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.”