Nearly 41 years after Ku Klux Klansmen and American Nazis shot dead five antiracist activists in the town of Greensboro, North Carolina, the City Council there has passed a resolution apologizing for the attack and the police department’s complicity in the killings. We speak with two survivors of the 1979 attack, Reverend Nelson Johnson and Joyce Hobson Johnson, who say the city’s apology acknowledges “the police knew and chose to do nothing. In fact, they facilitated what we name now as a North American death squad.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
Nearly 41 years after a white supremacist attack on antiracist activists in the town of Greensboro, North Carolina, left five dead and the community reeling, on Tuesday night the Greensboro City Council passed a resolution apologizing for the massacre and the police department’s complicity in the killings.
A warning to our television viewers: The footage we’re about to play contains graphic violence.
The Greensboro massacre took place November 3rd, 1979, when Ku Klux Klansmen and American Nazis opened fire on an anti-Klan demonstration in Greensboro. Over the span of 88 seconds, the Klan and Nazis shot dead five antiracist activists who were members of the Communist Workers’ Party. Ten other activists were injured. No one was convicted in the massacre, but a jury did find the Greensboro police liable for cooperating with Ku Klux Klan in a wrongful death.
This is a clip from the documentary The Guns of November 3rd by Jim Waters, a news cameraperson who was on the scene and filmed that day.
VIRGIL GRIFFIN: We can take our country back from the Communist Party. We can take it back from the niggers. It’s time for us to band together. If we have to get in the streets and fight in blood up to our knees, by God, it’s time to get ready to fight! Give them what they want! Fight for this country!
PROTESTERS: Death to the Klan! Death to the Klan! Death to the Klan! Death to the Klan!
UNIDENTIFIED: Move! OK, move out! Move out!
PROTESTER 1: They had a plan.
PROTESTER 2: Somebody, call an ambulance!
PROTESTER 1: Please, help us! Help us!
PROTESTER 2: Come here! Help us!
PROTESTER 3: Please, can we get an ambulance? Get him right here.
PROTESTER 1: Klan and the state got together and planned this. That’s why they were not — don’t come here. Do you hear me? The state protects the Klan. And this makes it clear. They came through, and they opened fire. They opened fire on us. And we fired back to protect ourselves.
WITNESS: Now, the Klan, or whoever it was, jumped out and just started shooting in the direction of the thickest concentration of people. They seemed to be aiming at particular people. There were several police in the area who did nothing, until after these murderers left. Police came in, immediately started arresting people who were trying to help those who had fallen. Nelson Johnson, you know, was taken into custody, kicked in the head by the police. He was bleeding from the arm as he was trying to help people. And the police did this, directly or indirectly. They set it up.
PROTESTER 4: This will never happen again! We will never be [inaudible]. He’s in — he’s in heaven. [inaudible] on him. Oh god! God, he’s dead!
AMY GOODMAN: Images and sounds of the 1979 Greensboro massacre from the Jim Waters documentary The Guns of November 3rd.
The Greensboro City Council resolution passed Tuesday acknowledges the Greensboro Police Department knew the attack was planned, but failed to warn the protesters. In this clip from the documentary about the massacre by Laura Seel, civil rights lawyer Lewis Pitts talks about the police involvement. Pitts represented the survivors in a civil lawsuit against the Greensboro police, government officials, the Klan and the Nazis.
LEWIS PITTS: When we got involved as civil rights lawyers, hired by and representing the survivors, the widows, we had every incentive to tell the full story. And, for the first time, the people’s lawyers had subpoena power. And we found a trove, trunksload of incriminating evidence right out of the police files. If the police knew, why didn’t they stop it? Why didn’t they warn the demonstrators of the nine-car caravan carrying the Klan and Nazis with all those weapons? The 10th car was an unmarked police car with the detective, Cooper, who was the handler of the informant, and a photographer, a police photographer. They followed them in, parked, did not call for help, did not do anything to warn the demonstrators, and took photographs as they pulled out weapons and murdered people.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s civil rights lawyer Lewis Pitts.
Well, for more on the Greensboro massacre and city council resolution last night, we go now to Greensboro, where we’re joined by two survivors of the massacre, Reverend Nelson Johnson and Joyce Johnson. They’re co-executive directors of the Beloved Community Center of Greensboro and co-founders of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. All the horror of this, even 41 years later. Reverend Johnson, if you can talk about what the City Council ruled, what they decided last night?
REV. NELSON JOHNSON: Thank you. We are very pleased to be back.
There were seven resolutions passed last night. And the heart of it was that the Greensboro police knew well in advance that the Klan and Nazis were planning to attack the march. They actually did not actually take any action — and the resolution says that — to inform those of us who were preparing to march, that would culminate in a conference around how to engage racism in the textile mills.
One of the most important things I think that grew out of last night was a resolution that the city passed that said that it would award — the money is not the important thing, let me say that — $1,979 to five high school students, from a predominantly Black high school, in the name of the five people who were killed on November 3rd, at the largest gathering that the city will sponsor, which will be the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day. These students would compete over writing essays or doing some kind of artistic work on how to engage the systemic existence of racism and how to overcome that. We thought that that was significant.
And we thought that just saying plainly the police knew and chose to do nothing — in fact, they facilitated what we name now as a North American death squad.
