The past is never dead, William Faulkner wrote. It’s not even past.
He was saying that everything that’s ever happened is what brought us to where we are now, that history determines what we become.
So it’s rather vainglorious of Greensboro City Council members Tony Wilkins and Zack Matheny to take a stand against a proposed historical marker to be placed in the city. The event, one of the city’s darkest chapters, shapes our identity whether we acknowledge it or not.
The 1979 Greensboro Massacre, when American Nazis and members of the Ku Klux Klan fired guns into the crowd at a Communist Workers Party “Death to the Klan” march, killing five, was perhaps the most tragic day in a city history pockmarked with racial footnotes that go well beyond the sit-ins and the Underground Railroad.
And in a lot of ways it is still happening. Certainly it comes up every time the Rev. Nelson Johnson of the Beloved Community Center, who organized the ill-fated march, opens his mouth. It surfaced during a police controversy that festered from 2006 to 2009. The last time the massacre came before council it was 2009, and they were considering issuing an apology for the city’s role in the deaths of those five innocent people. That night, political consultant and former councilman Bill Burckley showed up to make known his displeasure at the motion, and was eventually removed from the building in handcuffs by Greensboro police.
A lot of important people in the city, it seems, don’t want to talk about the massacre except to say we shouldn’t talk about it.
But historical tragedies are not exempt from commemoration. And technically, it’s not up to a city council which events get commemorated in this way — it’s the purview of the state Highway Historical Marker Advisory Committee, though they have said they won’t place the Greensboro marker without the blessing of council.
In Winston-Salem, council did not weigh in on a marker for the Local 22 strike placed in April 2013. It commemorated a strike by African-American tobacco workers. Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines was on hand for the unveiling of a marker honoring the Winston-Salem chapter of the Black Panthers in 2012.
And remember, too, the Alamo.
It’s important to remember what came before, not only so that we don’t repeat it, but because it’s a part of our identity. It’s not the place of a city council to scrub history or to politicize it, but to preserve it.
The council will reopen the matter at its Feb. 3 meeting. A majority seems to be set to approve the marker, but until then, literally, nothing will be writ in stone.
And like all events in history, the council’s action will live on long after the votes have been cast.
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