One week from today it will have been 40 years since an armed-to-the-teeth group of white supremacists fatally shot five people and wounded 10 in a bloody confrontation with communist protesters at an anti-KKK rally in Greensboro.
I am hopeful that the next few days will be a chance for somber reflection on what happened that day, and how it applies to so much that is happening in the world right now.
But, to be honest, I’m not optimistic. The Pulpit Forum has set the tone for what is to follow by asking the city to apologize, a second time, for its role in the tragedy. The City Council issued an apology two years ago but several local ministers, including the Rev. Nelson Johnson, who organized the “Death to the Klan” march on Nov. 3, 1979, say it didn’t go far enough.
So the apology request threatens to dominate the conversation before one can even get started. And that’s a shame, if not unexpected. Nov. 3 has always been fraught with strong feelings and deep divisions in Greensboro:
We’ve squabbled over whether to have a historical marker at the site of the incident.
We’ve fussed over what the inscription on the marker should say — specifically what we should call the shootings before settling on “massacre.” No. Seriously.
We’ve debated whether a Truth & Reconciliation Commission, established in 2004 to revisit the tragedy, was necessary (of course it was; the community had repressed Nov. 3 like a bad memory, but it never really went away).
Some people say it tells us nothing about our city — that it was the fault of outside groups (the KKK and neo-Nazis versus Communist Workers Party members) that chose Greensboro as their battlefield.
As a Greensboro native, I believe it says a lot about us, then and now. Before Rodney King, before Black Lives Matter, it probably was the first time such a crime had been captured on video from start to finish. On TV footage you could see people being shot at point-blank range by a small army of Klansmen and Nazis and yet no one was convicted. Sound familiar?
Now as then, there were racial tensions co-mingled with concerns about poverty and labor rights (the CWP was attempting to organize local mill workers).
Now as then, racist extremists are back and emboldened … the Klan and Nazis among them.
Now as then, there are class divides. The “Death to the Klan” rally was set in a public housing community that neither wanted nor invited it. Noted the Truth Reconciliation Commission in its final report in 2006: “As a self-described anti-racist organization explicitly advocating for the empowerment of working-class black people, it should have been understood that the (Communist Workers Party) had an ethical obligation to ask permission of the residents before staging a parade in their neighborhood, rather than simply informing them.”
Now as then, there is a lack of trust between black communities and police (here we are in 2019, shaken by not one but two instances of police killing African Americans in their own homes in Texas).
Now as then, we struggle with how we treat history, which we alternately revere (D-Day, the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, 9/11) or repress (Emmett Till, slavery, lynching, … Nov. 3).
That’s why we don’t learn. And that’s why we commit some of the same mistakes again and again.
So I wish the conversation could have started without being derailed at the outset with a request for another apology. (It reminds me of Johnson and others requesting that the City Council endorse the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s work before it had done any.)
Clearly, Greensboro police mishandled the event by not showing up until after the carnage had been done, despite the presence of a police informant among the Klansmen.
But there is blame to around:
To Johnson and the CWP for picking a vulnerable neighborhood to stage a protest and daring the Klan to show.
To Johnson for warning police to stay out of the way the day before.
And most of all to the Klansmen and Nazis, for their cold-blooded assault on mostly unarmed protesters. “Kill the niggers,” said one of the shooters.
To be sure, there is an important discussion to be had about how far we’ve haven’t come in all that time. But I fear we’re not going to have it.
Instead the apology question will dominate the week to the exclusion of most others. And that’s a shame.
Because, in far too many ways in 2019, every day is Nov. 3.