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Survivors of 1979 Greensboro Massacre Testify Before Truth and Reconciliation Commission

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We look back at the 1979 Greensboro Massacre, when forty Ku Klux Klansmen and American Nazis opened fire on an anti-Klan demonstration in Greensboro, North Carolina. Five people were killed. No one was convicted. We speak with Paul Bermanzohn, a survivor of the massacre who testified before a Truth and Reconciliation Commission almost 26 years after the massacre. [includes rush transcript]

“On November 3, 1979, at the corner of Carver and Everitt Streets, black and white demonstrators gather to march through Greensboro, North Carolina, a legal demonstration against the Ku Klux Klan. A caravan of Klansmen and Nazis pull up to the protesters and open fire. “Eighty-eight seconds later, five demonstrators lie dead and ten others wounded from the gunfire, recorded on camera by four TV stations. Four women have lost their husbands, three children have lost their fathers.

“After two criminal trials, not a single gunman has spent a day in prison, although a civil trial won an unprecedented victory for the victims: For one of the only times in US history, a jury held local police liable for cooperating with Ku Klux Klan in a wrongful death.”

That is the introduction to the book: Through Survivors” Eyes: From the Sixties to the Greensboro Massacre written by one of the survivors, Sally Bermanzohn. This weekend, the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission met to hear testimony from perpetrators and victims in the massacre. We will speak with a survivor of the massacre, but first let’s go back to that fateful day in 1979.

  • Excerpt from “Guns of November 3rd,” Courtesy of Jim Waters.

After two criminal trials with all-white juries, not a single gunman was sent to prison. However, in 1985 a civil jury found the city, the Klan and the Nazi party liable for violating the civil rights of the demonstrators. The city paid a $350,000 dollar judgment on behalf of all parties. This was one of the only times in US history that a jury held local police liable for cooperating with Ku Klux Klan in a wrongful death.

Well, this weekend was the historic first meeting of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The two-day hearing was the first of three and is modeled after similar efforts in other countries such as South Africa and Peru. While those truth commissions were state-supported, the Greensboro commission evolved from a grassroots citizen movement. In fact, white Greensboro Mayor Keith Holliday and some other members of the Greensboro City Council voted along racial lines not to support the commission’s work. Despite the commission’s lack of subpoena power, two Klansman testified at the hearing -Virgil Griffin, an imperial wizard with the KKK who was at the scene of the shootings, and Gorrell Pierce, who at the time was grand dragon of the Federated Knights of the KKK.

  • Paul Bermanzohn, survivor of the 1979 Greensboro Massacre, he testified at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to one of the survivors of the massacre, but first we want to go back to that fateful day in 1979. This is an excerpt of the documentary, Guns of November 3rd. It begins with footage of a Klan meeting.

VIRGIL GRIFFIN: We can take our country back from the Communist Party, we can take it back from the niggers. It’s time for to us band together. We have to get in the streets and fight in blood up to our knees, by God, it’s time to get ready to fight! Give them what they want! Fight for this country! [ applause ]

PROTESTER: They had it planned!

PROTESTERS: Help us! Help us!

PROTESTER: The Klan and the state got together and planned this. That’s why they were not [inaudible]. Do you hear me? The state protects the Klan, and this makes it clear. They came through, and they opened fire. They opened fire on us! And we fired back to protect ourselves.

PROTESTER: The Klan or whoever it was jumped out and just started shooting in the direction of the thickest concentration of people. They seemed to be aiming at particular people. There were several police in the area who did nothing until after these murderers left. Police came in, immediately started arresting people who were trying to help those who had fallen. Nelson Johnson was taken into custody, kicked in the head by the police. He was bleeding from the arm as he was trying to help people. The police did this, directly or indirectly. They set it up.

PROTESTER: This will never happen again! We will never [inaudible]. He didn’t have a gun on him. Oh, God!

AMY GOODMAN: Images and sounds from the 1979 Greensboro Massacre from the documentary, Guns of November 3rd courtesy of Jim Waters. We’re joined by one of the victims who was shot in the head and the arm, Paul Bermanzohn. You testified this weekend before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Your feelings today, and what you said there?

PAUL BERMANZOHN: Well, excuse me. What I basically talked about was my own participation and the involvement I had that led up to the murders, and talked about the organizing work we had been doing for many years in the — in and around North Carolina. This first hearing was focused on the context that contributed to the Greensboro Massacre, because you cannot just understand it as a particular individual incident, it was really an attack on a whole movement.

AMY GOODMAN: Paul, we’re going to leave it there, but we’re going to go back to this discussion, and we’ll have you back and also be joined by other survivors to talk about what is believed to be one of the first Truth and Reconciliation Commissions set up in this country. And I want to thank you for being with us.

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