Two steamers, Verona and Calista, carried about 300 members of the Industrial Workers of the World, an anarchist labor union commonly known as the Wobblies, from Seattle up the Washington state coast to Everett, a small industrial city cleaved by labor strife. Seeking to build their membership, the Wobblies had been coming to Everett to speak in support of a strike by men working in the dangerous, poorly paid shingle-weaving industry.
Only a week earlier, the union activists had been herded into a city park by deputies then brutally beaten and run out of town. Vowing to return, the Wobblies were met at the docks by a group of citizen deputies organized under the authority of the sheriff’s office. A shot was fired — by whom no one is quite sure — and in the ensuing hail of gunfire, five Wobblies and two deputies were killed. Historians believe that the Wobblies’ true death toll might have been as many as a dozen, as bodies were later recovered from the bay.
The facts laid out above are gleaned from a page on the Everett Public Library website.
Sound familiar? Here was a group of militant union activists seeking to build relationships with local industrial workers to improve working conditions and raise wages, or “outside agitators,” if you prefer. Gunfire broke out between rival groups, with enduring controversy over who fired the first shot, but resulting in a lopsided death toll. A dark day that exposed underlying tensions at play across the nation. A day many people in the community would prefer to forget.
It was not Nov. 3, 1979 in Greensboro, NC, but rather Nov. 5, 1916 in Everett, Wash.
For many years, no one in Everett wanted to talk about the massacre, Dave Ramstad, a member of Historic Everett’s board of trustees, told the Everett Herald in 2011.
“People had strong feelings,” he told the newspaper. “It was an incendiary type of event.”
To date, there is no historical marker to commemorate the massacre, but the Everett Downtown Historic Preservation Plan, published in March 2011, recommends designating the site as a National Historic Landmark and marketing a memorial as “destination point.”
Like Everett, Greensboro resonates across the nation for people of a certain type of political values and idealistic temperament. As a footloose antifascist activist in Ohio and Kentucky during the 1990s, I knew well the history of the Greensboro Massacre. For me and my largely anarchist comrades, the five militant communists who were shot to death by Klan and Nazis in Morningside Homes were selfless martyrs in the fight to halt the rise of fascism in North America. We were despised by mainstream liberals who condemned our tactics, so the hatred directed at Nelson Johnson and other survivors by Greensboro’s establishment never surprised me.
In the last decade, when I left behind my militant activism to pursue a career in journalism, I became fascinated with the suppression of collective memory of traumatic events, from the disappearance of leftist activists in Argentina and Chile in the 1970s to the threats of violence against Haitians who deigned to recover the bodies of their dead after the 1991 coup. When I was offered a job as a journalist in Greensboro in 2004, I knew I wouldn’t be bored.
In many ways the fact that I have lived in this city for 10 years, put down roots and established a family is a legacy of the Greensboro Massacre. My wife, who was born here in 1975 and grew up on Willow Road less than 10 blocks from the site, had never heard of the massacre and wondered why she hadn’t learned about it in school. But her grandmother was raising teenage children right around the corner from the intersection of Everitt and Carver streets when the Klan and Nazis opened fire. She still bristles with anger 35 years later not only at the fact that white supremacists were allowed to shoot up the neighborhood but, even more, that the city of Greensboro never offered any support resources to help residents deal with the trauma.
I’m not surprised at Greensboro council members Zack Matheny and Tony Wilkins’ opposition to the placement of a historic highway marker near the site of the massacre, but I will never understand it.
The proposed marker would state, concisely: “Ku Klux Klan & American Nazi members, on Nov. 3, 1979, shot & killed five Communist Workers Party members one-tenth mile north.”
It’s history, without judgment as to who was right or wrong. It happened here, no matter how much some of us would like to suppress the truth. Sign or no sign, many of us will carry the history of Greensboro Massacre within us forever.