Death, Lies and Videotape

Documentary follows survivors of Greensboro Massacre

By Janel St. John



Adam Zucker's film Greensboro: Closer to the Truth will screen at the Columbus Jewish Film Festival on March 11, 2008 at 6PM at the Wexner Center Film/Video Theater.  Zucker will give the keynote address at 8 PM, followed by a panel discussion.



It was a recipe for disaster. Almost 30 years ago, members of the Communist Workers Party (CWP) were uniting black and white industrial workers in Greensboro, North Carolina. The Klu Klux Klan was not only upset by the ‘racial mixing,’ they were provoked by CWP’s “Death to the Klan” literature. When the CWP planned an Anti-Klan Rally, the two groups collided and disaster is exactly what happened. The melee, which left five people dead and 11 injured, has become known as the Greensboro Massacre.

This story is retold in producer/director Adam Zucker’s beautiful and haunting film, Greensboro: Closer to the Truth.

Though straight from the pages of American history, the story has, for the most part, gone untold. “I’ve been showing the film a lot,” Zucker said. “And generally speaking, no one knows about what happened in Greensboro in 1979, and no one knows about 2004 through 2006.”


What happened in 1979 was captured by four local news camera crews. The Death to the Klan March, organized by the CWP, was set to begin in the predominantly black housing project, Morningside Heights on November 3rd. When a caravan of Klansmen and members of the American Nazi Party drove through the protesters...mayhem ensued. The Klansmen and Nazis emerged from their cars with an arsenal of guns and opened fire, killing five people.

A police detective and a police photographer were the only two officers on site - but they did not intervene. Other officers arrived 15 minutes after the shooting stopped. Though recorded on video, the Klan and Nazis charged, were acquitted of murder by all-white juries. In 1985, a jury in a federal civil trial found them, as well as members of the Greensboro Police Department, jointly liable in one of the deaths.

Twenty-five years later, the Greensboro film, produced and directed by Adam Zucker, reconnects with the players in this tragedy- widowed and wounded survivors, along with their attackers - and chronicles how their lives have evolved in the long aftermath of the killings. In 2004, the first Truth and Reconciliation Commission ever held in the United States is convened in Greensboro to investigate the Massacre and answer some questions: What really happened and why? How did good people accept cold-blooded murder and go on with business as usual? How could this have happened without the active involvement and complicity of the police department?

The commission was patterned after the South African model which investigated generations of human rights abuses under apartheid. The goal of the Greensboro commission was to elicit testimonials, confessions and acknowledgment of wrongdoing, and release a report that would help “heal broken relations . . . distinguishing truth from falsehood and allowing for . . . public mourning and forgiveness,” Commissioner Cynthia Brown said.

The southern city of Greensboro provides a picturesque backdrop for this tale of lies and deceit and truth and reconciliation. Greensboro, which originally began as a film about Truth Commissions, is the first film, initiated by Zucker, an independent filmmaker and editor, who also raised the funds for the project.

“As I began to look into the story and met and talked to some of the people,” he said, “I became more interested in the characters and in the concept that these people had gone through this incredible thing a quarter of a century ago and had changed and evolved a great deal. It really became a character-driven thing about how people change or don’t change over time.”

Redemption and change are the overwhelming themes of Greensboro. Virgil Griffin, who was and still is, the Imperial Wizard of the Klan, provided colorful commentary. Jim Melvin, mayor of Greensboro from, 1971-1981, is also less than anxious for the city’s dirty laundry to be aired. But Roland Wayne Wood, former local leader of the Nazi Party, expressed sorrow that people were hurt and asked forgiveness for being “a bigot and a racist.” Pro-labor activist turned Baptist preacher, Nelson Johnson, is also a different person. In 1979, Johnson was a key militant and outspoken organizer of the rally supporting labor and denouncing the Klan. Greensboro finds him older, slower, and wiser. Now a grandfather and pastor of Faith Community Church, Johnson reflected on the mistakes and missteps leading up to the massacre. He apologized for some name-calling and lamented on how the rally could have been more appropriately named “Death to Racism” rather than “Death to the Klan.”

Though the City of Greensboro did not embrace the commission’s final report, Greensboro the film is taking this message of hope and healing much further than city limits. The actual video footage of the 1979 shootings is graphic and hard to watch, but the sheer splendor of human transformation in this film, far outweighs the tragic events.
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