GREENSBORO, N.C. – A former Grand Dragon (search) of the Ku Klux Klan (search) took the stand at a public hearing Saturday and said those who fired on people at a "Death to the Klan" march more than 25 years ago did so in self-defense.
Five people were killed at the Nov. 3, 1979 rally.
"To tell the truth, if you look at the evidence and see what happened, it was all self-defense," said Gorrell Pierce (search), who said he was Christmas shopping in Winston-Salem on the day of the shootings. "Everybody was participating in a riot."
Pierce, a former Grand Dragon of the Federated Knights of the KKK, spoke at public hearing held by the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission (search), an effort modeled on similar commissions in South Africa and Peru.
The commission is investigating the deaths at the 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.
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 and younger Klansmen came to his aid. He said he had ordered members of his Klan faction not to attend the march.
"I regretted it the day it happened," he said.
Several Klansmen were acquitted of murder charges at a state trial. In 1984, federal prosecutors failed to win a conviction against Virgil Griffin, a Klan member from suburban Charlotte who was acquitted of conspiracy to interfere with a federal investigation. Griffin was scheduled to testify later Saturday.
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 didn't 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.
But Pierce said authorities were simply indifferent and didn't consider the potential for violence.
The shootings followed a clash earlier that year between Communists and Klansmen when the Klan showed the film "Birth of a Nation" in nearby China Grove, Pierce said. At the movie, anti-Klan demonstrators confronted them so closely "you could feel each other's breath," he said.
"They weren't paying attention, the feds," Pierce said. "The city looked at it as pretty routine."
In the weeks that followed, the Klan all but died out in central North Carolina, Pierce said. Stung by the deaths, wives threatened divorce and bosses threatened firings unless Klan members dropped out. He said the Klan already was "pretty well splintered."
"When the smoke cleared down here after the shooting, there was as good as no Klan," he said. "Everybody headed for the hills."
"After 1979, I lost hundreds of Klansmen," he said, adding that he never knew exactly how many members were in his branch, which included Forsyth County and much of the surrounding congressional district.
Pierce, who served prison sentences for a federal bombing conspiracy conviction and for carrying a firearm as a convicted felon, said he would encourage other former Klan members to cooperate with the commission.
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.