Seen from the vantage point of the political center, and even the left, the 1979 murder of five antiracist activists by white supremacists at the beginning of a march in Greensboro’s Morningside Homes public-housing project might seem like a freak occurrence.
And for us who live in Greensboro, the impact of the violence was intensely localized, reverberating out from the five people killed to their friends and family, and then to the residents and neighbors around Morningside Homes, even though the cause and consequences were also national in scope.
Like the Greensboro Massacre, the 1984 murder of Denver talk-radio host Alan Berg and the spectacular series of bank robberies by the white-power paramilitary strike force the Order in the 1980s and particularly the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168 people, seemed at surface level to be acts of eccentric loners. But Kathleen Belew, an assistant professor of history at the University of Chicago, makes the case in her new book, Bring the War Home, a breathtaking history of the white-power movement from 1979 to 1995, that in fact Greensboro was the first violent outbreak “in an escalating campaign of terror against the American public” by “highly organized cadres motivated by a coherent and deeply troubling worldview of white supremacy, anticommunism and apocalypse.”
Although Belew’s research goes up to only 1995, she makes a compelling argument that the inability to understand the violence as an outgrowth of a coherent social movement has resulted in a continual failure to anticipate and respond to new outbreaks. As Belew writes, “Violent, outright racism and antisemitism were live currents in these decades, waiting for the opportunity to resurface in overt form.”
Although the deadly violence during the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in August 2017 was predicted by many, the alt-right movement that emerged the year before alongside Donald Trump’s presidential campaign seemed to come out of nowhere. The parallels between Greensboro in 1979 and Charlottesville in 2017 are stark: The violence in the former was perpetrated by a first-ever coalition of the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis, and in the latter by a coalition of established hardline white nationalist organizations and ironic internet trolls. In both instances, the violence was forecasted, and law enforcement and the legal system were either ill-equipped or unwilling to effectively address it.
“And even though this entire event was caught in multiple angels of news cameras who were on the scene, all of the gunmen were acquitted in state and federal trials, and a civil trial a few years later returned a decision that only one of the deaths had been wrongful,” Belew told “Democracy Now!”co-hosts Amy Goodman and Juan González in July. “So the Greensboro Massacre really gives us a historical cognate for Charlottesville, in that we see a unified group of neo-Nazis and Klansmen, and they are naming themselves as a unified movement, the United Racist Front. They’re coming to a public altercation, and violence ensues in the confrontation.”
Among Belew’s critical insights, the modern white-power movement was born out of the trauma of the Vietnam war. And whereas previous white-supremacist violence had been an extension of state power — as Klan bombings and assassinations to reinforce Southern resistance to civil rights in the 1960s attest — Belew reports that in the 1983 movement leaders converged on an agreement to wage war against the state.
After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, Belew writes, the absence of an international communist foe increasingly made the American super-state the foe for the white-power movement. Preoccupation with an entity known by the anti-Semitic nomenclature “Zionist Occupational Government” gave way to a new obsession — a “New World Order” supposedly ready to enforce the mandate of a globalist elite through UN black helicopters. Belew argues that the patriot militia movement of the 1990s was a direct outgrowth of the paramilitary culture propagated by the Vietnam generation of white-power activists, even if it camouflaged its racism while broadening its appeal.
The 1992 Ruby Ridge standoff, resulting in the death of Vicki Weaver by an FBI sniper, is widely understood as the animating grievance of the patriot militia movement. One Unite the Right participant, a self-style patriot activist from Browns Summit, told me that Randy Weaver, Vicki Weaver’s husband, had been unfairly characterized as a white supremacist; his only association was that he brought his children to play at a nearby Aryan Nations compound because the northern Idaho family had few other neighbors. Belew refutes that notion, writing that the Weavers moved to Idaho in 1983 as part of the northwest migration of white separatist.
“An Identity Christian, Weaver spoke frequently about his belief that the Bible said black and white people should not live together, not even in the same county,” Belew writes. “He also told his neighbors that Jews were behind the New World Order.”
One other theme runs chillingly through the story of the white-power movement from 1979 to 2018: Belew describes how anticommunism served as an alibi for the racist violence of the United Racist Front in Greensboro, helping secure the acquittal of the Klan-Nazi defendants. Today, while chanting variants of, “You will not replace us,” many white power activists downplay overt symbols like swastikas or Klan hoods. Instead, they troll their antiracist opponents with violent anticommunist graphics celebrating the grisly practice of extrajudicial executions carried out by the former military dictatorship in Chile, which dropped political opponents out of helicopters.
“Free helicopter rides,” the signs mockingly invite. Or, even more casually: “Physical removal, so to speak.”