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Oral history interview with Judith Behar by William Link


Date: April 13, 1989

Interviewee: Judith G. Behar

Biographical abstract: Judith Behar, a Greensboro attorney and ACLU member, served on the Citizens Review Committee that investigated the Nov 3, 1979 incident.

Interviewer: William Link

Description:

In this transcript of an April 13, 1989, oral history interview conducted by William Link with Judith Behar, Ms. Behar primarily discusses her experience working on the Citizens Review Committee that was charged with investigating the November 3, 1979, incident. She also shares her personal views about the incident and progress in race relations in Greensboro.

Subjects:

Format of original: Oral History

Collection: GreensboroVOICES Collection

Repository: The University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Item#: 1.10.490

Rights: It is responsibility of the user to follow the copyright law of the United States (Title 17, U.S. Code). Materials are not to be reproduced in published works without written consent, and any use should credit Civil Rights Greensboro and the appropriate repository.



Oral history interview with Judith Behar by William Link

[Begin Tape 1, Side A]

WILLIAM LINK:

[unclear]—This is William Link and I am in the office of Judith Behar. The date is April 14, 1989.I wonder if you'd mind just beginning by telling me a little bit about yourself, where you were born, and where you were educated, and how you came to arrive in Greensboro?

JUDITH BEHAR:

I was born and grew up in New York City. I took a B.A. degree at Brooklyn College, a master's in English at the University of Connecticut, and J.D. degree from the law school at Chapel Hill. I've been practicing law in Greensboro since 1975. I first came to Greensboro in 1968 when my ex-husband accepted a job teaching at Guilford [College]. Does that—

WL:

Yeah.

JB:

—take care of the background?

WL:

Sure.

JB:

Okay.

WL:

You served on the review committee—Citizenship [sic] Review Committee after the 1979 Klan-Nazi shootout.

JB:

Right.

WL:

How is it that you came to be on this committee?

JB:

I was real active and still am real active in the [American] Civil Liberties Union [ACLU]. The office of the state branch was located in Greensboro at that time. And I think my name was given to whoever at the city was soliciting citizens to participate on that committee by somebody in the ACLU office here. And I think that's how I came to be on the committee.

WL:

What exactly was the impact of it, do you think, of the effect of the shootout in Greensboro? You lived in Greensboro—I moved to Greensboro two years after the shootout so I wasn't here then. And I'm curious about how would you characterize the impact or effect of that as it came across the news—appeared on the news in the fall of 1979. Have you ever seen that?

JB:

Well, people generally were very upset that it had occurred. It wasn't clear exactly what we were dealing with as a community at the time because the violence really was between one entirely white group and a group that seemed predominately white. All the victims, I believe—no, all but one of the victims was white, and it wasn't real clear whether what we were dealing with was exactly a racial incident or not. As I understood it, a number of people in the black community were real upset that the Communist Workers Party [CWP] had moved the location of the rally into a residential area and that everyday people were put at risk and felt that police response had been inadequate in a way that would not have occurred had the confrontation taken place in Irving Park or some other predominately white area of the city.

WL:

So the issue sort of began to—pretty soon after it occurred, the issue was not just the question of these two groups but the whole question of the city's attitude toward the black community.

JB:

That was part—that was one factor in what was going on. And the Citizens Review Committee's position, which was not ever completely clear, was basically to see what effect the whole incident had on race relations in Greensboro. And what basically came out in the course—it seems sometimes like endless hearings—was that the police department had not acted in a completely satisfactory way, and that the incident itself did not seem to have been a racial incident as such, nor was it seeming to have a profound affect on race relations in the city—except to force the city to focus on some things that had been matters of concern for a long time, like disparate treatment of black citizens and white citizens in terms of protection by the police and things of that sort.

WL:

Could you elaborate a little bit more on that?

JB:

Well, there was—as I said before, the blacks had charged that this would not have been allowed to occur in the white neighborhood, and it was allowed to occur in a black neighborhood, and that there were little kids at risk when it happened and that the police were just not on the scene. They were—they appeared to be, from things that first developed, a little casual about it all.

The police, of course, had a different point of view and I think a lot of, a lot of what actually was going on came in through subsequent civil law suits. The committee ended up being somewhat critical of the handling of everything. I don't think the committee ever had complete information or complete cooperation from either the police department or—certainly we had no cooperation from the CWP, except for Nelson Johnson coming and making a statement.

WL:

What about the city, government, generally? [unclear] How do you feel about that?

JB:

I think the city generally wanted to put a good face on it. I think their committee was formed in order to diffuse any possible uproar over the incident. I think the city was hoping basically for a whitewash and got not everything it hoped for from the committee, but a lot of that.

WL:

What about the composition of the committee? What kind of—what was the range of attitudes and types of people on the committee? You know, were there differences in the committee?

JB:

Yeah. Oh yeah, yeah.

WL:

To what extent?

