Robert Peters was a member of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission established in 2004 to re-examine the events of Nov. 3, 1979, now called the Greensboro Massacre. What follow is a lightly edited excerpt of his concurring opinion to the commission’’s final report, which was presented in May 2006. The entire document is posted at greensboro.com.
Seven Commissioners with racial, socio-economic, religious, professional and sexual diversity were selected to serve on the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission to examine the Nov. 3, 1979, shooting deaths of five victims (four white men and one African American woman) and the injuring of at least 10 others in the short span of 88 seconds. Much agreement exists with the Final Report among the commissioners. However, in view of these diverse backgrounds and the controversy surrounding this tragedy, understandably some different perspectives developed. I, as the only attorney on the commission, have a perspective that differs in some respects from that of the majority of the commissioners. My perspective is set forth in this summary as an opinion that concurs in part with the majority.
My principal conclusion is that many critical mistakes, missteps, poor judgment and wrongdoing occurred on Nov. 3, with deadly consequences. However, the main wrongdoing must lie with the Nazis and Klan due to their violent hate language and their use of excessive force in the deaths and injuries. My conclusion is based on evidence, including among other items, videotapes made by at least four TV stations, available at the time of the capital murder trial of the Nazi/Klan for the killings and injuries.
Three trials resulted from this tragedy, and a more complete analysis of these trials and related facts was simply not possible with the limited time (almost two years) and other resources available to the Commission and its staff.
In my view, the major success of our truth and reconciliation process comes not so much from any final report but from the process itself. As a result of our interviews, statement taking, public hearings and community dialogues, a number of apologies and regrets have surfaced from some of the individuals personally involved in the tragedy.
Even a member of the Nazi Party has expressed deep-felt sorrow to the commission and to the widow of one of those killed in the Nov. 3 tragedy. Also, some members of the CWP have expressed heartfelt sorrow over their words and actions in this tragedy. For example, Nelson Johnson, who was injured during the tragedy, has apologized for what happened on Nov. 3, and he and his wife Joyce have moved beyond that event, doing much good work for our community. They have worked to improve the living conditions of those suffering from poverty and those without homes and jobs. I believe this is an important step toward reconciliation. Eventually, obtaining reconciliation can help unite our community from some of its divisions.
An important part of our mandate is to establish accountability. Clearly, nobody had a monopoly on mistakes, missteps, poor judgment or wrongdoing; many of which were critical. There are so many examples of these that it is difficult to list them all, but some of the more salient ones follow:
- The absence of the Greensboro Police Department (GPD) at the Nov. 3 rally despite the reasons given by the police for a low profile in an African American community, thereby failing to protect the CWP, the demonstrators and the residents of Morningside Homes.
- The invitation by the CWP to the Klan to attend the rally.
- The acceptance by the Klan of the CWP’s invitation and the Nazi/Klan’s attendance.
- The bringing of guns to the rally by the Nazis and Klan.
- The bringing of guns to the rally by the CWP despite the parade permit’s prohibition against guns and the claimed need of them for self-defense.
- The discharging of guns by both the Nazi/Klan and to a much lesser extent by the CWP or demonstrators.
- The violent language used by the Klan, especially in view of its violent and racist background. For example, from their vehicles at the rally it was reported that the Klan shouted to the CWP and other demonstrators, “Dirty kike!” “Nigger!” “Nigger lover!” “Show me a nigger with guts and I’ll show you a Klansman with a gun.” The Klan also posted a “NOTICE to . . . COMMUNISTS (and) RACE MIXERS and BLACK RIOTERS, Even now the cross-hairs are on the back of YOUR necks. KKK.”
- The violent language used by the CWP; e.g., the “Death to the Klan” posters and chant, “Smash the Klan,” “They (the Klan) should be physically beaten and chased out of town.” “Armed self defense is the only defense.” The Klan “is one of the most treacherous scum elements. ...” “You ... deserve the full hatred and wrath of the people.” You “are nothing but a bunch of racist cowards.” “Yes, we challenged you to attend our November 3rd rally in Greensboro. We publicly re-new that challenge” (from “An Open letter to Joe Grady, et al.,” Oct. 22, signed by Workers Viewpoint Organization (WVO) 1979. On that date, the WVO changed its name to the Communists Workers Party, or CWP).
Some say the CWP did not literally mean “Death to the Klan” — that this moniker was just a way to express contempt for the Klan. Although we all have wide latitude in exercising our freedom of expression, nevertheless we are responsible for what we say, and we can not hide under the faulty notion that we did not really mean what we said.
- The burning of the Confederate flag by the WVO at China Grove on July 8 of that year.
- At least one of the Nazi/Klan vehicles reportedly threatening the demonstrators.
- A demonstrator hitting the trunk of a Klan car with a piece of firewood, and then another kicking at the rear and side panel of one of the Klan cars.
- The CWP’s failure to effectively testify for the prosecution at the Nazi/Klan’s capital murder trial.
- Two members of the CWP disrupting the capital murder trial by shouting against the trial process and the government and by leaving a vial of-foul smelling oil on the floor of the courtroom.
- The (Greensboro Police Department), the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms failing to take their informants more seriously, and not communicating among themselves about possible violence and taking steps to prevent it. In hindsight, this failure is deemed unconscionable.
It is difficult to say which of these failures were paramount. For example, if the police had been present at the Nov. 3 rally, arguably the killings and injuries would not have resulted.
Also, if the Nazi/Klan had not accepted the CWP’s invitation to attend its Death to the Klan rally, the tragedy would not have happened. If the Nazi/Klan and the CWP had not used such violent language against each other, violent actions may not have resulted. If the CWP had not gone to China Grove months before Nov. 3 and confronted the Klan, perhaps the confrontation on Nov. 3 would not have occurred. Almost endless scenarios can be constructed of “if only.” But we must conclude that many awful failures occurred in connection with the Nov. 3 tragedy.
Also, we know there is enough fault to go around to all involved parties, but the major fault must lie with the Nazi/Klan, for they are the ones who had the most firepower and used it excessively to kill five people and wound at least 10 others.
The third trial, based on civil law, validated the existence of the wrongdoing by a wrongful death award against two officers of the Greensboro Police Department and the Nazi/Klan. While the plaintiffs did not fully achieve the results they sought, nevertheless they had some success due to a partially favorable jury verdict for damages. In this way the defendants were held at least partially accountable for their wrongdoing.
Much fault must also lie with the police. Certainly they had knowledge that there was a potential for violence. Anyone with any sense would know that if the Klan is coming to counter demonstrate against a militant anti-Klan group, the CWP, the potential for violence is extreme.