Citizen Green: Lesson of ’79: How to keep going after the worst

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What conditions in society allow a group of armed extremists to gun down progressive activists in the streets in front of television cameras and without police interference, and then to be acquitted of all criminal charges?

That question hung over a presentation by Signe Waller Foxworth, a survivor of the Nov. 3, 1979 Klan-Nazi massacre in Greensboro’s Morningside Homes public housing community, to white anti-racist activists at the Elsewhere artist collaborative on March 11. The sense of fear about the surge of ugly passions unleashed with the election of Trump was palpable in the room.

The five committed young people who died on Nov. 3, 1979 and those who survived were seasoned activists at the time, mostly in their early thirties or late twenties. Some were doctors; all of them put promising careers on hold to work in area textile mills to try to improve working conditions by organizing across racial lines. They confronted the Ku Klux Klan, a group historically opposed to interracial cooperation. They openly advertised themselves as communists — a group as easily demonized and rendered expendable as today’s “terrorists.” Their provocative rhetoric unleashed the fury of the Klan and Nazis, with the response of official Greensboro ranging from indifference to hostility.

Fear left unchecked and allowed to manifest in isolation and division opens the door to atrocities, said Joyce Johnson, another survivor of the massacre who attended Waller Foxworth’s presentation.

“It is based on fear and a sense of trying to protect my family — me and my four and no more — that sets up the dynamic for violence and repression,” Johnson said. “The focus is Muslims and immigrants right now, and people who are part of the LGBT community. Black people have been enduring it in the past.”

They were a tight-knit group, and so the loss was most proximate for the widows who lost husbands. But for any of the survivors, any of the five slain activists was a dear friend, including Waller Foxworth’s husband, Dr. Jim Waller, along with Sandi Smith, Cesar Cauce, Dr. Jim Nathan and Bill Sampson. Smith, a student body president at Bennett College, had been leading the Revolution Organizing Committee to establish a union at Cone’s Revolution Mill.

“Sandi Smith was my best friend,” Johnson recalled. “I was the matron of honor at her wedding. One of the most difficult things I’ve ever done is calling her mother to let her know Sandi was dead.”

The survivors might have been expected to disappear after experiencing the worst trauma anyone could conceivably undergo, and many of Greensboro’s establishment leaders undoubtedly hoped they would. For years after the massacre, Joyce Johnson said her family experienced isolation. Her husband, Nelson, as leader of the Workers Viewpoint Organization — later renamed the Communist Workers Party — was vilified and perversely blamed by many for bringing the violence to Greensboro. Joyce Johnson suggested courage is the best antidote to the atrocities that become more likely in a climate of rampant fear.

“The good point is that some of us did survive, and we’ve continued to struggle,” Johnson said. “So you have a decision to make. If you do, it will make a difference to you and it will make a difference to the world. It will make a difference to your family and your children.”

Now 70, Johnson expresses a preference for interpersonal dialogue over street protests, but she retains the same ardent desire to change the world that motivated her when she was a 20-year-old college student. Neither the bullets of the Klan and Nazis nor almost four decades of official indifference have dissuaded her. The economic and social forces at work in the world today don’t seem that different from 37 years ago when five of her comrades were cut down.

“The period of economic prosperity — the on-top-of-the-world period — was unraveling in the United States,” Johnson recalled. “Third world countries were starting to assert themselves and demand their share. The economic downturn was beginning. We in the Workers Viewpoint Organization knew that. We knew it was going to be so important for diverse people of the world to come together to ensure everyone could enjoy some measure of well-being.

“The difference I see is that because the exploitative nature of capital has fewer and fewer places to run to, it’s turning on its own people,” she continued. “The Democratic Party is trying to figure out how to reach white, working people, but they’re not willing to fundamentally transform the economic system. White, working-class people are getting more and more hit. Women and people of color are getting hit even more. Because some more eyes are opening, I think there’s potential that our transformed future rests in embracing each other, not just in a hugging kind of way. Of course, the alternative is that something like what happened in Germany in the 1930s could happen again here.”

  • Sofia Tull

    This event was initiated by Black Lives Matter Gate City and was hosted by the anti-racist white committees serving BLM leadership. It is crucial to include this in the article so the work of BLM does not get erased. Please edit, thank you!

  • Keilan Rickard

    I agree with Sofia. In the second paragraph, you mention that the audience were anti-racist activists, but it is important to uplift the work of Black Lives Matter Gate City that went into conceptualizing and organizing the event. We request an edit/erratum.

  • Laura

    Please update the article to show that this event was initiated by Black Lives Matter Gate City. Following the lead of BLM is essential to the anti-racist group, and the reporting of this article is incomplete without that detail.

  • Rachel

    Oh good, white people haven’t taken enough credit for things black people did. By not amending the article to include the accurate information, you’re discrediting yourself and your legacy.

  • Casey O’Hara

    Please listen to the other commenters and understand that by refusing to update the article, you are erasing the work of Black Lives Matter leadership without whom this event would not have happened. Why are you only giving credit to white people?

  • Casey O’Hara

    BLACK LIVES MATTER. BLACK TIME MATTERS. BLACK ENERGY MATTERS.

  • Sarah Elizabeth

    Great article! Thank you so much for reporting on this. Did you know that the Anti-Racist White Folks are actually a contingency of BLM, serving black leadership? It seems important to mention since Black Lives Matter Gate City is the main reason this event took place. Thanks!

  • Tessa Kirkpatrick

    Thanks for writing about this amazing event and helping remind Greensboro of our history and the courage of the activists who died in and those who survived the Greensboro Massacre, but why did you not mention Black Lives Matter Gate City? They are the organization that helped make the event possible, so your lack of acknowledgement of their efforts completely undermines their work and is ironic in the face your admiration of the sacrifices made by those who lost their lives or loved ones in the Massacre. Please update the article and give credit where it is due.

  • Linda Shillito

    Thank you for the article. I am confused about why Black Lives Matter is not mentioned. If you are attributing anything the the organizers of the event, it was done under the leadership of Black Lives Matter, and needs to be included. If you have not included them because you have written it in a way that you are not attributing anything to the organizers of the event, then the article is incorrect. The audience was not solely made up of white anti-racist. So, either way, there is an issue here that needs to be addressed.