GREENSBORO, NORTH CAROLINA. A highway sign on the edge of town along I-85 welcomes motorists to Guilford County, “North Carolina’s Future.” The motto distills the story that the county, especially the county seat of Greensboro, and particularly its better-off white people, has told about itself since Jim Crow days, a story of Greensboro as vanguard of the New South, bustling, progressive, “on the move” in all ways, including those of racial “tolerance.” Greensboro’s school board was the first in the South to formally endorse desegregation, the day after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision. Years earlier, when the polio epidemic of 1947- 48 hit Guilford County more severely than any area of the country, the political powers mobilized to build a convalescent hospital in 95 days and to suspend the rules of race, admitting black and white children, hiring an interracial medical staff, and providing equal treatment. That testament to enlightened can-doism is memorialized in photos at the Greensboro Historical Museum, which also houses the stools from which four young black men launched the sit-in movement at a lunch counter here on February 1, 1960. By July 25 of that year, blacks in the city had won the right to pay money for food and drink, just like whites, at counters in Woolworth’s, S.H. Kress, and Meyer’s department stores. A visitor today can stroll along South Elm Street, past flowering crape myrtle in this pleasantly semi-preserved downtown, and come to the intersection of what is now February One Place, where the handsome art deco F.W. Woolworth building is under renovation to become a civil rights museum.
Like all convincing tales, the story of white Greensboro is just true enough to be believable. Like the simplest happy-ender, though, indeed like America’s official civil rights story, it admits of no past offense that cannot be packaged into an edifying moral. Something was bound to mess it up.
The Greensboro Massacre, on November 3, 1979, should have done the job. It was one of the worst homicidal racial and political assaults of the era, but as one volunteer at the historical museum told me, “You won’t find anything about that in here.” None of the 60 historical markers that dot the county commemorate it, and at the site where it occurred, the streets have since been rerouted, names changed so the bloodiest intersection no longer exists. For the past year a public revisitation of the massacre has sought to unlock the box of silence, and in so doing to challenge the process by which white power here has traditionally assured itself that everything is running right.
At 11:23 on that sunny November morning, about 40 members of the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party, mustered in a caravan of gun-laden vehicles, opened fire on black and white demonstrators at the Morningside Homes housing project, while four television news teams and one police officer recorded the action. People ran screaming for cover. When the shooting ceased, four were dead and 11 wounded, one mortally, their bodies strewn about the project as if on a battlefield. One of the dead, a local woman named Sandi Smith who’d been active in the black student movement and was at the time trying to unionize textile workers, was shot between the eyes when she peeked out of a hiding place. The demonstrators had been gathering for a permitted march and rally rhetorically declaring “Death to the Klan” and organized by the Workers Viewpoint Organization (WVO), which was active in the poor neighborhoods and mills of a region then dominated by textiles. It advocated antiracism, unionism, and communist revolution, all abhorred by the Klan, with which it had previously clashed, yet a police lieutenant posted his men out of sight of the demonstration and then permitted them to take a break until 11:30.
Court proceedings later revealed that police had an informant in the Klan to whom they had given a copy of the march permit and route, and who two days later would lead the white supremacist caravan. He informed for the FBI as well. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which had been running surveillance on the WVO, also had an informant among the Nazis. At the time of the killings, the police special agent in charge of the Klan informant was at the back of the caravan, having trailed it to the site. He did not intervene, or radio for help, or trip a siren, or pursue the killers as nine of their vehicles got away. Arrests occurred only because two police officers broke ranks and apprehended a van. In two criminal trials all-white juries acquitted six defendants. In 1985 a civil jury found the city, the Klan, and the Nazis liable for violating the civil rights of one demonstrator; the city paid his widow $350,000 on behalf of all parties.
To the extent that the massacre entered polite white Greensboro’s story, it was as a “shoot-out” between extremist “outside agitators.” That all of the dead were communists and four of the five were white men emboldened city officials and the white press to regard the attack as a thing apart from Greensboro’s race history. Any competing narrative was erased.
