Greensboro leaders clash over marker for 1979 Klan-Nazi shootout

by Jeff Sykes

Hightower debates Wilkins over the 1979 marker.

View the letter from the NC Department of Cultural ResourcesView the council agenda items including the application and letters of support.The lingering racial divide over the 1979 Klan-Nazi shootout in Greensboro widened on Thursday as city council clashed in an ugly debate over 20 words on an historical marker to be erected 100 feet from the site where five people were shot to death.With Mayor Nancy Vaughan absent for the first half of the council’s work session, it fell to Mayor pro-temp Yvonne Johnson to direct the meeting.After Michael Hill, from the state’s Historical Marker Advisory Committee, explained the application process for the marker, council members Tony Wilkins and Zack Matheny clashed with Sharon Hightower over the marker’s wording.The debate was tense, with Johnson at one point having to admonish Matheny for talking over Hightower and Wilkins repeatedly interrupting the first-term African American female who herself showed little signs of backing down.Lewis Brandon, a board member at the Beloved Community Center in Greensboro, submitted the application in December. It was the second application for an historical marker referencing the worst moment in Greensboro’s history. On Nov. 3, 1979 a group of communists who had been organizing workers at Cone Mills’ White Oak Plant planned a “Death to the Klan” rally in Morningside Homes, a mostly black housing community just east of Downtown Greensboro. The group, affiliated with the Communist Workers Party, had agitated Klu Klux Klan members in nearby counties earlier that year, having shouted them down at a Klan event in China Grove weeks before.Klan members from outside of Greensboro drove into the city on the morning of Nov. 3, 1979. After a parade of cars carrying Klan members drove past the rally site, words were exchanged, with CWP members at times beating on the cars. The following moments were captured on video and show in chilling detail Klan members exiting their cars and gunning down CWP members in the street. Five CWP organizers were killed, most of them unarmed, although investigation showed at least one CWP member himself had a gun.Greensboro has been divided over the event for the last 36 years, mostly along racial lines, as no one was ever held accountable for the massacre. Despite the fact that most of those involved in the violence were from outside of Greensboro, one man’s involvement in the incident keeps it an open sore in the city’s body politic.Nelson Johnson, who had a history of civil rights activism in the city before becoming a member of the CWP, survived the shooting. He was arrested moments after the gunfire subsided and his friends lay dying in the street, because police said he was inciting a riot with his emotional reaction to the trauma.Johnson has gone on to become a religious leader, a pastor and arguably the most prominent figure in Greensboro in the last 35 years. A founder of the Beloved Community Center, most anything he involves himself in is automatically opposed by the city’s white elite.Despite the fact that the shooting has been widely remembered via history books and multiple documentary movies, two white members of the city council objected vehemently to the idea of a highway marker to commemorate the site in East Greensboro.Hill, from the state marker committee, said that a previous application in 2011 had been rejected as incomplete. Brandon’s application contained an essay on the event, a petition with 43 signatures in favor, and letters of support from state NAACP President William Barber, Bishop A.C. Marble, and Greensboro city council members Hightower and Johnson, themselves prominent figures in the city’s African American community.Council member Wilkins seized on this in his opening salvo of the debate that followed.”So on this council the request came from Mrs. Johnson and Hightower?” Wilkins asked. Johnson immediately corrected him.”No, we didn’t request it. We were called and asked if we would write a letter of support for it, not a request to do it,” Johnson, who is often the most serene and mildly spoken leader in Greensboro, responded.Hightower, who in her first year on council has proven to be tenacious and unwilling to be ignored, explained her motivation for the letter of support. The events happened, people were killed, and the city experienced a Truth and Reconciliation Commission process that ended with the city making a concession that the incident occurred, she said.”I felt that it was necessary to support that. They wanted to make an historical marker to remember the event,” Hightower said. “This request came from the community of whom was impacted by the incident and so I support it wholeheartedly to recognize and remember the events that occurred.”At that point Wilkins asked Hill if the council would get to vote on the issue. Before Hill could answer Hightower asked Wilkins “do we need your permission?”Hill said his presentation was for informational purposes, but that his supervisors wanted to make clear that the marker would not be placed “over the objection” of city council. He cited a marker proposed in 1986 to commemorate labor unrest near Gastonia during the Depression era. That marker was opposed in 1986, but erected 27 years later after a mill there was redeveloped.”With the passage of time, attitudes change,” Hill said. “We do have a generational, a 25-year waiting rule that generally