THIS DAY IN HISTORY, November 3rd 1979
THE GREENSBORO MASSACRE
by Meg Langford
I suppose it started with hearing Buttcrack Boy (I’m sure he has name, but there are some things you just can’t unsee) bellow about “Niggers!’, loud and ugly, right there in the Appomattox McDonald’s. And what was creepier, even, than his epithet, was the casual non-reaction of the Appomatoxins all around him. Meanwhile, the tourists and their little tourist children were of course horrified. For the next two years, I took a daily bath of bigotry, ugly and toxic, as it spewed out from the town, until I could save the money to get me and my business the hell out of there.
That bitterness (and expense) caused me to take a serious look at the history of racism in Appomattox, and then the South in general, and then the country writ large. I’ve been digging into it for years now, on an almost daily basis.
And trust me, when activists screech that there is systemic and systematic racism in America, particularly within the police force from sea to shining sea, they are right. With a military dad I grew up with Republican leanings. Still have ‘em. I have seen enough crises around the world to believe in a strong military, because trust me, given the slightest chance, people will steal your shit. And that goes for countries. And I spent enough time in LA, nearly two decades, to know that there are so many people grifting the welfare system, it's amazing there’s anything left for those truly in need. So I get nervous about excessive government giveaways.
That said, not a week goes by when my morning perusal of what happened This Day In History (history.com and Wikipedia being my two jumping off points) doesn’t lead me to some stunning and sobering anniversary: Over coffee I sadly remember that it is the anniversary of the death of Emmit Till, or the three civil rights workers, or the dragging death of James Byrd--or even the forgotten but no less tragic ones like Jesse Washington, Mary Turner, Bernard Bailey, Keith Warren. I could go on and on ...
That leads us to today. November 3rd. The Greensboro Massacre. I remind us of this forgotten day not just to remember the dead, but to drive home the point that as recently as 1979, long after the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and long after our country surviving the tumultuous freedom marches and Democratic convention riots and assassinations of the late 60’s, still, still outrageous derailments of justice were going on. It was Klanish, it was defiant, it was in your face, and anybody who loves this country should still be really pissed off about it. Particularly “the Law and Order Party”. The incidents which took place before, during, and after the Greensboro Massacre are a vile repudiation of Law and Order. Incidents like this one make a mockery of the founding principles of this country, and threaten its very underpinnings: justice can be tossed off whenever the locals decide they want to trash it. So Sean, Bill, Rush, Megyn, Ann: why don’t you take a few moments and publicly mourn the loss of these idealistic Communists? Or is murder only a problem for you when it happens to Republicans?
The particulars are as follows (and yes, this is abbreviated greatly so as to whet your appetite for more):
A group of Communists wanted to stage a “Death to the Klan” rally in Greensboro, North Carolina. A bit of a radical rallying cry, yes, but I don’t think they meant it literally. Calling for the death of an organization is not inciting folks to murder humans, the Supreme Court’s dopey decision that a corporation is a person notwithstanding. It’s fucking metaphor, for chrissake.
But the Klan felt threatened. Their best plan: shoot first, ask question la--well actually they didn’t ask any questions. The Klan hardly ever asks questions. It just spews dogma and thinks it has all the answers.
Once the demonstration was well underway, a Karavan of Klan Klown Kars began moving through the rally, making their presence known. Things got ugly, and that’s when Klansmen got out of their vehicles and began shooting.
And you know who these beefhead Klansmen shot? Five souls: A graduate of Harvard Divinity School. A Cuban immigrant who had graduated magnum cum laude from Duke University. A nurse, Sandi Smith, who had been working doggedly to get Cone Mills and J.P. Stevens, two textile mills in the Greensboro area, to stop using dangerous chemicals in their plants and to upgrade decrepit machinery. And two doctors. One who was a local union organizer also trying to get the mills to apply safety standards--he quit his medical practice to work at the mill and effect this change, but when the mill found out he had medical experience, they fired him. And lastly one doctor, who was Chief of Pediatrics at a local hospital., and who specialized in children from poor homes who couldn’t afford proper care. (Talk about only the good they die young. CUE MUSIC: Dion singing “Abraham, Martin and John.”)
FULL DISCLOSURE: When the Klan caravan began moving through the protest, some demonstrators did start hitting one of the Klan’s car with sticks, so they have their share of blame in escalating the violence. Two rebuttals. ONE: If you look at the history of the Klan in North Carolina, it is easy to understand why the protestors’ rage exploded like this. TWO: America is now becoming the world capital in Escalating Things Into Shooting Rampages. Why couldn’t the Klansmen have just sped away? And it’s not like they turned and shot the person banging on the car. They shot--well, you just read the list. The nurse, for example, was shot when she peeked up from behind a large bush where she was hiding, waiting for the shooting to stop. It is a generally established fact that unarmed people peeking from behind shrubbery are not a threat to someone. Especially a someone who is wielding a large shotgun.
