“Hold that elevator.”
After responding to that common request, I found myself in the elevator with Klansman and police informant Eddie Dawson and his entourage. It was a short ride from the courtroom to the first floor of the Winston-Salem courthouse, but as the only black person in that confined space, it seemed to me like an eternity.
But I welcomed them in. I held the door.
I was a reporter covering the federal civil rights case against the Klansmen and Nazis for their participation the Nov. 3, 1979, Greensboro Massacre.
This story comes back to mind not just in recognition of the 40 years since the two groups, and local members of the Workers Viewpoint Organization, who changed their name to the Communist Workers Party, descended on the Morningside Homes public housing community for what had been advertised as a “Death to the Klan” rally, but also a request made a couple of weeks ago from the Pulpit Forum that the city of Greensboro amend its 2017 apology and specifically own up to the actions, or inactions, in this case, of the Greensboro Police Department.
The Pulpit Forum, one of the state’s oldest ministerial alliances, now under the leadership of the Rev. Daran Mitchell, the pastor of Trinity AME Zion Church, listed six points they wanted to the city to address. They include acknowledging the police’s role in failing to warn the marchers that the Klan and Nazis planned to attend the rally; failure to heed the tip from Dawson that they were coming armed; failing to stop the Klan and Nazi caravan en route to Morningside; and attempting to cover up the police errors and attempt to discredit all of the participants as equally culpable. You know, the there-are-some-good-people-on-both-sides excuse.
But nowhere in that list was mention of an apology to the residents of Morningside Homes for what happened to them in their own community.
That Saturday was an unusually warm November morning. Residents were doing what you do on Saturdays. Children were playing outside. Residents were going in and about their routines when the Communist Workers Party, which was working to unionize millworkers, used their neighborhood to host a rally.
About 11 a.m., a small group had gathered to see what was going on. The rally was scheduled to start at noon.
At about 11:20 a.m., a caravan of seven cars, one van and one pickup, drove along the two-lane street going through Morningside and after overhearing comments from the rally organizers, started shouting obscenities. Demonstrators, hearing the comments, surrounded the cars, some of them beating on the cars with sticks.
After seeing the guns pointing at them, the demonstrators dispersed as members of the Klan and Nazi got out of the vehicles and started shooting into the crowd and at moving bodies.
Almost 88 seconds later, four demonstrators were dead, one died in the hospital days later and 10 others, including one Klansman, were injured.
The police, charged with protecting city residents, were nowhere around. In fact, many had been sent to lunch, and two other police intelligence officers were parked just down the street. Police did not appear until after the Klansmen and Nazis were back in their cars and headed out of the community.
Did black Greensboro lives matter to the police on Nov. 3, 1979? Or were the Morningside residents unintentional collateral?
It’s kind of like the response the police used with crack and powdered cocaine. Or how we now approach the use of crack versus opioids. Jail the mostly black crack users, but provide medical treatment to the mostly white users of opioids, which recently claimed the life of a local judge.
Morningside was just the backdrop. They didn’t know about the feud between the Communist Workers Party and the Klan. They didn’t know that the police gave Dawson a copy of the parade permit. And they didn’t know that the police, claiming to be confused about the parade’s starting location, would not monitor something tagged a “Death to the Klan” rally.
At some point, the residents are not just owed an apology; they should be compensated for the damages they suffered. Who counseled them and their children about the incident? And we wonder why black residents often mistrust the city or the police department.
The city forgot those residents. The police didn’t provide protection. And now the city’s black ministers aren’t even advocating for them.
That’s a shame.
Morningside residents opened the doors to their community, and 88 seconds later, their lives were changed.
My elevator ride was a lot shorter, yet I vividly remember the encounter.
I imagine Morningside does as well.