applies.” Hill said an exception was made for the 20th anniversary of the Sit In Movement in Greensboro because of the political interest at the time and Governor Jim Hunt’s backing.”We have made that exception, but we generally wait 25 years, and as has been pointed out, this was 36 years ago.”Council member Matheny said he had looked over Brandon’s application and felt it was historically one-sided. Matheny said his first job in Greensboro was at the White Oak plant, and that his office was next to the historical museum in the plant mentioned in Brandon’s summary.”There’s not much highlighting of the communist social workers that were infiltrating the White Oak plant and therefore, based on what I see and what this decision was made on, you really don’t have factual information,” Matheny said. “When you really look at Nov. 3, 1979 you have to go back and look at what happened before Nov. 3, 1979. In my opinion this doesn’t do justice to what is actual factual history.”Matheny said the marker was an attempt by Nelson Johnson to “rewrite history.””I don’t agree with it. If y’all want to have a sign up that glorifies something that’s not factual … I don’t have a vote but I do have a voice to say that to me this is another attempt by Mr. Johnson … to rewrite history and quite frankly it’s another shameful attempt and I’m disappointed because I know a lot more history that led up to Nov. 3, 1979 and there were some groups that were left out,” Matheny said. Hightower asked Hill who developed the wording on the marker. Hill said he worked with historical marker committee staff to develop the wording based on the historical record.”When you wrote up this statement, the content, is this what happened?” Hightower said. “Did the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party members on Nov. 3 shoot and kill five CWP members? It doesn’t say Nelson. It doesn’t say anybody. It says they killed five communist party members.”Hill said the facts on the marker were solid.”I would welcome anyone to try and challenge those facts,” he said. “That’s what it recognizes, the people who were assassinated,” Hightower said. Hill pointed out that the marker is meant to be read by motorists passing in cars and not meant as a memorial.”The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, they called for a larger memorial. This is not that,” Hill said. “Other plaques, other monuments contextualizing the events, this is not that. This is a highway sign with the facts.”Wilkins then pushed back against Hightower’s perspective.”I think it’s ridiculous that council member Hightower would imply that three lines told that story,” Wilkins said. “You can’t tell that story in three lines and I am so disappointed that this council does not have a decision in something that’s going to be so controversial, that has been controversial for the last 36 years. It’s ridiculous that we don’t have a say in this decision.”Hill reiterated that the marker would not be placed over the objections of council and he noted several other markers related to dark periods in the state’s history, including the Wilmington race riots, the eugenics movement, Klan activity in the 1870s and the labor unrest in Gastonia that left a chief of police, and many others, dead.City manager Jim Westmoreland sought to move beyond the contention by saying staff would prepare an item for the Feb. 3 city council meeting, but the argument was yet to reach its heights.”So what I’m ridiculously saying is that this is a true statement,” Hightower said. “It’s a true statement of an event that occurred, like it or not.”Wilkins interrupted Hightower to ask, “How does this help Greensboro?””You think this would be a positive thing for Greensboro?” Wilkins asked.”It’s a true statement. The Sit In Movement was a true statement. Was it positive? No. Four people had to sit down to get served.”Matheny then also interrupted Hightower, at which point Johnson admonished him to “let her finish.””The fact of the matter is that things have occurred in this community, in this United States, that we simply can’t turn a blind eye to,” Hightower said. “They may not have impacted you, but they impacted some, and those some are just as important in this community as others.”Things cooled down from there, with Matheny and council member Jamal Fox urging folks to work together to heal the community. But it was Marikay Abuzuaiter who raised the bar even higher.”Sometimes the back and forth get’s a little overbearing,” she observed. “It’s hard to sit here when you’ve seen those council members get along famously before and all of a sudden they are at each other’s throats.”Abuzuaiter recounted her experience of the events in 1979, saying she was at home with a small child and was terrified, along with the rest of the city.”It’s something I will never forget,” she said. “I don’t think this pushes it in my face to remember it everyday. It’s something that we have to admit happened. This was a terrible time in Greensboro, but look how far we’ve come since then.”Beyond that, Abuzuaiter said, the marker was important because it acknowledge the end result of the events.”Those are facts that happened and many of us remember those facts that happened,” she said. “You don’t have to give an entire history book on what led up to it, who was involved, how many people came into town that day. This is a factual statement. The day that we stop saying that factual statements can be expressed or can be put on a plaque is the day that freedom of speech is gone.”