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Panel slams cops over deadly ’79 KKK shootout

/ Source: The Associated Press

A grass-roots commission that investigated the 1979 shooting deaths of five communist organizers by members of the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party laid the bulk of the blame on Greensboro police in a comprehensive report released Thursday.

Officers knew white supremacists planned to attend the “Death to the Klan” march on Nov. 3, 1979, but failed to take action, the Greensboro Truth & Reconciliation Commission wrote in its nearly 400-page report.

Despite having a paid informant among the ranks of the Klansmen, “The (Greensboro Police Department) showed a stunning lack of curiosity in planning for the safety of the event,” commissioners wrote.

Five people were killed when Klan and Nazi members opened fire on people gathering for a march and rally in Greensboro’s Morningside Homes neighborhood. Ten others were injured.

A lack of criminal convictions, along with a feeling that the incident was swept under the rug by city leaders, has been a source of long-standing dissatisfaction among minority groups and other liberal activists in this city, where the sit-in phase of the civil rights movement began in 1960.

Two years of research
The report followed two years of work by the seven members of the commission and numerous staffers and volunteers. The commission held three public hearings in the summer and fall of 2005 and took private statements from scores of other people. Those testifying at the hearings included individuals wounded in the shootings, survivors of those who were killed, a Klansman and some current and former city officials.

The police department had no immediate comment Thursday night. A department spokeswoman, Lt. Jane Allen, did not immediately return a message left on her voice mail.

The report was released at a ceremony in a campus chapel of the historically black Bennett College for Women, where the commission’s archives will be permanently stored. On tables in front of the chapel’s pews were five peace lilies meant to represent the spirits of the five people killed in the Klan shootings: Sandra Smith, Cesar Cauce, Dr. James Waller, Dr. Michael Nathan and William Sampson.

Waller’s widow, Signe Waller, said she believes the report represents a significant step forward in efforts to tell the truth about what happened on that day. “I knew that the truth would not stay hidden,” she said.

Debate over nature of violence
The gunmen were captured on videotape by journalists covering the rally, but six people who were charged in the case were acquitted of murder charges at a state trial in 1980. A Klan leader also was acquitted in 1984 of federal charges of conspiracy to interfere with a federal investigation.

Debate has raged for years about whether the incident was a shooting or a shootout between the two sides. The commission concluded that some members of the communist Workers Voice Organization, which organized the rally, were armed and did fire at the Nazi-Klan members, but only after the Nazis and Klansmen had already fired at least two and as many as five shots.

The report also found fault with both the Klan and Nazi members who opened fire and the communist activists who underestimated the danger posed by repeating their verbal baiting of the Klan. Also, a “problematic jury selection process” led to juries that weren’t representative of the community during the criminal trials, commissioners said.