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The 40th Anniversary Of The Greensboro Massacre

On Nov. 3, 1979, a caravan of Ku Klux Klansmen and American Nazi Party members pulled out weapons and killed five people protesting at an anti-Klan march in Greensboro. Ten people were injured, and the police were nowhere to be found. The Greensboro Massacre was quickly buried in the national news cycle after the Iran hostage crisis began the next day — but it remains a painful moment in the city’s history.

The Greensboro Pulpit Forum, one of the city’s oldest ministerial alliances, is asking elected officials to revisit what happened and provide an apology “of substance.” Two years ago the Greensboro City Council issued a broad apology for the city’s role in the tragedy, but many feel that local government has not done enough.

More than a decade earlier, citizens and activists — without the support of the Greensboro mayor or the city council — organized the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission to try to reveal what really happened. Independent commissioners heard testimony from about 200 people involved in the attack and released a report in 2006.

People need to understand what their city did, and what the police did and what they did not do. Because without that, how can you correct it? How can you actually correct it? And that's what we've been fighting for. - Reverend Nelson Johnson

Host Frank Stasio talks to several guests about the massacre and how they want it to be remembered. Rev. Nelson Johnson is a massacre survivor and one of those who helped to coordinate the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He is the executive director of the Beloved Community Center in Greensboro and a member of the Greensboro Pulpit Forum. He shares why the ministerial organization wants the city to re-open conversations about the tragedy.

Spoma Jovanovic is a professor of communications at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro; a 2019-2020 Fellow at the National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement; and the author of “Democracy, Dialogue, And Community Action: Truth and Reconciliation in Greensboro” (University of Arkansas Press/2012). She joins Stasio to talk about the historic Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

And Valerie Ann Johnson is the Mott Distinguished Professor of Women's Studies and Director of Africana Women's Studies at Bennett College. She talks about how the issues laid bare 40 years ago are still very timely today — and about how this anniversary can be an opportunity to start addressing them.

Interview Highlights

I saw who fired the first shot. - Reverend Nelson Johnson

Reverend Johnson on how the fighting began:

I saw the Confederate license plate and recognized it … And there was a young person that I later learned was named Buck, who was sitting on the passenger’s side. He fired a pistol in the air out of the window. All of this nonsense about who fired the first shot is just nonsense. I saw who fired the first shot. And people ran away from it. And people jumped out of their vehicles, and a tussle started.

Here in Greensboro, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was not started or supported, endorsed or in any way connected with the government. And so this was the first time in the world where from the grassroots level people said: We can do this. - Spoma Jovanovic

Spoma Jovanovic on what was revealed as part of the truth and reconciliation process:

Stories were able to be told sometimes for the first time. There’s certainly the survivors whose stories had been picked apart and chopped and used in ways that didn't have the full context. But also there were people in Morningside Homes that had suffered and had never been able to tell their stories out of fear, out of retaliation, out of, also, people not even asking them. So I think all of those came out and started to paint a much larger portrait of what had happened, at least for most people in terms of their understanding.

Valerie Ann Johnson on why it seems some people don’t want to hear the full story of the Greensboro Massacre:

[It could] be the financial concerns that many times municipalities have when they don't take responsibility for something. Will we be sued? What's going to happen financially because we've said and admitted something … There are people invested in a particular vision of what Greensboro is and was. And the reluctance to go forward is the reluctance to admit: No, it wasn't all that we promote in our various ways. And that resistant component is really difficult to crack.

Archival images courtesy of the Greensboro News & Record.

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Amanda Magnus is the executive producer of Embodied, a weekly radio show and podcast about sex, relationships and health. She has also worked on other WUNC shows including Tested and CREEP.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.
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