KKK Chief Testifies About 1979 Shootings

Associated Press in NY Times/July 17, 2005
By Daniel E. Martin

Greensboro, N.C. -- A Ku Klux Klan leader who was at a workers' rally more than 25 years ago where five people died and 10 others were injured gave defiant testimony to a commission Saturday, saying ''maybe God guided the bullets.''

Virgil L. Griffin of Mount Holly, imperial wizard of the Cleveland Knights of the KKK, said someone in the crowd of Communist Workers Party marchers fired first and hit a van driven by a Klansman.

''We had every right to drive down that street with nobody touching the cars,'' he said. ''I didn't come to shoot or kill anybody.''

Griffin spoke before the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission, an effort modeled on similar commissions in South Africa and Peru.

The commission is investigating the deaths at the Nov. 3, 1979, march organized by the Communist Workers Party that ended when members of the Klan and the American Nazi Party opened fire.

The commission is meeting without the support of city leaders in Greensboro, and it has no authority to pursue criminal or civil claims or grant immunity from them.

Leaders in Greensboro, a city of 223,000 in central North Carolina, fear the hearings will rekindle old animosities, but organizers hope to uncover what they feel is the untold story behind the shootings and promote healing.

Afterward, police hustled Griffin out of the meeting hall. Before they could drive him away, Griffin handed out business cards to reporters and described the commission as ''a total waste of time.''

''It would have been forgotten 20 years ago if you didn't keep it in the news,'' he said.

In 1984, federal prosecutors failed to win a conviction against Griffin, who was acquitted of conspiracy to interfere with a federal investigation.

Several Klansmen were acquitted of murder charges at a state trial. A civil trial did find the Klan, the American Nazi Party and the Greensboro Police Department jointly liable for the wrongful deaths of the five people killed. The city paid $350,000.

Signe Waller, the widow of a communist labor organizer shot and killed at the march, told the commission Friday that city and federal law enforcement knew the Klan planned to attack the marchers, but did not take any action to stop the ''government-sanctioned killings.''

''It appears to me that a death squad of terrorists was normalized in this city long before Sept. 11, 2001,'' Waller told commissioners.

Earlier in the day on Saturday, a former KKK grand dragon said authorities were simply indifferent and did not consider the potential for violence.

Gorrell Pierce said fighting between marchers and Klan members ended in shooting because Communists tried to pull a 79-year-old Klansman out of his car. He said he had ordered members of his Klan faction not to attend the march and that he was told what happened by others in the Klan.

''To tell the truth, if you look at the evidence and see what happened, it was all self-defense,'' said Pierce, who said he was Christmas shopping in Winston-Salem on the day of the shootings. ''Everybody was participating in a riot.''

In the weeks that followed, the Klan all but died out in central North Carolina, Pierce said.

''When the smoke cleared down here after the shooting, there was as good as no Klan,'' he said. ''Everybody headed for the hills.''

Greensboro's mayor from 1993-1999, Carolyn Allen, said Pierce ''should be awarded an Academy Award for his performance.''

''He was very smooth,'' she said.

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