. "Five good people died, a neighborhood terrorized. It could have been stopped." City policing strategy "an almost incomprehensible blunder." "Klan and Nazis, the ultimate blame."

Virgil Griffin, testimony: This Commission won't solve anything, a total waste of time. You should forget 1979 and go on.

Joined Klan at 18, believed in it, white people need somebody to speak for them. Don't believe in communism, drugs, integration.

"China Grove had nothing to do" with his coming to GSO. The City didn't ask us. Could have happened in any city in NC. They put up the poster challenging us to come out from under our rocks. I'm not scum. I'm not afraid of no man.

Now I work to put prayer and the bible back in schools, get drugs and violence out.

All hell broke loose that day. I didn't expect it to. "I don't think we made any mistakes. We all come out alive."

Says he worked in textile mills, including JP Stevens, was a union member, with black members. "I liked it pretty good under the union. I tried to organize at JP Stevens."

Why Klan took no casualties 11/3 despite allegation of 19 shots fired by marchers: Klan "boys" hunt for food, doctors and lawyers don't..."Maybe God guided the bullets."

Jeffrey Woods, Ph D, testimony. Communists, unlike Klan, "never found common cause with general population." Cops "institutionally and culturally" more disposed to suspect communist groups.

Important to understand context when saying people ignored GSO killings: 11/4/79, hostages taken in Iran. 12/79, USSR invades Afghanistan.

Knows of no instances where Klan used to disrupt unionization.

Joe Roy, testimony. Investigator, Southern Poverty Law Center. Gives profile of disaffected people who join hate groups, discusses current and historical hate group situation in US.

Afterward, I ask him if the CWP in '70s would have been followed as a hate group by SPLC. He says they probably would have been on radar, if not followed. I ask if profile of CWP member is similar to profile of Klan member. He says yes in many ways, but with different politics.

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Virgil Griffin (center, below) Imperial Wizard of the Cleveland Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, hands out his business card after speaking at today's public hearings conducted by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission at the Weaver Center in downtown Greensboro.


The guy at right (below) was part of a small group that seemed interested in confronting Griffin. He yelled at a police detective who photographed him, and things were tense for a moment before another officer, shown speaking to the yeller, intervened. Another member of the group (they were described to me by a third officer as "anarchists") said Griffin should not have been allowed to come to town, and should not have received police protection. Griffin was of course invited to appear by the Truth and Rec Commission, to talk about the last time Greensboro failed to provide adequate police presence at a gathering of the Klan and the Communist Workers Party.


The panel heard testimony from another (former) Klansman, Gorrell Pierce of Belew's Creek (below). Pierce was at the near-violent confrontation between the Klan and the CWP at China Grove, NC in July of 1979, an event that he said made 11/3/79 seem inevitable.


It was a good day for the Commission in terms of establishing its credibility and showing a willingness to hear views other than those of the march organizers and their allies (yesterday skewed much more in the other direction). In addition to Griffin, who was unrepentant but did say he came to Greensboro soley because of the fliers challenging the Klan to do so, and Pierce, who limned some of the history between the antagonistic groups, there was testimony from Elizabeth Wheaton, a scholar and author who cast some doubt on the CWP's effectiveness and true ambitions as a labor-organizing group, and who stated flatly that there was no evidence of a police or business conspiracy to allow the massacre to happen.

The end product -- the report -- will tell us once and for all whether this Commission is interested in writing history or propaganda. I detected a strong sense of seriousness and purpose today, but I couldn't tell if certain questions were asked to test hypotheses or confirm beliefs. I certainly hope it was the former, but some Commissioners came across as more ideological than others.

There was a big crowd, filling the auditorium for much of the day, and plenty of press. I saw no members of the City Council, which is somewhere between a shame and an embarassment.

Security was tight, polite, and appropriate. (Looking at a couple of very large men I asked John Hammer if he thought the GPD had sent its biggest guys; "I hope so," he said.) The Truth and Reconciliation group -- commissioners, staff, and volunteers -- have reason to be proud of their work this weekend. I don't think these hearings put all questions about the project to rest, but it was a good first effort.

Some of my previous posts and columns on this subject herehere, herehere, here, here, herehere, here and here.

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