GREENSBORO — “Greensboro Massacre” will be the title of a historical marker commemorating the Nov. 3, 1979, Klan-Nazi shootings.
The Greensboro City Council voted 7-2 Tuesday to approve the marker’s language, ending weeks of controversy over one of the darkest days in the city’s history and how it will be remembered.
The vote elicited cheers and a standing ovation from the capacity crowd of nearly 200, some of whom held an all-day demonstration at City Hall to push for inclusion of the word “massacre” on the historical marker.
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The marker will commemorate the death of five members of the Communist Workers Party who were killed when members of the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis attacked an anti-Klan rally held at Morningside Homes, a mostly black public housing neighborhood.
The N.C. Highway Historical Marker Advisory Committee, a group of 10 historians, unanimously approved a marker in December. Though the committee doesn't need the City Council's approval, it indicated it would not place the marker without it.
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Councilmen Zack Matheny and Tony Wilkins, who voted against the marker’s language, say the word “massacre” colors the event’s history. They point to CWP “Death to the Klan” fliers that antagonized the Klan and neo-Nazis and challenged them to a confrontation, and to the fact that several CWP members had weapons and exchanged fire with their attackers.
Matheny and Wilkins said they would prefer “shooting” or “shoot-out,” but on Tuesday the original language prevailed.
"I think the fact that the language was chosen by a group of historians says a lot," said Mayor Nancy Vaughan.
The council heard from 17 speakers on the marker Tuesday, including former CWP members and Nov. 3 survivors Signe Waller Foxworth and the Rev. Nelson Johnson.
Johnson was also an organizer of the rally. His Beloved Community Center applied for the marker.
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"I feel good," Johnson said after the council's vote. "I receive it as a gesture from my council and hope it can serve as an inspiration for us to work together and focus on those who have been marginalized in our community."
A number of younger activists, part of the Black Lives Matter movement, focused on the role of the Greensboro Police Department, FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in the 1979 tragedy. Those agencies had information from informants about the Klan and neo-Nazi plan to attack the demonstration, followed and photographed a caravan of armed attackers and took no action until after the shootings.
Two all-white juries acquitted the Klan and neo-Nazi members on criminal charges in the killings. But in 1985, a jury in a federal civil suit found two police officers and six Klansmen and Nazis liable for the wrongful death of one of those killed and for the assault and battery of two survivors.
“It was entirely preventable,” activist Irving Allen told the council Tuesday. “They had the authority, the opportunity and ... the duty to prevent these deaths.”
Vaughan called Tuesday’s meeting “a great dialogue.”
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“What was said was very powerful, it really put a lot of it into perspective and I think it said more than any marker ever could,” Vaughan said.
After the vote Allen said the council heard the voices of the community.
“Even one of the biggest opponents had a good dialogue with Rev. Johnson,” Allen said.
That came when Matheny, who has been critical of Johnson and the CWP, had a back-and-forth with Johnson during the meeting.
“As much as you and I probably disagree about a lot of events I do think that you, in your soul, I know you regret the events and what happened,” Matheny said. “And we can agree on that.”
Matheny offered alternative language for the marker, which would have honored the five who died by name but would also have been titled “Greensboro’s Tragedy” and included the word “shoot-out.”
Leaders in our community bear a special responsibility to advance dialogue and to bring people together. Retreating behind shopworn rhetoric serves only to perpetuate division.
Johnson said he couldn’t accept that. Others in the crowd shouted “Nazi” and “Klan supporter” at Matheny as he spoke.
Councilman Jamal Fox was not yet born at the time of the 1979 killings. But he said it was obvious from talking to people in the community that “massacre” is the appropriate term for the marker.
“In my 27 years on Earth I’ve always known it as the Greensboro Massacre,” Fox said. “What I did during this discussion was try to listen more and talk less, and I knew how I had to vote.”
“In Greensboro we need to acknowledge our history, but we also have to keep our eye on the prize and rise above personality conflicts and race,” Fox said. “This is a part of that.”
Following council's approval the marker could be in place as early as April, according to the marker committee.