Council Members on Truth & Rec hearings

Edward Cone
News & Record


Not a single white member of the Greensboro City Council spent a single minute at the public hearings conducted by the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Even after the council's contentious 6-3 vote along racial lines to oppose the process, I found that startling.

The hearings on the 1979 Klan-Nazi shootings in Greensboro, which killed five and injured 10, drew national media attention. There was dramatic testimony from survivors of the doomed march, and from Klansmen, cops, lawyers and elected officials. The commissioners appeared credible and independent. Weren't the council members curious about what was going on in their city? Having rejected the premature endorsement of a fraught process, didn't they want to see how the process played out?

I asked those questions of the six white council members, as well as Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson and Claudette Burroughs-White, who did attend some hearings. At press time, Dianne Bellamy-Small had not returned my call.

Robbie Perkins, who proposed the motion to oppose the process (rather than merely not endorsing it), said he was "absolutely not tempted to go" to the hearings. "I don't think it's in the best interest of Greensboro. People have the right to do it, and I have the right not to be a part of it." I asked him if the racially split vote disturbed him, and he said no. "I vote my conscience."

Perkins, who is not running for re-election, said most people aren't interested in the project and that controversy was "manufactured by the News & Record" (as someone who has criticized this newspaper for what I see as inadequate coverage, that one made me laugh). "The end product is where this will get judged," he said.

Tom Phillips did not consider attending the hearings. "My attending would not matter," he said. He will read the report. "If we as a council think it is worthwhile, we'll consider it. If I disagree with the final conclusions, I'll be called names. They say we're racists -- when are people going to ask black council members why they always vote together?" He said Nelson Johnson's involvement compromised the project (a danger I pointed to as early as 2003); that he understood that the commission was independent of Johnson; and that he wanted to know where the money Johnson raised for the project had gone.

Sandy Carmany said she had no interest in attending the hearings. "I am waiting for the report," she said. I asked if she considered the hearings themselves as a vital part of the process. She said she preferred facts to emotions. I asked about the black-white divide, not just in that one train wreck of a vote but in a larger context. "I've never viewed it as a racial issue," she said.

Don Vaughan did not consider attending but said he followed the hearings in The Peacemaker and the News & Record (still, he was not aware that Yvonne Johnson had testified last Friday). He doesn't plan to attend the TRC's November forum on next steps toward reconciliation but believes good can come out of this process, including "healing for the families of those involved."

Florence Gatten said she considered attending, has paid attention to the process and has a "responsibility to study and comprehend the end product." She claims "huge respect" for the commissioners and their work. She called the council vote "an anomaly" that was forced upon them and said tense feelings resulted among council members.

Mayor Keith Holliday considered attending the hearings but felt his presence would have been politicized. He plans to listen to the recordings of the hearings. "I'm pleased with what I'm hearing on the neutrality and professionalism of the commission," he said. He is irked at Burroughs-White for pushing the vote in April and wishes the process had been done under the aegis of an academic institution that made all parties feel safe. He might attend the November meeting, especially if the city's Human Relations staff is involved. "I can't ignore the fact that this is happening," he said. "Regardless of the fact that I saw the potential for more negative than positive, I need to address it." He is willing to meet with commission members to talk about next steps.

Yvonne Johnson said of her white colleagues, "People feel removed because this didn't happen in their neighborhood, and they don't think it could. They get bogged down in distrust and anger." Her constituents, she said, are paying close attention. "The response of the council is noted, it's on people's mind," she said.

Claudette Burroughs-White, who is not running for re-election, said the vote and the decision by the white council members to ignore the hearings left her with bad feelings. "There is a segment of this community whose opinions and status are not respected," she said. "You don't have to agree, but when you won't even listen, it continues to divide us and cause mistrust. I don't get it. Unfortunately, it doesn't surprise me."

My take: The vote in April, which was sought not by the commission but by a supporting organization, was terribly destructive to the entire process. The white members of the council still don't know how important the hearings were. I don't think the white members are racist or uncaring. I do think they are under-informed and feel boxed in.

Holliday seems ready to try leading us to a better place. Maybe, just maybe, we can get there.


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

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