Greensboro Shootings Commission a Teachable Moment at Duke University

DURHAM, N.C.

      A Duke University professor has found a hands-on way to teach students enrolled in a course on human-rights activism. He has them working with the grass-roots commission investigating the 1979 shootings at an anti-Ku Klux Klan rally in Greensboro.

      Eleven Duke students have spent the fall handling interviews and other research for the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission, probing events that unfolded several years before any of them were born.

      “It’s been a very positive and compelling experience for the students,” Professor Robin Kirk said. “The commission needed help, and we were able to do a real-world, actual project.”

      Kirk’s course is new this year and follows Duke’s “service learning” model of instruction, which emphasizes learning by doing. Students have also toured local sites that were important in the civil rights movement and another team from the class has worked with the Durham-based Center for Death Penalty Litigation.

      Kirk coordinates the Duke Human Rights Initiative and knows people working with the Greensboro commission, leading to his decision to get his class involved.

      Besides working for the Greensboro commission, students also attended an October public hearing, one of three the truth commission held this summer and fall.

      The panel is looking into the shootings of Nov. 3, 1979, when Klan and Nazi party members opened fire on participants in an anti-Klan rally organized by the Communist Workers Party. Five people were killed and 10 others were injured.

      The incident has remained controversial in Greensboro for more than a quarter-century largely because none of the shooters were ever convicted and because of allegations that police officials knew the attack was planned and did nothing to stop it.

      Leaders have said their commission, which is modeled on similar investigative panels in other countries, has community healing as its primary goal.

      Many key participants in the anti-Klan rally had close ties to Duke.

The principal organizer of the march, Nelson Johnson, now a Greensboro minister, is married to Joyce Johnson, who in 1968 became one of the first Black undergraduates at Duke and was present at the march.

      Three of the people killed were Duke-affiliated medical workers: Mike Nathan, a Duke-trained head pediatrician at Lincoln Community Health Center; Jim Waller, a Duke physician; and Cesar Cauce, a computer operator at Duke Medical Center. Nathan’s widow, Marty Nathan, who also graduated from Duke Medical School, was among the witnesses the students interviewed. The wounded included Paul Bermanzohn, another Duke physician, who was shot in the leg and head.

      A student in Kirk’s class, Caitlyn Toombs, noted survivors and others share a widespread belief that the shootings have never been satisfactorily resolved.

      “Everyone thought that although there was a trial, it wasn’t a fair trial,” Toombs said. “That’s what I’ve been getting from people I interviewed.”

      Toombs helped interview a reporter from one of four television crews that captured the shootings on film. She also helped question a Duke Law School professor, Carolyn McAllester, who represented victims in a civil lawsuit that resulted in a $350,000 wrongful death payment by the city on behalf of two Greensboro Police Department officers.

      Alexis Vaughan, another student in Kirk’s class, noted that many of the same people who held power in Greensboro in 1979 still run the city today. She said she believes that has kept the city from dealing with some of the issues that inspired the anti-Klan demonstrators’ activism, including racism, poverty, housing and workers’ rights.

      “To get at the truth, we need to acknowledge the perspectives of everybody involved,” Vaughan said.

      Toombs said she hopes the commission can build understanding about how the shootings could have been avoided.

      “What I’ve been getting from the people I interviewed is, it (the commission) is a great idea, but it doesn’t have any real power to do anything for the people involved,” she said. “But maybe it can prevent stuff like this from happening again.”

— Associated Press



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