On July 1, the Beloved Community Center of Greensboro issued a three-page statement titled “Truth and Integrity: A Requirement for Genuine Democracy.” The statement accused Greensboro City Attorney Chuck Watts of lacking the second quality and disregarding the first in his allegations about activist and retired civil rights attorney Lewis Pitts Jr.
As previously reported, Watts has persistently accused Pitts of being the “leading force” behind not only protests over the 2018 death of Marcus Deon Smith, the Black man fatally hogtied by eight Greensboro Police Officers at that year’s North Carolina Folk Festival, but has referred to attorneys suing the city over Smith’s death as “Mr. Pitts’ litigation team.” Pitts, who resigned from the NC State Bar in 2016, is not part of that or any litigation.
On June 18, after this writer gave Attorney Watts a chance to modify his comments by pointing out that they could be interpreted as meaning prominent Black clergy were holding press conferences at the behest of a retired white attorney, Watts doubled-down by angrily stating “I think they’re being pimped!”
The July 1 statement from the Beloved Community Center began with an introduction by executive director Rev. Nelson Johnson. Rev. Johnson has been a civil rights activist since well-before the 1979 Greensboro Massacre, at which a convoy of Klansmen and Nazis, led by a Greensboro police informant, attacked a march he was leading. Five of Rev. Johnson’s friends were killed by Klan/Nazi bullets in the attack, and he himself was stabbed through the arm by a Nazi.
In text messages to this writer on June 19, Watts claimed to have little knowledge of these events, and less of Rev. Johnson, who organized the press conferences Watts claimed were “put on” by Lewis Pitts.
The July 1 Beloved Community Center statement begins with an introduction by Johnson, but the rest is unattributed. Johnson declined to say who the authors were, but stated that Lewis Pitts was not involved in drafting it.
In his introduction, Johnson described Pitts as “a white retired Civil Rights Attorney and a dear friend of mine, who was viciously slandered by Greensboro City Attorney Chuck Watts,” and stated “being demonized myself in this city for many years, I know the process.”
The body of the statement began with a quotation from the North Carolina State Bar Rules of Professional Conduct, in which Rule 4.1 states “in the course of representing a client, a lawyer shall not knowingly make a false statement of material fact or law to a third party.”
The statement then cited a June 16 press conference at which speakers called on the Greensboro City Council to stop “delaying and come to terms with Smith family,” referring to a recent motion by the city’s defense team to stay discovery in the wrongful death lawsuit.
At that night’s council meeting, Watts stated “there is no stay being requested, no stay whatsoever.” He later modified this by stating he meant that there was no stay requested on the overall proceedings, but only on discovery.
The statement then accused Watts of a “two-day tantrum, insulting and slandering Lewis Pitts and other Greensboro residents, clergy and advocates.”
On June 17, Watts sent an email Betsy Fox, Chair of the Guilford County Democratic Party, in which he stated, “I was shocked to see the party participating in a ‘press conference’ by Lewis Pitts.”
(The press conference was actually conducted by the Beloved Community Center.)
In the email, Watts wrote, "Mr. Pitts’s efforts to make this civil litigation matter into a public cause and to fan legitimate flames of discontent in the wake of Mr. George Floyd’s murder is deplorable."
In the email to Fox, Watts went on to write that Pitts “has but one goal in mind and its not justice. I would hope that the Democratic Party would not participate in his efforts to take advantage of the terrible murder of Mr. George Floyd and the legitimate protests that have ensued. The unfortunate death of Mr. Marcus Smith was totally different from what happened to Mr. Floyd and both cases deserve to each be addressed on their own merits.”
Beloved Center’s release responded to this email with the following passage:
“What efforts are these? The efforts in which Lewis is joined by a large, diverse group of clergy, civil rights leaders, advocates for the homeless, policing reform advocates, and other Greensboro residents?”
The release also took issue with Watts contrasting what happened to Smith and Floyd by stating that both cases involved Black men who said they “couldn’t breathe,” as they were being killed by police.
In rebuttal, the Beloved Center’s release also stated that the case is “already a public cause,” as Marcus Smith was killed by city employees, the city and those employees are named as defendants in the lawsuit, the city has paid “hundreds of thousands of tax payer dollars” to its defense team, and dozens of Greensboro residents have spoken about the lawsuit and related matters at city council meetings.
The statement then asked:
“What about the dozens of other, predominantly African-American, Greensboro residents who have spoken about the lawsuit at City Council meetings and other city venues?”
The Beloved Community’s statement cited the 2019 restrictions drafted by Watts and Mayor Vaughan to prohibit the public speaking from speaking about pending litigation at council meetings. After much criticism, including that of council member Justin Outling, who said “this is bad policy” and “we shouldn’t be doing it,” these rules were dropped.
The statement also replied to Watts’s claim to YES! Weekly that Pitts has “been at the forefront of everything” and is “before council all the time, talking about this issue,” with the following passage:
“Finally, Watts got something right. For well over a decade, Pitts has been among the advocates at the forefront of the fight for racial and economic justice. Instead of bemoaning Pitts admirable efforts, Watts should do his job -- for which he’s paid handsomely – and take a page out of Pitt’s book when it comes to truth-telling and social justice advocacy.”
It also contained harsh words for Watts’s allegation to YES! Weekly that Pitts “is playing the role of a lawyer, and he’s not a barred attorney,” and that this “creates a lot of angst on my part that he’s in the middle of it, and I’d just like his role to be clarified.”
The statement offered the following clarification for Watts:
“In January 2016, Lewis became the first person ever to resign from the North Carolina State Bar, after convincing the Board to establish a new procedure for resignations. He decried lawyers who ‘approach law practice as a business,’ ‘hunt for profit,’ and serve corporate interests. Watts should consider whether his vendetta against Lewis is fueled, at least in part, by the fact that Lewis’ critiques apply to most of Watts’ career. Since resigning from the bar, Lewis has neither claimed nor implied that he’s a licensed practicing attorney, and he has not practiced law. Watts’ personal angst and mission to attack Pitts’ good name can’t justify his baseless accusations.”
The statement concluded by advising those concerned about Watts’s conduct to contact the North Carolina State Bar via firstname.lastname@example.org and linked to the Bar page for filing a grievance. It also included the link for emailing Greensboro city council, and phone numbers for the mayor and council members.
When asked to respond to the Beloved Community Center’s allegations, Watts declined to give YES! Weekly a direct statement.
A public information request filed by this writer for correspondence to and from Watts regarding Pitts returned a cordial June 20 email exchange between Watts and Roch Smith Jr., owner of the news blog Greensboro 101.
In it, Watts wrote:
“I have to admit that I have very limited information about Mr. Pitts. While my comments were based on my genuine though admittedly limited perceptions of him, I have come to acknowledge the fact that I shouldn’t have made those comments because I really don’t have sufficient basis for them and so I plan to make apologies to him and to Rev. Johnson.”
On July 2, Johnson told this writer that Watts offered him apology.
“He reached out to me by phone and said that he wanted to apologize and I asked him if he could be more specific about what he was apologizing for. He said that he misspoke. And that’s the extent of it. My thinking is, I wasn’t mentioned in all of what he said to the Democratic Party and what he said about to Lewis. My further thinking is that he needs to apologize to these young people and to Lewis, but I didn’t feel call to engage him in a back and forth. I received it and that was it.”
Also, on July 2, 12 days after Watts wrote that he intended to apologize to Pitts, Pitts told YES! Weekly that he has received no communication from Watts.