The Greensboro Massacre took place on November 3rd, 1979 when members of the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party opened fire on a crowd of protesters in broad daylight in the Black neighborhood of Morningside Homes in Greensboro, North Carolina, killing five members of the Communist Workers Party and wounding ten more. Sandy Smith, César Cauce, Michael Nathan, Jim Waller, and Bill Sampson. They were Black, white, and Latino, from elite and working class backgrounds, from the South and the North. They were spouses and parents. My parents were also survivors.
The Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which worked tirelessly reviewing documents and collecting testimony for two years, concluded that while the white supremacists planned and carried out the attack, the violence likely could have been avoided if the police had not left just beforehand, allowing the perpetrators to kill with impunity. The klan were given time to pack up their guns and leave before the police returned to arrest the wounded and grieving.
In the years that followed, all white juries acquitted the klansmen in both state and federal criminal trials, despite four different sources of video footage and the klansmen’s own unrepentant testimony. The survivors were charged with inciting a riot and black-listed. My mother was a public health pediatrician working with poor children and their families in Orange County. Jesse Helms went after her personally, trying to get her fired.
But he failed. He failed because her community of patients fought for her. The mamas whose babies she cared for circulated a petition, defending her and her commitment to their children.
The Communist Workers Party was far from perfect, but they showed up. They did the work. They lived in committed community. They listened to what poor and working people had to say. They respected their lives and culture, even when it was not shared. They worked with urban and rural poor; Black and Brown and white. They did multiracial organizing in the South where other progressive organizations would not because they either had to fight the Klan or work with people who were likely in the Klan. The November 3rd protest itself was meant to be the kickoff to a day of workshops about how the ruling class used the klan to divide working people in the South.
This is the legacy of Greensboro that I want everyone here to have crystal clear. Because it is the answer to why these particular organizers were targeted and how we will persevere despite what seem like overwhelming odds, today. These organizers were dangerous because they challenged white supremacy–not with their incendiary rhetoric, but despite it. They challenged white supremacy in the work they did every day in the factories and the mills and their communities and in the alternative vision of the South they strove for.
White supremacy is the fabric of daily life, everywhere. It has been a quiet truth for many; easily ignored or misinterpreted most of the time. For Black and Brown Americans, for immigrants, and for Native people around the world it has been a loud and inescapable reality since the first European colonists needed a veneer of religious legitimacy for their thieving greed.
We are at an inflection point in history in which millions of people who had not been deeply aware of the persistence of white supremacy have awakened to that reality. For many it began with the killing of Trayvon Martin and the realization that state terror against people of color is the status quo, rather than a few bad apples.
We mourn and rage as Native people are brutalized at Standing Rock and our leaders do nothing. We watch our public schools crumbling from the weight of attempted resegregation and lack of funds caused by tax cuts to the wealthy. We watch our country fall further and further behind on helping working families care for their young children without losing their livelihoods. Climate change has reached a tipping point and, as always, the most vulnerable communities suffer the most. The list of challenges is staggering and racism runs through it all.
So we struggle to understand how a society could become aware of all this tremendous injustice and respond by electing Trump. We are watching this nightmare of a presidency unfold, many of us experiencing real fear for the first time.
But this is not the first such historical moment. A similar moment occurred when the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War brought American injustice and hypocrisy into the light and millions of Americans became politicized for the first time. The reactionary push back against desegregation and the assassinations of the sixties brought home the reality of white supremacy and the vulnerability of our democracy.
That experience propelled people from all over the country to organize for justice and equality. Those who died in Greensboro were inexperienced until they began to do the work, and learned. For the past 37 years the survivors have continued doing both the political work and the community building work that is necessary to sustain a movement for justice. Thousands of people who came of age in the sixties made that commitment and continue to show up and do the work, every day.
What these organizers dedicated their lives to was a vision of the future for poor and working people in the South that offered an alternative to what 300 years of white supremacy has given us: racial and economic inequality, nepotism and backwardness in our institutions, and a toxic and brutal history of personal violence that has wounded our families and prevented Southerners from embracing so much that we share.
They thought they were just trying to overthrow capitalism, little did they know 🙂
The promise of what the South can be is what we are fighting for today. It is what the organizations that brought us together here and so many others have been striving for for decades. This is easier than the last time; we do not have to start new organizations from scratch. We do not lack experienced leadership. We have historical lessons that we can and must learn from. The struggle for justice and unity demands deep listening, humility, and more than anything a commitment to show up and do the work. There is room for everyone in this fight. That is how we defeat the klan. That is how we win.