Truth, Reconciliation, and Nelson Johnson


By Edward Cone
News & Record

Here's a bit of political Zen for Greensboro's powers that be: If you are against Nelson Johnson's campaign to examine the 1979 Klan-Nazi killings, then you should join Nelson Johnson's campaign.

Twenty-four years ago tomorrow, five people were shot dead in the streets of southeast Greensboro. The killers were captured in the act on film but went free after two criminal trials; the city was held liable in a subsequent civil trial for failing to protect the victims.

Now a group called the Greensboro Truth and Community Reconciliation Project is working to document the events of that terrible day and its aftermath. The group includes local civic and religious leaders and is advised by a respected organization called the International Center for Transitional Justice.

The group also includes Nelson Johnson, and there's the rub. Twenty-four years ago, Johnson was a leader of the Communist Workers Party, the radical group that was attacked by the Klan and neo-Nazi gunmen.

There's no doubt that this project is Johnson's baby, even though it is chaired by former Mayor Carolyn Allen and the Rev. Z. Holler, and guided by an advisory board that includes prominent local clergy. Johnson is its wellspring and its conscience. The Arlington Street church where he is now a minister hosts the meetings, and his community organization is the conduit for the grant money that pays project staffers.

Johnson's involvement makes some people nervous about the truth and reconciliation commission. I don't blame them. I was nervous, too, when I first interviewed him four years ago. I was afraid of becoming what the Communists used to call a "useful idiot" -- someone who carries water for the cause without realizing he's been set up. I feared that Nelson would take advantage of my last name, which I share with the now-ruined company where some of the slain labor organizers worked, and co-opt the valuable real estate I get on the top of this page to score points I didn't necessarily want to make.

And even after my meetings with him around the 20th anniversary of the killings led me to reconsider my own habit of writing off the events as an unfortunate clash between two extremist groups, neither of them from Greensboro, I was nervous again when I heard about his current project.

But I've been a close observer of the process, and every step of the way has been encouraging to me. At a series of meetings to discuss the project, Johnson listened to the advisory group assembled from a cross-section of the community. An early draft of one document failed to mention that the protestors were attacked at a rally publicized with the slogan "Death to the Klan"; it was quickly changed when the group spoke up. Similarly, Johnson added to his account of the criminal trials the fact that he had refused to cooperate with the prosecution.

Johnson seems to me to be committed to his stated goals of truth and community reconciliation. He's passionate about social justice, but he's a different person from what he used to be. Talking to him reminds me of what Jerry Garcia said after a near-death experience of his own, that he was "not so much a new man as an extrapolation of the old one."

Still, some people will never see past Johnson's past. Fortunately the final report will come from a panel that is designed to operate at some distance from him. The large and relatively open group he first assembled has chosen a selection committee from a wide slate of community groups. This committee will in turn name a seven-member panel to produce the report.

I'd like to see a mix of views represented on that panel. It would be great to get a tough-minded guy like City Councilman Tom Phillips on board or maybe Rhino Times editor John Hammer. And it would be helpful to get some buy-in from the City Council and the business establishment, which have so far tried to ignore the project.

This head-in-the-sand strategy isn't going to work. The report is coming no matter what. The way to make sure it's worthwhile is not to ignore the process but to join it.

Can a truth and reconciliation commission make any real difference? Some truths are going to be very hard to come by. We may never have definitive answers about police conduct that day. Nelson Johnson's reading of capitalism seems unlikely to win a lot of converts, even in the broken-down Greensboro economy of today.

My goal for this panel would be, as I wrote online this summer, to create as definitive a record as possible 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."

Truth can be elusive, but reconciliation does not need to be. Greensboro should get behind this project.

Edward Cone (, writes a column for the News & Record most Sundays.

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