This past summer and fall some of those narratives finally got a public hearing. There was no celebrated retrial here, as has occurred elsewhere in the South. Instead, Greensboro became the site of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission process, familiar to places such as South Africa and Chile but unprecedented in the United States. Greensboro’s TRC, initiated by survivors and assisted by international experts, provided a public forum for righting the record and restoring the spirit of justice where judicial practice and punishment had become impossible. Unlike its international antecedents, however, Greensboro’s TRC was not preceded by a major shift in power. It had no official sanction, public funding, or authority to issue subpoenas or grant amnesty. The white mayor, who opposed the process along with the white-dominated police force, the white majority of the City Council, the white financial interests and chamber of commerce, complained to the Washington Post that “the TRC project is being used as an alternate way to create what never happened, and that is a major investigation.” Which is exactly the point in a situation where conventional avenues to justice are posted Dead End.
When the commission issues its report in March it is unlikely to produce hard proof of police complicity in the attack. Although two Klansmen testified (“Maybe God guided the bullets,” Imperial Wizard Virgil Griffin declared), most police and federal agents refused to. But the hearings have already relocated the massacre within the long sequence of struggle-repression-political opening-bad faith-struggle-repression that white Greensboro’s story denies, and absent which “the events of 1979 are unintelligible,” according to Nelson Johnson, who organized the protest, was wounded, and then arrested for inciting a riot.
Once a revolutionary communist, now a Christian minister and, with his wife, Joyce, director of the Beloved Community Center (“The distance between Marx and the Old Prophets is not as great as it seems,” he says), Johnson has been a lightning figure as a black activist in Greensboro since the late 1960s. He reviews the pattern by which city power players historically raised competing specters of the Klan and black radicalism or communism to justify racial policies long on rhetoric and blue-ribbon panels but short on action. To blacks, white leaders cast themselves as the moderate bulwark against the Klan, meanwhile stoking race fury among the white working class to thwart unionization in the mills.
Despite that 1954 resolution on desegregation, for instance, Greensboro’s best men said race mixing in the schools would only rile the Klan; thus, the city was one of the last to integrate its schools, in 1971. After the epidemic, the polio hospital reverted to the segregationist mode of every other city hospital, and in 1963 was used as a jail during a month-long black uprising. By the late ’60s and ’70s, Johnson says, the black community had had it with the white power structure and achieved an extraordinary level of organization exercised in student strikes, rent strikes, work stoppages, and poor people’s groups. When white radicals began entering the mills, organizing cross-racially, and were elected in a few cases to union positions, “you had a convergence of forces for social, racial, and economic justice that culminated in 1979.”
That was shattered on November 3. Although the WVO was a small sectarian group, its decapitation had the broad freeze effect of terror. Now when survivors like the Johnsons talk of reconciliation, it’s in terms of following the full skein of Greensboro’s experience to arrive at what Joyce calls “an authentic language” for addressing past and future. Nothing can right America’s race history; it is what it is, mendacious and brutal. The high-profile convictions of old Klansmen for crimes of the 1960s only reinforce notions of individual monstrosity, isolated incidents, and punishment as the solution to all problems. “What does it mean for an 80-year-old man, one foot on a banana peel and another in the grave, to go to prison?” Johnson asks. “What does this explain about the vicious sentiments of the system that used him? What does it challenge?”
In Greensboro people who weren’t alive in 1979 have stopped by Johnson’s church to ask about the TRC. Hundreds have sat through all-day hearings. Elijah Andrews, who was 13 on November 3 and remembers his mother going after his little brother and shrieking, “Get down!” learned of the hearings and, amazed that attention was finally being paid, attended them.
How does anything change in this country? How do people fragmented for years get themselves together, find a voice, “a way out of no way”? With 61 years of the mess of life behind him, Nelson Johnson talks in deep, even tones about alternative structures, creative democracy, restorative justice: “They’re kind of a Jacob’s ladder. You do it all, and then you do it all again, and each time you go higher.”