The Weight of Nelson Johnson

When UNC-TV interviewed me about the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation project, it wasn’t for my good looks and authoritative speaking style, but because they couldn’t find anyone to speak against the project.


Not that there’s any shortage of opponents – the mayor, prominent city council members, and the former mayor who thinks he’s still mayor all want to wish this thing away. But nobody wanted to say so on camera. My job, as a journalist who has covered the story, was to read the opponents’ minds and explain to the good viewers of North Carolina public television why anyone might oppose this effort.


Maybe the people who oppose the project were smart to duck the TV cameras – there is no way to win a complex argument when your 30 seconds of airtime run in the same segment as the news footage of the killings. Your words will sound tinny when contrasted with the crack of gunfire, your logic will pale against the sunlit images of men calmly shooting into a panicked crowd.


Any effort to examine the Klan-Nazi killings is bound to run into some resistance in Greensboro. People worry that it’s bad for business and the city’s image to rehash the bloody events of November 3, 1979, futile to look for meaning in their aftermath, fruitless to dignify two groups devoted to different strains of radical politics.


Let’s be honest, though -- the current project labors under an added burden: the weight of Nelson Johnson and all the history he carries with him.


It’s a reasonable question: how can the Truth and Reconciliation group be fair and objective when Nelson Johnson, a survivor of the 1979 shootings, an erstwhile member of a group that advocated the violent overthrow of the government, is the driving force behind it?


Although the project’s co-chairs are former Greensboro mayor Carolyn Allen and minister Z Holler, and it has attracted a large and diverse group of supporters, Johnson is both its spiritual leader and its temporal instigator. His passion brought the project into being. The group meets at his church, the grant money that funds it flows through his community organization.


There are two answers to the question of Nelson’s ability to spawn an inquiry and report worth supporting. One is that Johnson is a different man than he was two decades ago.


I had a lot of doubts when I met with him at length in anticipation of the massacre’s 20th anniversary. What I found was a person no less committed to righting injustice than he had been as an activist at A&T in the ‘60s or a would-be revolutionary in the ‘70s. But he was sadder, gentler, more realistic than the firebrand of years ago. He grew up. He changed. Nelson seems to be (as Jerry Garcia once said of himself after a near-death experience), “not so much a new man as an extrapolation of the old one.”


As I sat in on organizational meetings last year, I saw Nelson willing to tell the truth and seek it. He did not flinch from details damning to his cause, facts that add some texture to the events of 1979 and the subsequent trials, including the provocative posture of his group toward the Klan prior to the November 3 march (billed as a “Death to the Klan” rally), and his refusal to cooperate with the prosecution when the killers went to court.


The other answer to the Nelson question, perhaps the more important one, is that

the process is designed to move further and further from the influence of one man, and of the original group he started. The next step is creating a selection committee from a wide variety of community groups (the Sons of Confederate Veterans, for example, were asked to appoint a committee member, but declined), which will in turn choose the independent seven-member panel that will compile the report.


The credibility of the project, which is being monitored by a prestigious international organization, depends on that independence. So far, what I’ve seen gives me some confidence that this independence can be achieved. But the best guarantee of a balanced, clear-eyed, and truly independent panel would be to have the folks who oppose the whole thing get involved with it. That’s why I’d like to see a John Hammer or a Tom Phillips on the seven-person commission.


No commission is going to tell the story in a way that tells everyone’s version of the truth. Nelson Johnson may want to show how capitalism and racism created a climate where this could happen, but I’m not sure that’s something that can be laid out as fact to his satisfaction.


What a strong, independent panel could do is create a definitive record of what happened, to document the fact that five people were shot to death -- not just rabble rousers to be written off for taking a wrong turn after the ‘60s, but individuals, Americans exercising their rights to free expression and free assembly, and that these people were gunned down on the streets of a city where too many people want to forget them. They deserve to have their stories told.