GREENSBORO — The Rev. Nelson Johnson stood beneath the cross at Bethel AME Church on Monday night, speaking before a crowd of about 80 people who packed the pews because of one of the darkest days in the city’s past — and its relevance today.
“It is somewhat rare for me to be in a setting where I’m not under attack or under suspicion,” Johnson told the crowd. “I don’t feel that tonight.”
On Nov. 3, 1979, Johnson was one of a number of Communist Workers Party members who organized an anti-Ku Klux Klan march. The marchers were attacked by Klansmen and neo-Nazis who shot and killed five Communist Workers Party members and injured 10 others.
Debate on historical marker makes some relive a tragic day they tried to forget.
It was a tragedy that was allowed to happen with the foreknowledge of the Greensboro police, the FBI and the ATF, Johnson said, and its victims for years been “blamed” and “demonized” in much the same way as young black shooting victims like Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown.
The 1979 killings became popularly known as “The Greensboro Massacre” — a name now at the center of a new controversy.
Tonight, the Greensboro City Council will consider a historical marker for the tragedy, proposed by the N.C. Highway Historical Marker Advisory Committee.
Do you believe the word "massacre" accurately describes the 1979 Klan-Nazi shootings in Greensboro?
The proposed marker would read: “Greensboro Massacre — Ku Klux Klansmen and American Nazi Party members, on Nov. 3, 1979, shot and killed five Communist Workers Party members one-tenth mile north.”
The committee doesn’t need the City Council’s approval to place the marker. But as a courtesy, the committee won’t place the marker without a majority vote in its favor from the City Council.
Several council members have objected to the word “massacre,” preferring the words “shootings,” “shoot out” or “killings.”
Johnson called the suggested change of the word “obscene” — and indicative of a city government that doesn’t want to take responsibility for its officers’ complicity in the shootings.
“It is a massacre,” Johnson said. “It was a massacre because it was essentially defenseless people who were the victims of a police-orchestrated North American death squad.”
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.
1979 Klan-Nazi shootings in Greensboro
News & Record photos taken during and after 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.
Warning: Some of these images may not be suitable for children.
Johnson pointed to knowledge from police and federal informants that could have stopped the shootings and a parade permit that police told him he had to sign that forbade his group from carrying guns during their demonstration. A handful of them disregarded that permit and carried guns, with which they fired at Klansmen and neo-Nazi attackers. Over the years, Johnson said the fact that some in his group had weapons has been used to create the impression they deserved what happened or that it was a fair fight.
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.
On Monday night, after audience members saw news footage of the killings and a short documentary segment on the 2006 Greensboro Truth and Community Reconciliation Project, Johnson urged people to pack tonight’s council meeting and call on the council to retain the word “massacre.”
Old guard black leaders like Earl Jones and Melvin “Skip” Alston attended the meeting Monday but a new generation of young, black activists also were there. They are organizing a day-long demonstration today at the Melvin Municipal Office Building, ahead of the meeting.
“I think what happened in 1979 is directly relevant to what’s going on today,” said Irvin Allen, 28, a member of the Black Lives Matter movement. “You can see the same demonization of people who are victims.”