JoAnn Wypijewski: America’s first Truth and Reconciliation Commission is attempting to get North Carolina to face what really caused the 1979 Greensboro Massacre

Roundup: Talking About History

GREENSBORO, NORTH CAROLINA. A highway sign on the edge of town along I-85 welcomes motorists to Guilford County, “North Carolina’s Future.” The motto distills the story that the county, especially the county seat of Greensboro, and particularly its better-off white people, has told about itself since Jim Crow days, a story of Greensboro as vanguard of the New South, bustling, progressive, “on the move” in all ways, including those of racial “tolerance.” Greensboro’s school board was the first in the South to formally endorse desegregation, the day after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision. Years earlier, when the polio epidemic of 1947- 48 hit Guilford County more severely than any area of the country, the political powers mobilized to build a convalescent hospital in 95 days and to suspend the rules of race, admitting black and white children, hiring an interracial medical staff, and providing equal treatment. That testament to enlightened can-doism is memorialized in photos at the Greensboro Historical Museum, which also houses the stools from which four young black men launched the sit-in movement at a lunch counter here on February 1, 1960. By July 25 of that year, blacks in the city had won the right to pay money for food and drink, just like whites, at counters in Woolworth’s, S.H. Kress, and Meyer’s department stores. A visitor today can stroll along South Elm Street, past flowering crape myrtle in this pleasantly semi-preserved downtown, and come to the intersection of what is now February One Place, where the handsome art deco F.W. Woolworth building is under renovation to become a civil rights museum.

Like all convincing tales, the story of white Greensboro is just true enough to be believable. Like the simplest happy-ender, though, indeed like America’s official civil rights story, it admits of no past offense that cannot be packaged into an edifying moral. Something was bound to mess it up.

The Greensboro Massacre, on November 3, 1979, should have done the job. It was one of the worst homicidal racial and political assaults of the era, but as one volunteer at the historical museum told me, “You won’t find anything about that in here.” None of the 60 historical markers that dot the county commemorate it, and at the site where it occurred, the streets have since been rerouted, names changed so the bloodiest intersection no longer exists. For the past year a public revisitation of the massacre has sought to unlock the box of silence, and in so doing to challenge the process by which white power here has traditionally assured itself that everything is running right.

At 11:23 on that sunny November morning, about 40 members of the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party, mustered in a caravan of gun-laden vehicles, opened fire on black and white demonstrators at the Morningside Homes housing project, while four television news teams and one police officer recorded the action. People ran screaming for cover. When the shooting ceased, four were dead and 11 wounded, one mortally, their bodies strewn about the project as if on a battlefield. One of the dead, a local woman named Sandi Smith who’d been active in the black student movement and was at the time trying to unionize textile workers, was shot between the eyes when she peeked out of a hiding place. The demonstrators had been gathering for a permitted march and rally rhetorically declaring “Death to the Klan” and organized by the Workers Viewpoint Organization (WVO), which was active in the poor neighborhoods and mills of a region then dominated by textiles. It advocated antiracism, unionism, and communist revolution, all abhorred by the Klan, with which it had previously clashed, yet a police lieutenant posted his men out of sight of the demonstration and then permitted them to take a break until 11:30....

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