JB:

Well, there were several of us middle-class white liberals. And there were some middle-class whites who were probably more conservative. And there were some middle-class blacks. And there was at least one basically working-class black person, that was Ervin Brisbon. And he was living at the time in, I think, Morningside Homes, in one of the public housing developments and was active in the tenants organization and was very outspoken and critical, I think, with what the police were doing and about the proceedings.

From my point of view, unfortunately, there were only two lawyers on the committee, and I say that because when lawyers are on committees, committees tend to get to the heart of matters quickly and get their work done and get out. But we tended as a committee to meet from seven o'clock in the evening until one o'clock in the morning— sometimes only until midnight—and endlessly discussed things that were not either directly relevant or were not part of what we were supposed to be doing there. Or we would ask questions when the right people would appear to provide us with information that might be interesting in themselves, but that really didn't pertain to either of the November killings or the question of race relations before the killings and after in the community.

As far as the impact on race relations in the community, the impact seemed not to be very great except for possibly focusing some more attention on how did the police respond to black citizens and their needs.

WL:

In your investigation of the police department, you did find, or to what extent did you find a larger pattern—you mentioned this but I'd like to explore this a little more—this larger pattern of unequal treatment, whether some arrests or harassment or—was this, I mean, part of your own perspective and not that of the committee as a whole, but your own perspective?

JB:

Well, I don't think we got into that very much and there was not as I recall much discussion of, for instance, police brutality in the course of arrest. There was primarily concern that the police had acted with notable indifference both to the interests in being protective of the black residents in the neighborhood and to the well being of the CWP folks.

And, of course, part of that had to do with the history of police contact with the CWP. Part of it had to do with the move of the focal point of the rally at the last minute, and there was a big question about whether the police knew about it and if they knew about it, when did they know about it and how much did they know about it. Were the police basically keeping a low profile so that they couldn't become the subject of CWP propaganda? By keeping a low profile, were they neglecting to protect the interests of the CWP who were citizens and other black residents?

So we really didn't get into very much the broader pattern of police relations with the black community. We touched on it some, but mainly it was in terms of police presence and how much protection was provided and who were the officers.

WL:

What were your own conclusions about police protection?

JB:

My personal conclusions?

WL:

Yeah.

JB:

At the time, I think I felt that there was some negligence on the part of the police—that partly, it was indifference because the CWP was involved and there was a lot of hostility towards them as a group; partly it was the sense that nothing much was going to happen; partly it was an insensitivity to the response of a black neighborhood to the presence of Klansmen, especially armed Klansmen, and that the city could have certainly been more alert and more knowledgeable in its response.

We did not, I don't think at the time, have as much information as came out at this civil trial or at the criminal trials for that matter. But it was—it struck me as a little peculiar that once armed Klansmen were known to be enroute to the rally, a large, large number of the police assigned to deal with the rally decided to take a lunch break and were just sort of unreachable and unavailable for a period of twenty or twenty-five minutes while the Klan caravan moved into the Morningside community, did the shooting, and then moved out.

Now at the time, the police apparently expected that if there were going to be trouble it would occur at the end of the route where a rally after the demonstrations were planned over at the shopping center on Florida Street. But there, there just was no police presence and I think, you know, it doesn't matter in a sense whether the CWP provoked the shootings or not, there was a lot of stuff during the trial about who fired first and so on.

I think what's important is that the police had reason to know that a confrontation might occur and they were not on the scene ahead of time. And some of them apparently had information that the rally—the beginning part of the rally had been moved from the Windsor Center, a community center, over to that intersection near Morningside Homes. So—

WL:

How do you explain—do you think the police behavior, here, is best understood, do you think, as a case of negligence?

JB:

Yeah, kind of indifference. You know, just not really thinking about it. And I'm sure it would not have occurred in Irving Park, I mean, just because the police would have been concerned if there had been any kind of confrontation going on and they would have responded more aggressively to citizen concerns. And I realize that it's a fine line that the police had to walk between protecting citizens who may be at risk and not interfering with the constitutional rights of the people who are putting them at risk. But I think in this instance there was, there was some element of plain old indifference. You know, not really thinking about it. Because, they, they didn't value the people involved.

WL:

You mentioned before that the—one conclusion that you came to—the committee came to was that the shootings had a small effect on race relations. At least, I suppose that's one of the charges of the committee.

JB:

Um-hum.

WL:

What, in terms of the race relations before the shooting—the extent that you're able to comment on that—what was the condition of race relations, do you think? How would you characterize it, you know, based on your judgment on the committee?

JB:

I think that the stuff set out in Civilities and Civil Rights [by William Chafe] is just terribly accurate about Greensboro. I think it was accurate about Greensboro in 1979. I think things have changed a little bit but as far as I can tell not all that much.

Since then, I think Greensboro is a town that on one level, on the personal level, on a one-to-one basis probably has kind of a good atmosphere concerning race relations. I think individuals of different races get on on an individual basis very well in Greensboro and I think that's great. But I think at the more public, governmental level, commercial level that's less true. I think we have continuing problems involving school integration. I don't think those have been totally solved; I don't know if they ever can be. But I think they're continuing to plague us in a lot of directions.

