Klan Leader Testifies Before N.C. Commission

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In Greensboro, N.C., a Ku Klux Klan leader testifies before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The independent commission is investigating violence that erupted during an anti-Klan demonstration in 1979. Five people were fatally shot and 10 people were injured. WUNC's Rusty Jacobs reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

A Ku Klux Klan leader and a former KKK member testified this weekend before a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Greensboro, North Carolina. It's part of a process aimed at healing wounds from more than 25 years ago. They stem from a deadly clash between Communist labor organizers and white supremacists. From North Carolina Public Radio, Rusty Jacobs reports.

RUSTY JACOBS reporting:

Seated behind a bank of microphones facing a panel of seven commissioners, Gorrell Pierce exuded a folksy charm. With his denim shirt, jeans and engineer's cap, it's hard to believe this mild-mannered guy was once a grand dragon in the KKK.

(Soundbite of hearing)

Mr. GORRELL PIERCE (Former Grand Dragon, KKK): The very frying pan that I ate my breakfast on as a child deflected bullets at the Battle of Gettysburg. It had belonged to an ancestor of mine. And all of my great-great-grandpas served in the Confederate Army.

JACOBS: Pierce said he was drawn to the Klan as an 18-year-old country boy looking for excitement.

(Soundbite of hearing)

Mr. PIERCE: Had I been born in New York City, I probably would have made a good Communist. But being born in--where I was, it made me a very good Klansman.

JACOBS: But Pierce said he didn't like the violence other Klansmen craved. In fact, Pierce told the commission that in July of 1979 he helped avert violence in the town of China Grove during a standoff between the CWP and his Klan faction, so Pierce opted not to go to Greensboro on November 3rd, 1979, where the CWP planned to hold a Death to the Klan rally.

(Soundbite of hearing)

Mr. PIERCE: I told everybody that, `Next time somebody might get killed, that this is serious business. This is not Boy Scouts.'

JACOBS: Klan member and current Imperial Wizard Virgil Griffin did go to Greensboro.

(Soundbite of hearing)

Mr. VIRGIL GRIFFIN (Imperial Wizard, KKK): The reason I came to Greensboro, they put the poster out. They after the Klan, said we was hiding under rocks, we were scum. I'm not scum. I'm as good as any man walks on this Earth.

JACOBS: On November 3rd, Virgil Griffin and a caravan of Nazis and Klansmen set out to disrupt the CWP rally. The groups scuffled, and then shooting started. After 88 seconds of gunfire caught on news cameras, four CWP members were dead and 10 were wounded. A fifth CWP member died later. `How was it that all the dead just happened to be CWP leaders?' one of the commissioners asked Virgil Griffin.

(Soundbite of hearing)

Mr. GRIFFIN: I don't know why. Maybe God guided the bullets. I don't know.

JACOBS: Some survivors of that day insist the bullets were guided by police and city officials bent on eliminating the CWP. Paul Bermanzohn earned a medical degree from Duke University and was a member of the CWP. On November 3rd, a gunshot wound to the head left him partially paralyzed.

(Soundbite of hearing)

Dr. PAUL BERMANZOHN (Former CWP Member): We were gunned down in a political assassination designed to stop the growing movement we were helping to build. This is not an indefensible position. It's not yet proven, but neither can it be lightly dismissed.

JACOBS: Two criminal trials, one at the state and one at the federal level, resulted in acquittals for all of the Klan and Nazi defendants. In 1985, a federal jury did find two Greensboro police officers and six Klansmen and Nazis liable for wrongful death in a third civil trial. But appearing before the commission, author Elizabeth Wheaton disputed CWP claims that city and police officials colluded with the Klan, even though the police didn't show up on the scene until after the shooting.

(Soundbite of hearing)

Ms. ELIZABETH WHEATON (Author, "Codename Greenkil"): There was no evidence in either of the federal conspiracy trials that they goaded, incited or in any way led the Klan and Nazis to do anything they weren't already planning to do.

JACOBS: Wheaton researched the events surrounding November 3rd for her book titled "Codename Greenkil."

The commissioners will hold two more sets of hearings over the next two months. Then they'll write a final report on what they think truly happened on November 3rd and what it would take for Greensboro to truly heal. The commission holds no official authority or power to prosecute, and its mission's far from universally accepted. Indeed, some residents in this city of 220,000 say Greensboro doesn't need reconciliation at all. For NPR News, I'm Rusty Jacobs.

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