Stifled sobs escaped from audience members while others silently wiped tears from their cheeks as the sharp cracks of gunfire rang through the chapel. On a screen near the altar, video footage of young men and women being shot in the streets, blood flowing onto the pavement from their lifeless bodies, played from a projector.
Many in the audience at Bennett College’s Pfeiffer Chapel had never seen the footage from four decades ago, when the KKK and American Nazi Party murdered five members of the Communist Workers’ Party in Greensboro, an event which would become known as the Greensboro Massacre. The killings took place just a mile east from where community members — including several of those who lived through the event — gathered on Nov. 2 as part of a series of events commemorating the 40th anniversary of the massacre.
“This is where you are today,” said Joyce Hobson Johnson, a civil rights activist and wife to the Rev. Nelson Johnson. Both experienced and lived through the event and eventually worked to start the Beloved Community Center for which they now serve as co-directors.
“Where Sandi Smith once gathered here for chapel and walked these grounds and helped organize her fellow students… so we’re here today to continue with this commemoration, remembering, maybe shedding a tear or two but mainly rededicating our hearts and our minds to continue this pursuit of the beloved community.”
Smith was one of the five people killed on Nov. 3, 1979, during a “Death to the Klan” rally in Greensboro. She was a civil rights activist and president of the student body at Bennett. After graduating, she became a nurse and continued to organize for workers rights. Cesar Cauce, James Waller, William Evan Sampson and Michael Nathan were the four other victims of the shooting.
“I feel like going on,” Joyce sang after the video came to an end. “I feel like pressing my way, though trials come on every hand, I feel like pressing my way.”
The crowd of more than 100 stood and sang along as Floris Cauce, Marty Nathan and Signe Waller, the widows of those killed, gathered at the front of the room and embraced.
The second day of a weekend of commemorative events, the morning presentation at Pfeiffer Chapel set the stage for the rest of the afternoon by giving background and context for the massacre. Presenters and panelists spoke about the history of the Communist Workers Party, including the life and legacy of the massacre’s victims, as well as the aftermath and ongoing relevance of the event.
“For me, Greensboro is part of a larger international connection, so we have Greensboro in ’79; in ’76 in South Africa, we have Soweto where school children were massacred by the police,” said the Rev. Naomi Tutu, a South African activist and daughter of former Archbishop Desmond Tutu. “And for me, what the importance is how easy it is for the powerful to make us forget our stories.”
Tutu spoke about the necessity to not only remember the past, but to connect events across the world to each other to strengthen the broader goal of social justice.
“When we talk about what is happening in this country right now, I am struck that people do not look outside the US for examples or for lessons that we might learn,” Tutu said. “I think that the huge thing in the US is that even those who are in the struggle have bought into US exceptionalism. And because that is the case, what has happened in the rest of the world, does not resonate…
“’Seventy-nine Greensboro, the murder of the five, the terrorizing of a whole community was not something that happened in isolation in this country,” she continued. “Murders continue, the terrorizing of communities continues in this country. And as long as we look at things like what happened in Greensboro as individual events, we are not going to build the movement that we need for our children.”
Connectedness only across not only countries and continents but across smaller scales like local and national movements as well as between older and current generations became a thread throughout the day’s events.
During the afternoon workshop on building local power as part of national movements, the Rev. Nelson Johnson talked about the importance of starting small. He pointed to the Beloved Community Center’s weekly campaigns in which members go door-to-door to talk to individuals about the center and its mission.
“I asked, ‘Do you know your neighbors?’” said Johnson about a recent canvassing experience. “They say, ‘I’ve seen ’em but I don’t have much to do with them.’ And then I ask them, ‘Well do you want to know them a little better?’ They say ‘No, I don’t care to.’ Well, you’ve already run into something cultural… if you get 20 people and 15 of them say that, then you have a cultural problem.
“Seventy-nine was about expanding beyond the black community to the labor community, the biracial labor community… Relationships are fundamental to building community power,” Johnson continued. “You cannot do it without relationships. And that means that you have to actually work with people who don’t necessarily think like you but who have enough shared interests that you can walk towards each other. And actually that is a form of power, it’s in that connectedness around some common interest that you have a bit of power.”