Greensboro: Closer to the Truth

Institute History


Greensboro, North Carolina is a midsized city, the third largest in the state. Long reliant upon textile mills, it’s in the midst of a changing economy, like many neighboring towns throughout the south. It has long been heralded as representative of the progressive New South—the home of the Woolworth’s sit-ins—with active African American colleges, strong minority representation on city councils, and integrated workplaces.

Yet the pleasant front belies a stormy past. Twenty-seven years ago, Ku Klux Klan and American Nazis opened fire on a protest march of Communist labor organizers. In full view of television cameramen, Klansmen and Nazis killed 5 protesters and injured 11 others. Three ensuing trials were inconclusive, and none of the killers—though clearly identifiable on videotape—ever went to jail. Despite accusations of police and FBI complicity at all levels, the prosecutors attempting to prove the conspiracy became hopelessly entangled as government officials protected secret links with the Klan and informants. True responsibility for the attack was never confirmed.

These murders – dubbed the Greensboro Massacre—have long defined the city and have stunted effective racial and political bridge building to this day. In 2004–6, for the first time on American soil, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was convened to examine the killings and their repercussions, hoping to get to the core of what happened.

But while the survivors and other supporters applauded the venture, some people were far from enthusiastic. Many in Greensboro were fearful about revisiting their contentious past. Civic leaders were reluctant to have the city seen in a questionable light, fearful of its impact upon efforts to shore up the slumping economy. Still others openly rejected the Ku Klux Klan but had correspondingly little sympathy for the marchers, who were Communists and openly reviled.

In uncovering the truth about 1979, the film portrays a range of compelling characters from both sides of the arena. Nelson Johnson, a fiery Marxist who organized the fateful march and underwent years of vilification in town, made a surprising decision to enter divinity school and is now a pastor. Willena Cannon grew up the daughter of a sharecropper who made corn liquor on the side in rural, Ku Klux Klan–infested South Carolina and carried her childhood lessons on race relations to Greensboro. Paul Bermanzohn, the psychiatrist son of Holocaust survivors, was permanently crippled in 1979 and adamantly persists in fighting the battle. Gorrell Pierce was Grand Dragon of the Klan in ’79 and has repented his previous ways, with varying credibility. Virgil Griffin was Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and maintains his ardent racist views to this day. Other key characters include former Mayor Jim Melvin, Councilwoman Florence Gatten, dying Nazi Roland Wayne Wood, and other survivors of the massacre.

The commission set out to open the door on this long-ago event, examining fault lines in Greensboro which had been solidifying for decades. It once again pitted activists and business leaders in a more civil, but no less heated, battle for media spin and citizens’ support. It forced a new generation to come to terms with the darkest moment in the city’s past and simultaneously asked older residents to forgive and turn the page.

Greensboro: Closer to the Truth examines these forces at play as the commission set out upon its ambitious undertaking. It tells the story of five survivors of the attack, remarkable figures who have evolved from young, militant Marxists into respected grassroots organizers strongly committed to social action. It introduces Ku Klux Klan members and Nazis, some of whom have gained perspective on their past ideologies, while others are still mired in hate. And in presenting the city of Greensboro as it tries to come to terms with new concepts of truth and justice outside of a court of law, it provides an opportunity for viewers to understand what empowerment and social justice can really mean in America.


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