Reflecting On The Greensboro Massacre 40 Years Later

Reflecting On The Greensboro Massacre 40 Years Later

5:16pm Oct 31, 2019
Rev. Nelson Johnson and his wife, Joyce, stand beside a 1979 photo of the "Greensboro Massacre" at the couple's Faith Community Church in Greensboro, N.C. The Johnsons were taking part in a workers' march on Nov. 3, 1979, when they were attacked by Nazis and members of the Ku Klux Klan. (AP Photo/Allen G. Breed)

On the morning of November 3rd, 1979, a mixed group of community activists assembled by the Communist Workers’ Party were preparing to march against the Ku Klux Klan through the streets of Greensboro, North Carolina. There they were confronted by a caravan of Klansmen and neo-Nazis who opened fire on the group, killing five and wounding several others. The gunmen didn’t act alone, and they were eventually acquitted by all-white juries. 

It remains an open wound, particularly within the African American community in Greensboro. This weekend during the commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the Greensboro Massacre, people will gather over a three-day conference to celebrate the lives of those lost through music, theatre, and dance. They’ll also explore the root causes and community responses to right-wing violence — then and now.

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Rev. Nelson Johnson points to a photo of himself checking on a fallen friend at his Faith Community Church in Greensboro, N.C. (AP Photo/Allen G. Breed)

Rev. Nelson Johnson was there. He helped organize an anti-Ku Klux Klan march and conference on the day of the massacre. He recalls throngs of people gathering at a housing project in Greensboro in preparation.  

“I rose early that morning and I was a little troubled because the fog was thick,” says Johnson. “But by about 9:30 the fog started to lift, and it was a beautiful, bright sunny day. I had made the arrangements to meet the police and worked out the parade permit, and I was feeling quite jubilant.”

A few hours later, that feeling turned to terror when ten cars carrying dozens of American Nazi Party and KKK members stormed in.

“I was fighting for my life,” Johnson says. “A Nazi charged me with a long butcher knife and tried to drop and bring it up to rip my intestines out. I blocked it with my arm. The knife went through my arm, and I can’t lift this finger to this day.”

Both sides were armed, and as the shots faded, Rev. Johnson saw the bodies of his friends lying motionless. The Greensboro Police Department was nowhere to be found. Johnson says he felt utterly betrayed. When police did arrive they wrestled him to the ground and hauled him to jail.

Six years later a civil suit was filed by survivors against the city. The jury found eight people, including two police and their informant, liable for the death of Dr. Mike Nathan, who was among the five shot and killed.  

His wife, physician and activist Marty Nathan, says the city’s settlement was not enough. She wants officials in Greensboro to address head-on what their predecessors did, rebuke the cover-up, and assure people it will never be repeated.

“And I need that,” Nathan says. “My daughter needs that. She was six months old at the time. She never knew her father because they let this happen. And I want her to be able to come to Greensboro one day and say, ‘Okay. I feel safe here.’” 

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Image courtesy of Martha Blakeney Hodges Special Collections and University Archives.

For people like Marty Nathan, the work to remember the events of that day continues. She says false narratives overshadowed what really happened: city officials labeled it a shootout; news outlets reported that the march began early, catching police off guard. Even decades later she says, just getting the word “massacre” on the city’s historical marker was considered a major victory.

Mayor Nancy Vaughan of Greensboro recalls that shortly after the deadly Charlottesville rally in 2017, she and several City Council members made a heartfelt apology to the victims.

“It was a statement of regret for the loss of lives and for those who were injured,” says Vaughan. “And we know that it has divided this community. And we are committed that something like that would never happen again.”

Mayor Vaughan concedes that this will continue to be a divisive issue here. 

Dancer-choreographer Ana Maria Alvarez finds the word “divisive” in this context to be confusing. After all, she says, this is about her family — both parents were union organizers — witnessing the murder of their closest friends at the hands of Klansmen and neo-Nazis. 

“It’s a continuous healing and a continuous building of the movement in the legacy of — and that we owe it to — the Greensboro Five, to continue moving forward powerfully and to not stop la lucha, the fight,” says Alvarez.

As the community reflects on what happened 40 years ago, artists like Alvarez are coming together, harnessing the lessons and horrors of the past, and transforming them through the joy of song and dance. She says it’s one way to inspire future activism and never forget. 

The commemoration and conference Greensboro Massacre: Lessons for Today takes place Friday, November 1, through Sunday, November 3, on the campuses of North Carolina A&T State University and Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The archival audio from November 3, 1979 that appears in this story comes courtesy of WFMY News 2 in Greensboro.

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