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GREENSBORO — One of the darkest and most controversial days in the city’s history may soon get a historical marker. But first, it has to get past a council deeply divided on the issue.

Last month the North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Advisory Committee unanimously approved a historical marker for the 1979 shootout between members of the Ku Klux Klan and American Nazi Party and Communist Workers’ Party that led to the death of four CWP members and one supporter.

The marker, proposed for the corner of Willow Road and McConnell Road, would read: “The Greensboro Massacre — Ku Klux Klan and American Nazi Party members, on Nov. 3 1979, shot and killed five Communist Workers’ Party members one-tenth mile north.”

The committee does not need the city’s permission to place the marker but, as a courtesy, it will not do so over the objections of the City Council.

Two councilwomen, Yvonne Johnson and Sharon Hightower, wrote letters to the committee in support of the marker.

But in Thursday’s council work session councilmen Zack Matheny and Tony Wilkins said they strongly oppose it.

The council divide is political and racial — Johnson and Hightower are both black Democrats, Matheny and Wilkins are both white Republicans. But arguments over the shooting, its cause and consequence have raged across the political spectrum since the shooting happened.

Everyone agrees that a group of several dozen Klan and American Nazi Party members showed up at a “Death to the Klan” march outside Morningside Homes, sponsored by the Communist Workers Party.

The details of everything after that — and much of what came before — remain much in dispute.

Even the title “The Greensboro Massacre,” which is how the shooting has become popularly known, is divisive.

The request for the marker came from Lewis Brandon, board member of the Beloved Community Center.

Rev. Nelson Johnson, executive director of the Beloved Community Center, was part of the group that marched on Nov. 3. Matheny said that’s likely to make the marker even more controversial.

“This is another example of Mr. Johnson trying to rewrite history,” Matheny said. “And it’s shameful. Because there’s a lot more history of what led up to Nov. 3 and there are a lot of groups that are left out.”

Wilkins said the marker will further divide the community.

“This has been controversial for 36 years,” Wilkins said. “How would this be good for Greensboro? How will it be positive?

Hightower disagreed.

“The fact is, negative things have occurred in this community, in this country, that we can’t turn a blind eye to,” Hightower said. “They might not have impacted you, but they happened.”

Councilwoman Marikay Abuzuaiter agreed and said she will support the marker.

Council members Jamal Fox, Nancy Hoffmann and Mayor Nancy Vaughan called for a respectful discussion but did not publicly share how they would vote during Thursday’s work session. Councilman Mike Barber was absent.

“I haven’t decided how I feel about it,” Hoffmann said of the marker. “My undergraduate major was in history. And the thing about history is, some of it we like, some of it we don’t like. But it is important to have context in history.”

“This is definitely part of our history and we can’t erase that,” said Fox.

“And I do understand that it’s not like you can put the entire history of what happened on a marker. It is important to raise the consciousness of the community about our history and what happened then.”

Though not saying how she would vote, Vaughan expressed deep skepticism about the marker.

“With no context I think it’s not a good thing,” Vaughan said. “Certainly I don’t think we want a marker that references a ‘massacre.’ I think without the proper context, the whole story isn’t told.”

Michael Hill, a staff member from the historical marker advisory committee, gave a presentation before the council Thursday. He acknowledged that the marker doesn’t tell the complete story but said that isn’t the goal of the marker.

“The language is crafted and approved by the committee, which is made up entirely of history professors,” Hill said. “It happens that the number of characters on the marker is about the same length as a tweet. You’re not going to tell the whole story in that many lines. But it’s a starting point.”

The City Council will vote on whether to approve the marker at its regular meeting on February 3.

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Contact Joe Killian at (336) 373-7023, and follow @JoeKillianNR on Twitter.

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