I was watching a little late night television this weekend when I passed by the History Channel, which was re-running their documentary KKK: A Secret History. As the film was winding to a close, the story eventually found its way to one of the most troubling pieces of film footage I know, one that continually haunts me to this day.
I was raised on picket lines; Two of my parents were school teachers in Flint, MI (the home of the modern Union movement in many ways) and in the late-1970's and early 1980's, teacher strikes were not at all uncommon. Of course, living in a community that was deeply committed to Union organizing, the safety of the picket was unquestioned; I even had my first kiss on the picket line. It wasn't until I saw Barbara Kopple's stunning Harlan County U.S.A, where a company employee fires a gun on a coal miner's picket line, that I understood the reality of political action like a strike or a picket or protest. That film shook me deeply as a teenager. It's one of those cinematic moments you always remember and was, for me, a deep political awakening that reached its apotheosis in the footage of The Greensboro Massacre.
On November 3rd, 1979, members of the Maoist Communist Worker's Party (CWP) were preparing to stage an anti-KKK rally and march in a poor, African-American neighborhood in Greensboro, NC. The CWP was active in the area and trying to organize local textile workers into a union, and as such, were deeply unpopular among local authority figures for their militant actions in the community. As the CWP were preparing thier 'Death To The Klan' rally, a caravan of Klansmen and members of the American Nazi Party showed up to heckle and disrupt the march. The members of the CWP began attacking the caravan with heavy lumber until, despite having the ability to drive away safely, members of the Klan reached into the trunk of one of the cars and produced fire arms, opened fire on the demonstrators and killed five people. This tragic encounter is like a ghost for me, a signpost for all of the changes this country has undergone in the last twenty-seven years and this year, stumbling upon the memory once again, it is just one more reminder for me to get my ass to a voting booth this Tuesday and pull the lever with extra vigor.
I have seen the infamous footage several times and I always find it terrifying; Two militant groups, one deeply experienced with violence and terror, the other an extension of 1970's radicalism that had more bark than bite (in most cases) and not a single police officer, federal agent or public official within a quarter mile of the confrontation. How could this happen?
Warning: Violent, deeply troubling images contained within...
The more I learn about the tragic violence, the more I understand the context of the clash and the more I see the tragedy as completely preventable. The CWP had disrupted a KKK rally earlier in the summer and had made threatening, violent overtones in the press toward the Klan, a Klan informant for the police department was given a copy of the CWP parade permit, allowing the KKK access to inside information about the staging area, the CWP's plans and the fact that, in order to receive the permit, the CWP members had to agree to march unarmed. While that point seems obvious to me, I discovered that most marches were populated by many people carrying firearms, which was allowed under North Carolina law (the law has since changed as a result of the massacre). Also, one would imagine that if the police knew about the hostilities between the Klan and the CWP, knew that their informant within the KKK had obtained information about the rally and knew of the Klan's plans (and had actually organized the group to disrupt the rally), and had granted a permit to the CWP to march (depite the CWP's virulently anti-police attitude) that the police would show up and defend the rights of the CWP to free speech and at the very least inform the CWP that the Klan was preparing to disrupt the rally. That is, certainly, the responsibility of the police. Instead, law enforcement stayed several blocks away and were not on the scene when the violence broke out. Having several news crews on on hand, clearly capturing what happened that day, juries ultimately acquited all parties in the massacre as acting in self-defense.
In the years following the massacre and the acquittals, outrage and anger remained within Greensboro, culminating in one of the most interesting social projects in recent American history. Taking their lead from South Africa's post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the citizens of Greensboro formed their own; The Greensboro Truth And Reconciliation Commission was the first Truth and Reconciliation Commission ever established in the United States. Their final report (available on their website and just released on May 25, 2006) is a fascinating document and I encourage those interested in the history of this terrible event to read it. It provides a clear portrait of not only the context of the tragedy, but of the way in which the community responded to the terrible events of that day. Also, there is an interesting film from 2002 about the event and its deeply unsettling legacy, Greensboro's Child, which aired this weekend on local Greensboro Public Access TV and is available in its entirety on-line. If history is written by the winners, what does the silence and collective ignorance about The Greensboro Massacre mean to us today?
Dr. James Waller
Dr. MIchael Nathan