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WUNC reports from Greensboro about Guilford County and surrounding area.

Greensboro City Council Apologizes For Police Role In 1979 Massacre

gso massacre
Naomi Prioleau
On Nov. 3, 1979, five people were shot and killed in broad daylight by Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis during an anti-Klan protest. Ten people were wounded.

Updated at 3:50 p.m. on October 7, 2020

The Greensboro City Council has voted to apologize for the city's role in one of the most violent events in its history.

In a 7-to-2 vote Tuesday, the Council's resolution formally apologized for the Greensboro Police Department's role in the shooting deaths of five people on Nov. 3, 1979 — a day often referred to as "the Greensboro Massacre."

On that day, members of the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis shot and killed Cesar Cauce, Dr. James Waller, William Evan Sampson, Sandra Neely Smith and Dr. Michael Nathan during an anti-Klan protest. 10 people were wounded.

Pastors, survivors and community members have called for an apology from the city for years. On Tuesday night, they finally received it.

Councilwoman Tammie Thurm said she wanted this apology to provide closure to the victims and survivors of the attack, as well as the city itself.

"I think it's really important that the closure doesn't go get set on a shelf somewhere," she said. "I think it's important that we remember the lessons that we learned. That's one reason why we added the scholarships to be awarded annually (is) because I think it's important, as we go forward for future generations, that we don't forget our history and we acknowledge our history and that we learn from our history."

The City of Greensboro will award the scholarships to five students annually, in honor of each of the five victims. The "Morningside Homes Memorial Scholarships" will be awarded to graduating seniors at James B. Dudley High School in the amount of $1,979. To enter, students will write essays focusing on issues of racial and social justice.

Councilwomen Marikay Abuzuaiter and Nancy Hoffman voted against the resolution.

Hoffman said it was unfair to indict the Greensboro Police Department and other city personnel for an event that occurred 41 years ago.

"It's often said that there are two stories of events and that truth may rest somewhere in between," she said. "When angry, politically motivated, inflammatory groups who spew hate and fear on both the left and the right choose to confront each other in a setting that puts others and a neighborhood in danger, it's not only unacceptable, it's despicable. I wish this event had never occurred. We always grieve the loss of life.

"I find nothing in this contemporaneous reporting of this event that convinces me of collusion or malicious action or inaction on the part of the Greensboro Police Department or city personnel."

Mayor Nancy Vaughan says this apology doesn't mean they're criticizing Greensboro's current police department.

“We say what we're apologizing for and that's what we're trying to do this evening, to recognize the shortcomings of our past,” Vaughn said.

A civil trial after the shooting revealed that the Greensboro Police Department did nothing to prevent the altercation that led to the shootings, even though they had advance notice. The resolution acknowledges that the GPD knew about the planned attack.

The KKK and Neo-Nazi defendants claimed self-defense and were acquitted in state and federal trials, both times by all-white juries.

At a press conference on Wednesday, victims and their families gathered to praise the City Council, and to look ahead.

"New steps lie ahead," said Marty Nathan, the widow of Michael Ronald Nathan, one of the shooting victims. "Further possibilities to move forward together for life, truth, justice, peace, and freedom for all. Greensboro keep rising."

Naomi P. Brown joined WUNC in January 2017.
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