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Coming to Terms with Klan/Nazi Shootings


Greensboro News Record; Greensboro, N.C.; Oct 21, 1999;

by Edward Cone

The most violent moment in Greensboro history occurred 20 years ago next month in the streets outside Morningside Homes. Five people were gunned down on that November morning, killed over race and politics.

What happened next was equally appalling: the assailants, though caught on film as they opened fire, were never truly brought to justice. And the people of Greensboro, for the most part, never looked back.

Even today, many of us remain blase or defensive about the events of Nov. 3, 1979, when members of the Klu Klux Klan and American Nazi party calmly fired into a crowd of demonstrators organized by the Communist Workers Party. We are quick to brush off the massacre as a confrontation between two fringe groups (a curse on both their houses) to which the city was just an innocent bystander. Those people weren't even from here, we say. Let's talk about the Woolworth sit-ins or the Underground Railroad instead.

I heard myself saying it all again recently when a colleague from California brought up the subject: Greensboro, isn't that the place where...? Yes, but. As I explained it away, though, let my hometown off the hook once more on the technicalities, I thought, this is not enough.

There are some truths to be found in our civic culture of denial, some legitimate distance to be put between our pleasingly dull city and the violent anachronisms who traveled here to kill a bunch of less-well-armed anachronisms. And perhaps we were wise, for a while, to let wounds heal and time pass before we considered this terrible thing too closely.

Even history conspired to muffle the impact of those gunshots: the storming of the American embassy in Tehran happened the next day, and the world's attention was drawn away from our bloodstained streets to Iran and the interminable hostage crisis.

So why does it matter now? To deny the relevance of what happened here to the way we live today is to wish away reality. It matters because long before Waco or Ruby Ridge, local and federal law- enforcement agencies played a role in the deaths of civilians that has never been fully answered for (the City of Greensboro paid damages in a civil suit for its shameful role in the affair). It matters because violence is still seen as a solution for too many problems by too many Americans.

It matters because people died here at the hands of their fellow citizens, and no criminal charges could be made to stick to the perpetrators, and that is a stain on our honor. It matters because a watered-down version of the racial tension that helped fuel the massacre still simmers beneath the surface of Guilford County politics and because so much of the rhetoric in our political dialogue is ugly and mean.

It's hard to drum up much sympathy for the politics espoused by the dead, but in America you're supposed to be able to hold unpopular ideas without getting shot. It's easy to question the CWP's plan to hold a confrontational "Death to the Klan" rally, but in America everyone is supposed to be able to gather and to expect the full protection of the law. Those are the basic values mocked by the Klan/Nazi shootings and their aftermath.

What is to be done about the past is a more complex question. There will be articles and speeches and panel discussions and prayers to commemorate the anniversary in the weeks ahead. A play about the events, Emily Mann's "Greensboro: A Requiem," will be performed at UNCG. Maybe some of these things will speak to you, or maybe you will find a way of your own to mark the moment and think about what it still means.

There is a sense of something unresolved in the way Greensboro looks at this piece of its past, and that is because the past is unresolved. If we don't come to terms with what happened then, we can't deal with what's happening now.

Edward Cone is a News & Record columnist.

© Copyright 2003 Ed Cone.
Last update: 1/16/2003; 5:58:21 PM.

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