Speakers recall Greensboro Massacre, see links to current struggles

  • From left, Marty Nathan, Joyce Johnson and Nelson Johnson, all survivors of the Greensboro Massacre, speak at Edwards Church of Northampton on Oct. 6, 2019, ahead of the 40th anniversary of the killings. —DUSTY CHRISTENSEN

  • The Rev. Nelson Johnson and his wife, Joyce, stand beside a 1979 photo of the “Greensboro Massacre” at the couple’s Faith Community Church in Greensboro, N.C., Aug. 16, 2017. AP FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 10/6/2019 11:28:55 PM

NORTHAMPTON — On Nov. 3, 1979, neo-Nazis and members of the Ku Klux Klan in Greensboro, North Carolina, shot and killed five labor organizers in what later became known as the Greensboro Massacre.

One of the five people killed during the massacre was Michael Nathan, the 32-year-old husband of Northampton physician Marty Nathan. And as the 40th anniversary of the massacre approaches next month, Nathan brought two fellow survivors of the attack to Edwards Church of Northampton for a day of commemoration and reflection on what lessons can be gleaned today from the Greensboro Massacre and the activist work its victims were engaged in.

“We have to figure out how to go across the generations and link together this struggle,” said Joyce Johnson, who together with her husband, Nelson Johnson, and Nathan spoke to a packed house on Sunday afternoon. “It is a river, and we have to make sure that river continues to flow.”

The Johnsons and Nathan have remained close in the wake of the killings, which occurred at a “Death to the Klan” march organized by the Communist Workers Party, which was helping mostly black textile workers in the region unionize.

At the rally, which began at a mostly black housing project in the city, KKK and Nazi Party members drove up, pulled rifles out of their cars and fired on protesters, some of whom fired back with handguns. In the end, five rally participants were killed and 10 others at the scene were wounded — events that happened in broad daylight and were captured on video by a local news crew.

Before Nathan and the Johnsons spoke on Sunday, they showed a short documentary about the massacre featuring that footage. The horrifying scenes show men with rifles gunning down the protesters, blood everywhere and police nowhere in sight.

Following the killings, two all-white juries found Klan and American Nazi Party members not guilty on criminal charges.

Survivors of the attack filed a civil lawsuit in 1980. The jury in the civil case found the Klan and Nazis liable for the killing of Nathan. The jury also found the Greensboro Police Department responsible for failing to act to prevent the violence.

It turned out that a Klan member had been an informant for the police, and had told police there was a possibility of white supremacist violence at the march. Police avoided the starting point of the march, despite that knowledge; a detective and police photographer were found to have followed the Klan there, but did nothing to prevent the attack.

“You see that we are teary-eyed, but we don’t apologize for those tears,” Joyce Johnson said, following the documentary. She said tears are a basis for growing “flowers of love.” “We have to touch our human spirits and not have these false presentations of bravado.”

Nathan said that she wanted to talk about the lessons learned from Greensboro because she had learned so much from the horror and pain of that day. She said she had learned that the wealthy owners of Greensboro’s textile mills, together with local law enforcement, “had the capacity to murder us in order to stop a movement that would cut into their profits.”

“We were there because we were demanding, lo and behold, that workers have the right to unionize,” she said.

Those same lessons can apply to the fight for climate justice today, as well as other current struggles for social justice, Nathan said.

“If we fight for change, as we absolutely must in this era for the survival of humanity … there will be repression because we are up against a system that lives and dies on profit and violence,” Nathan said.

Later in the event, Nelson Johnson encouraged people not to allow “the inevitable pushback” to stop them from working for justice.

“When you’re organizing and they attack you, don’t think so much in terms of defeat,” he said. If your work was meaningless, they wouldn’t be attacking you, he explained. “It is an affirmation of your work. You’re on the right track. Stay there, dig in, get more creative and keep on struggling.”

All three of the speakers said that the Greensboro Massacre is important to remember because white supremacist violence continues.

In 2004, local citizens organized a Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission to look into the massacre, and in 2006 the commission — which was modeled after similar efforts in South Africa and Peru — released its findings and recommendations.

Joyce Johnson said that since then, those who were involved in the commission have spoken with others — those impacted by a white supremacist’s killing of 22 people in El Paso in August, for example — about the possibility of doing similar work. Johnson said creating local truth and reconciliation commissions is something other communities should consider in order to address historical abuses.

“A lot of our localities have hidden histories that we refuse to look at,” she said. “It is not easy, but this type of thing must be done.”

“Truth processes can be helpful. They are not a silver bullet,” Nelson Johnson added, noting that the Greensboro City Council voted against endorsing the commission’s work. “We have to organize many different fronts.”

Nathan said that, for her, a big takeaway from her experience in Greensboro was the need to understand solidarity and human dignity, and the universal need that people have for both.

“I think that in these 40 years of Reaganism, and then Bushism and Clintonism — which threw everybody in jail — and now Trumpism, there have been a lot of substitutes for those things,” she said. “And I think that we have to go dig deep into them and figure out how to increase the level of community throughout our country so that we can deal with the problems that we have.”

Joyce Johnson also stressed the importance of close relationships to sustaining movements against everything from white supremacy and poverty to environmental destruction.

“Talk to your families, talk to your neighbors, people you work with, talk with your officials,” she said. “‘We the people,’ that’s real. We the people have the solutions if we walk toward each other.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.


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