But I think we go to a lot of trouble—we being the city officially—to put a good face on for us. For one thing, we're real concerned about attracting business and industry to our community and if it looks as if there is a whole lot of injustice or a whole lot of unrest that's going to be a factor discouraging businesses from moving in from outside. I think there probably is some move afoot to increase business opportunities for blacks and maybe other minorities. But, like school integration in this town back in the early seventies, it's moving pretty slowly.

WL:

Was the committee—I—did the committee confirm what you thought existed in terms of what you know about race relations? [Did] your experience in the committee confirm what you knew already or did it surprise you? Did you find out new things in terms of just existing race relations?

JB:

No, I don't think it surprised me. I don't remember feeling as if there were great revelations presented.

WL:

I'd like to talk a little bit about the specific history if we may. It was formed immediately after the shooting. Is that right?

JB:

I think so. The shootings were in November and I think by January we were starting to meet.

WL:

Starting to meet. And you met for how long?

JB:

Oh, it seems to me we must have met for at least three or four months.

WL:

After which you submitted a report?

JB:

Right.

WL:

What was the nature of that report?

JB:

It was certainly a compromise report. It was critical of the police, but not as strongly critical as some members of the committee wanted it to be, but more so than some others wanted it to be.

Basically, it did not see any big impact from the incident itself on race relations except to make people focus a little bit more on what was actually going on in the community. It did not see the killings as being essentially a racial incident. It—they seem more to be a Klan versus CWP kind of thing. And there had been an incident prior to the morning of November involving the Klan and CWP and just before November the Klan had—I mean, the CWP had sent out leaflets basically challenging the Klan to show up, and the Klan did.

WL:

What sort of effect did the report have? It was sent to the mayor or the city council?

JB:

I think it was presented to city council. I don't know that it had any effect one way or another.

WL:

Any response to it? Or—

JB:

I don't recall whether there was or not.

WL:

So this would confirm your earlier statement which was this—I won't say window dressing, that's too strong—but the committee was—it served a certain political purpose, but once you had finished the report, it was over as far as the council was concerned?

JB:

Yeah right, right, and by that time we were probably beginning to move into the criminal prosecutions and it was clear there was going to be a civil lawsuit down the road.

WL:

Which would end the possibility of doing anything publicly I suppose, including city—the city couldn't—

JB:

Yes.

WL:

Yeah.

JB:

Yeah. I think there may have been some things done internally within the police department, some new procedures developed. I don't know that it was necessarily in response to our report but just because everybody started focusing on what the police had done or failed to do in that circumstance. I think there was some sense that something needed to be addressed.

WL:

Do you think the—a broader question—any changes have come to the city government in Greensboro—in effect, I've heard a number of people say the police department has in effect changed. Of course, people who would go along with this case would say—would point to the recent planned march—the approach that was taken there.

JB:

Um-hum.

WL:

What sort of effect has the changes the city has done [unclear]? To what extent has that effected representation, change representation, change in the way city government operates, or these—

JB:

Well, I'm not sure how much effect it's had on the day-to-day operations. I think there's a little more give-and-take than there used to be. There's a little bit more the feeling that city government is accessible and can be made to be responsive to the needs of particular groups who live in the community. So I think, personally I think it's a whole lot better to have the ward system just in terms of having a potential for representation than with the prior system.

WL:

I have one more question for you, a very broad one, and that is in the—something you've touched on already, but in the years you've been in this community—I gather about twenty years or so—roughly. You don't want to think about it.

JB:

[laughs] Yeah, three years out in Chapel Hill, but yes.

WL:

I'm wondering what you think about the extent to which race relations have changed, just from your own perspective. Some—there are some people who would say that there is very little change and some would say there is a great amount of change. I found a pretty great divergence of opinion on this and I am wondering where you fall on this question?

JB:

I think there is beginning to be some change. I think [pause]—I think, for instance, the black community is becoming more political in almost classical American ways, I think, so that there is almost a political machine in the black community but that that machine is subject to challenge. I think to some extent that's, that's a healthy phenomenon taking a sort of long historical view. Given any particular election that may not be the best thing for the community as I see it, but I think in the long run it is certainly a positive kind of thing.

I think, well, shortly after we moved to Greensboro, I felt that if the race problems in this country were going to be solved, they would be solved in the South because there was a reservoir of individual trust and good feeling and an ability to work together, a history of working together that was probably absent in the North. And I think that's still true. I think I'm getting away from the focus of your question.

WL:

No, no that's all right. Do you think that's still there? It's still the case?

JB:

Yeah, yeah, I think that's still the case. I think, I think our kids are growing up together and able to react to one another on a much more realistic basis than perhaps my generation and the preceding generations were. And I think that's great. So I think, yeah, I think things are getting better. I think it's very slow. I think opportunities are still very limited. I think we are wasting a lot of young people that should not be wasted. I think the drug situation in Greensboro, especially in the black community, is appalling. And we're not seeing adequate programs aimed at rehabilitation, let alone prevention. But I think we've made some progress in those areas. I mean, it's better than it used to be, but it's sure not good yet.

[End of Interview]