Truth Commission makes impressive debut

Edward Cone
News & Record


So it turns out that the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission might be interested in the truth after all.

A lot of people, many of them on the City Council, assume the worst about the commission and hope that nobody pays any attention to its work. But judging by the 14 hours of public hearings it conducted last Friday and Saturday, the commission may prove hard to ignore.

Any group that set out to investigate the killing of five people at an anti-Klan rally on Nov. 3, 1979, would face questions about bias and motivation. This particular group was inspired by survivors of the ill-fated march, making it easy for people who may not want to talk about the killings in the first place to write off the commission before it started.

Yet the opening round of public statements showed that the seven-person panel is interested in hearing more than the party line. The party in question -- the Communist Workers Party that organized the "Death to the Klan" rally -- got plenty of time at the microphone to recount its version of the events leading up to Nov. 3, with talk of government conspiracy and right-wing death squads. But the commission also heard voices that strongly challenged some of the theories used by the victims to explain the context of the killings.

Let's stop here, and let's stop often, to remember that nothing that comes out of this process will make it OK for people to have been shot in the street. But that does not mean that the truths of Nov. 3 have to involve either hagiography or conspiracy, and what we heard July 16 called both into question.

Writer Elizabeth Wheaton, who covered the criminal trials and wrote a book about the case called "Operation: Greenkil," challenged the idea that the CWP was such a powerful force in labor union organizing that the establishment wanted them dead -- a key element of the survivor's narrative. Speaking quietly, and acknowledging that she has been accused of blaming the victims, Wheaton reported that the radical rhetoric and political aspirations of the party hampered its effectiveness and that it was not seen beyond its own thin ranks as a harbinger of revolution.

Another speaker, the former Klan leader Gorrell Pierce, made it clear that the potential for violence at the Nov. 3 "Death to the Klan" rally should have been screamingly obvious. This was a smoldering rivalry. The Klan and the CWP had almost come to blows during a tense confrontation at a Klan recruiting event in China Grove just four months earlier. A second Klansman at the hearings, the unrepentant Virgil Griffin, said he came to Greensboro because of the taunting challenge to appear issued by march organizers. Remembering the event as a peaceful labor rally gone wrong is going to be a tough sell.

What the commission will do with this information remains to be seen. Their final report will speak for itself, but at this point they seem to be doing the right things -- and they are doing them in public, which is enormously important (audio of the hearings can be found at the News & Record Web site). Making the process transparent allows people to develop confidence in it (or reject it for cause) along the way and should make it harder to skew the ultimate conclusions in the face of compelling evidence.

Maybe it's vain to hope that the City of Greensboro will look at the process as it is unfolding and consider some measure of cooperation with the panel. A council that voted along racial lines to oppose the entire process will take a whole lot of convincing. But the silence of the city at the hearings was almost as sad as the silence at the start of the proceedings to remember the dead. The police were the critical third parties that day. Their failure to prevent the violence is a huge part of the story. We deserve to hear what they have to say, and they deserve the chance to say it. Any legitimate account of this chapter in Greensboro's history should include their testimony, and it's getting harder to argue that this account will not be legitimate.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission will hold more public hearings in August and September. It continues to ask for input from all points of view. The City of Greensboro can continue to wish this thing away, but it is happening, and it is happening in a way that makes the decision to stonewall look increasingly bad.

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

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