It is also worth noting that a lot of children were a part of that crowd into which the Klan was firing. As if their short stature weren’t enough to suggest that they were, well, innocents, the fact that they were all wearing little red berets should have been a tip off. But the Klan kept shooting anyway, yelling “NIGGER!” and “KIKE!”, right into the crowd with all the kids.
Because television news networks were there, we have preserved for posterity footage of the slaughter. Note the heavily armed Klansmen exit the power blue Ford Fairlane (gorgeous 60’s vintage ride, by the way) and begin the carnage:
OR YOUTUBE SEARCH “GREENSBORO MASSACRE”
AND EVEN WORSE: The police knew this was going to happen. And even though their monitoring/intervention in similar clashes between the same (kinds of) parties had kept the violence to a minimum, they made a conscious choice not to get involved in this one. Although a week before the demonstration they had given the Klan a map of the planned route. When they day came, the police were there, watching from a distance. After the slaughter, the Klan calmly loaded their weapons back up in the trunks of their cars, giving the police plenty of time to close in and arrest them. But they didn’t. The police didn’t arrest them. They didn’t even follow the getaway cars. Some months later, in a deposition, former Greensboro police officer April Wise testified that she and another officer were ordered by a police dispatcher to leave the rally-staging area shortly before the shooting began. And the FBI informant who was supposed to provide evidence of the Klan meeting where the attack was planned later testified that he forgot to put fresh batteries in his tape recorder. One wonders how high up the apathy goes.
THE UPSHOT: Even though it was all captured on film and they knew who did it, the all white jury acquitted every single defendant. The jury was even allowed to wear their Klan hoods during the trial. Just kidding. Wanted to see if you were paying attention. But my point is they might as well have been wearing their hoods. Forty Klansmen were found to have been involved, and nobody got one single slap on the wrist. You see, a couple of the protestors were carrying weapons (although they hadn’t been given legal permits to do so,) because they feared Klan trouble, plus the Klan always defied the law in that same manner and the weapons might come in handy. So these guns were fired by the protesters after the Klan opened fire on the crowd. Hence, the verdict: The Klan had fired in self-defense. (!)
Among the jurors rationalization for their verdict: some of them were particularly disturbed by the rude demonstrations going on during the trials.
Virgil Griffin, a Ku Klux Klan leader who would later, in 1990, bring Klan marches to Washington D.C., was both proud and matter-of-factly about his participation in the Massacre: “I don’t see any difference between killing Communists in Vietnam and killing them over here.”
Frazier Glenn Miller, a North Carolina Klan leader and U.S. Army veteran, who was right in the thick of things that deadly day, remarked soon after the incident: “I was more proud to have been in Greensboro for eighty-eight seconds in 1979 than 20 years in the U.S. Army.” He wrote a little epistle about his memories of that day: “My fear quickly turned to burning hatred, and I stuck my head out the window and screamed back at them, "Niggers, Jew-Kikes, Communist bastards... you ugly Jew Yankee bastards... Death to the Communists." And then he testifies to jumping out of the vehicle he was in and running through the melee swinging his nightstick. It’s too bad that justice wasn’t served on Frazier in some fashion. Then he might have been in jail, or would have had reason to think twice about his 2014 shooting and killing of three people at a Jewish Community Center , one of them a 14 year old boy. He was shouting “Sieg Heil” the entire time he opened fire, by the way. It’s a sad story of how the lack of justice in one year--or one decade or one century--can spiral into even more tragedy and injustice in the next. What is that Santayana quotation we’ve all come to know too well: “Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it ..”
CUT TO: 2004. A group of citizens, both black and white, attempted to form the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Committee. This was an idea that had worked well elsewhere: South Africa comes to mind. Also the citizens of Mississippi had done a sterling job with such a committee in getting the evil Ray Killen, mastermind behind the murder of the three Civil Rights workers, life behind bars. It was a delicious moment in jurisprudence, especially as decades had passed, and Killen was cocksure that he had gotten away with it. The idea behind the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Committee was not to stir up old tragedies; no monies would be involved and there would be no legal penalties rendered on any persons. The idea was simple and purely to cleanse the name of Greensboro by acknowledging the errors of the past and coming clean with the truth. Long story short: didn’t go so well. The Mayor was not interested. And the Greensboro City Council voted 6-3 against it, with the “Yea” votes coming from the only three African Americans on the Council. Without this endorsement, there was no funding; more importantly, because they were not endorsed, they lost the power to subpoena witnesses and participants.
Oh Well. The end.
Again, I say cue Dion singing “Abraham Martin and John” Always a favorite. Feeling a little misty.
Blogger Meg Langford is the author of “Wigger: Little Book of Bigots” and “The Little Book of Lynching” The tragically necessary 2nd edition of “ The Little Book of Lynching” should be available on Amazon in December, 2015.