Klan-Nazi shooting 1979

KKK members take weapons from the back of a car prior to the shooting between them and members of the Workers Viewpoint Organization/Communist Workers Party on Nov. 3, 1979. 

GREENSBORO — What a difference a word makes.

A compromise could make possible a historical marker near the site of a 1979 clash involving neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan and the Communist Workers Party. Klansmen and members of the neo-Nazi group killed four members of the Communist Workers Party and one supporter.

Last week, the City Council heard from the N.C. Highway Historical Marker Advisory Committee, which had approved a marker but sought support from the local government before installing it. Several council members said they didn’t like the idea of the marker and particularly its title: “The Greensboro Massacre.”

Though the committee doesn’t legally need the approval of the City Council to put up the marker, it generally doesn’t place markers against the wishes of local government.

On Monday, Councilmen Tony Wilkins and Zack Matheny, the two strongest voices against the marker, said they would consider giving their approval if the word “massacre” was changed.

“I think if the wording was changed to ‘shootout’ or ‘shooting’ it would be closer to what actually happened,” Matheny said. “The marker can’t tell the whole story but the word ‘massacre’ gives you the wrong idea about what actually happened that day.”

Michael Hill, a staff member from the Historical Marker Advisory Committee, said Wednesday that the committee is open to input from the council and will consider changing the word “massacre.”

If the compromise is made, a historical marker could be in place by April.

Councilwomen Sharon Hightower and Yvonne Johnson, who wrote letters in support of the marker, said they would support the change in language. Councilwoman Marikay Abuzuaiter said she will support a marker either way, as will Mayor Nancy Vaughan.

“I would prefer they not use ‘massacre,’ but I’ll support a marker either way,” Vaughan said Monday. “It’s an unpleasant part of our history, but it’s history.”

On Nov. 3, 1979, a caravan of cars filled with Klan and neo-Nazi party members armed with guns drove to a “Death to the Klan” rally outside Morningside Homes, a largely black and low-income public housing development.

The resulting clash made international headlines and has been the source of controversy for 36 years.

State and federal trials against Klansmen and neo-Nazi party members ended in acquittals by all-white juries, but a civil trial later found members of the Greensboro Police Department and Klan and neo-Nazi group members jointly liable for the wrongful death of one of the people killed.

Lingering questions and resentments about the shootings led to the creation of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2005.

The private commission, a fact-finding mission that included public testimony, found that Klan members drove to the rally intending to provoke a violent clash but that CWP members also bore some responsibility for the violence as a result of their rhetoric and their failure to get full support from the residents of Morningside Homes to hold a rally there.

The commission’s work was itself controversial. The City Council at that time voted 6-3 against endorsing the work, with the vote breaking along racial lines.

The current council seems poised to support the marker, although several members said they still believe the tragedy and the controversy surrounding it are best left in the past.

“If the majority of the City Council is OK with it, I’m OK with it,” Councilman Mike Barber said. “The bigger issue for me is that in a city of almost 300,000 people, we continue to have just a handful of people who live their lives looking in the rearview mirror.”

“Other midsize cities are concentrating on the positive, marketing the positive, attracting jobs and businesses,” Barber said. “We continue to discuss what happened when gas was 28 cents per gallon. That’s what holds Greensboro back — a small group of people who make an industry of racism and unhappiness, marketing all that’s unpleasant and negative no matter how long ago these things occurred.”

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

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