They were antiracists, to be sure, but they were some of the best labor and community organizers in the state. So, it wasn’t just a few people protesting the Klan. We were building power within the textile industry, with people gathering from Martinsville, Virginia; Danville, Virginia; Rocky Mount, North Carolina; Haw River; Kannapolis plants; and five plants in Greensboro. That’s the work that people were doing, and bringing that into relationship with the historic Black community in Greensboro, where I had been working for over 15 years.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, I’d like to ask —
REV. NELSON JOHNSON: Joyce, you might want to say more.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, I’d like to ask Joyce Johnson, if you could talk a little bit — first of all, for those people who are listening and were not aware of this tragedy, could you talk about who the five people who were killed were and what you personally saw that day?
JOYCE HOBSON JOHNSON: Thank you. Thank you, Juan, for that opportunity. And good morning, Amy. Yes.
The five people, as Nelson has said, were powerful organizers. And I don’t mean that just in technical terms, but those who loved and sacrificed for their fellow people, residents here in North Carolina. They were a rainbow.
Sandi Smith, who happened to have been my best friend, she was like a little sister. One of the most difficult things I’ve ever done in my life was to call her mom in South Carolina and tell her that Sandi was dead. But Sandi Smith, an African American woman who had graduated from Bennett College for Women here in Greensboro as the student body president, and decided to delay her decision to go to nursing school to organize in the textile plants, because her dad worked in a textile mill in South Carolina, and she understood the oppression that happened in those plants.
Then there was Michael Nathan. Michael and I were at Duke University about the same time. He was Jewish, I was African American. At Duke at that time in the ’60s, we were both in the minority. But he was one of those gentle giants who worked very hard with particularly African Americans in Durham, North Carolina.
Bill Sampson, who was the one, as I guess we would say, Anglo person in the group, he had finished at Harvard University and had also been to University of Virginia, and similarly decided that he needed to go to the place where people were really struggling hard.
And then there was Jim Waller. And Jim Waller, who was the husband of a dear friend of mine, Signe Waller, here in Greensboro, we nicknamed him “Blackbeard.” He taught in the medical school at Duke University. Off-time, he was a pediatrician to our children. Again, he sacrificed a lot to organize workers in the plant in Haw River. I remember him calling me one night because he had actually gotten aging white workers to unite with Black workers, and they were supporting African liberation. They began to understand here in the South the unity of those who were poor.
And then there’s also — who did I leave out, honey?
REV. NELSON JOHNSON: César Cauce.
JOYCE HOBSON JOHNSON: César Cauce. César Cauce, gentle César, who, after finishing college, went to work in the chicken factories. And you will remember the fires of Hamlet chicken factory. César’s parents had been Cuban immigrants.
So, we really, as I said, were a rainbow. And on that day, they had come together, as the rest of us, to have this gathering, this conference, to march through the streets of Greensboro, to draw people together to talk about how we, together, were going to combat racism and really build a community where all were treated justly, fairly, where there would be adequate medical care, where there would be dignity and respect for all. They were my friends.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Nelson Johnson, I wanted to ask you — and it’s good to see you, after so many decades, actually, when I knew you back in those days. I wanted to ask you about how North Carolina has changed and what this council resolution means. Clearly, the state is very different than it was back then. You’ve had a huge influx of Latino immigrants. The Research Triangle area has drawn many people from around the country to the universities. And there’s been a huge influx of African Americans from the North who retired and went back to North Carolina. So, could you talk about how this resolution reflects the changing nature of North Carolina?
REV. NELSON JOHNSON: Well, if you compare it to how the city reacted the days, weeks and months after 1979, the change is fairly significant, in that because of the grassroots work that continued in North Carolina — and let me just lift up Moral Mondays and the Poor People’s Campaign; we work very closely with Reverend Barber on this — that there was a growing consciousness in the state, and there were shifts in the electoral power, electing more progressive people to office. But there remains an undercurrent of historically accumulated racism, and built on a bed of falsehood that still exists here.
So, we actually want to acknowledge the decisions made last night by the City Council. We are grateful for that. But we have named it a people’s victory —
JOYCE HOBSON JOHNSON: Yes.
REV. NELSON JOHNSON: — because it is because of the persistence of more and more people in this city and throughout the state that the state is gradually changing. It’s an uphill climb. But we are grateful for the decision last night, and we think that it provides something positive to build on. But we want to help people appreciate themselves. They are the ones who elected a council that, with some staggering, got to the place of saying this deliberate North American death squad came in and shot persons who were leaders in their field.
Bill was the chief organizer at the largest denim-producing factory in the world, White Oak. Jim was the president of the union at Haw River. There were other people in equal positions in plants around the state. So I’m saying it was not just a group of people opposing racism, but people building power strategically. And there’s no way that the textile industry is not implicated in this.
But we still think that North Carolina has moved. It is not the worst state in the South. It has always tended to be somewhere in the middle, in the sense that it was the last out of the Union and close to the first back in the Union in the Civil War. So, it always has had that kind of quality to it.
AMY GOODMAN: Reverend Nelson, we have to wrap up the show, but I wanted to just say one thing. In the clip we played, the Klansman or Nazi used the N-word. And we asked you: Should we repeat that? You said yes. We have 10 seconds. Why?
JOYCE HOBSON JOHNSON: Because the truth matters, Amy.
REV. NELSON JOHNSON: It’s as simple as that. People need to know the truth of our history. And that word, which is very derogatory, is part of that history. And it is that simple.
AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you both for being with us, Reverend Nelson Johnson and Joyce Johnson, survivors of the 1979 Greensboro massacre, co-founders of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission and now co-executive directors of the Beloved Community Center of Greensboro, North Carolina. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Stay safe. Wear a mask. Save lives.