TRNN Executive Producer Eddie Conway speaks with Pastor Nelson Johnson about the 1979 Greensboro massacre of five protestors and its connection to police violence today.
EDDIE CONWAY, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News. I’m Eddie Conway, and I’m down in Greensboro, North Carolina at the Beloved Community Center. This center, this organization has been fighting civil rights, black liberation, poverty, police struggles for the last 25 years, and this, Greensboro itself, is historically known as where the first sit-ins started at the Woolworth with the students sitting in, demanding a right to eat at the lunch counters, et cetera. Today Ms. Michelle Alexander is going to be here tonight to speak to the community, to an overflow crowd. Apparently there’s still people trying to get in. There’s no more room left. We’re going to cover that event, but I wanted to take a minute to look at this center and look at the people that were organizing this center and see what they are also doing in the community itself in Greensboro. NELSON JOHNSON: My name is Nelson Johnson. You’re in the Beloved Community Center. It’s also Faith Community Church. And this is a space and a place that engages with the injustices in our society and tries to grow our city into being a beloved community, for their has to be a molecule, DNA, a space and a place for this model, and we do that here. We are deeply engaged with the police, and we are fighting for accountability. There are so many of our young people who are being jailed on frivolous charges. We’ve been called to the police issue, perhaps, more than any other single issue. This is our chapel– CONWAY: –Okay. JOHNSON: In one sense it’s a multi-purpose room. We have worship space on the other end of the building, but we have a lot of meetings in here. These are just pictures reflecting our work over time. [AUDIO CLIP: Outside noise, indistinct voices] JOHNSON: This one to your right, here, is about the Truth and Reconciliation process, which was the first one of its kind in the United States that was modeled after international models. CONWAY: Oh, Bishop Tutu? JOHNSON: Bishop Tutu came over. Several members of the [crosstalk] South African commission– CONWAY: [interposing] –Is that him with you? JOHNSON: That’s Bishop Tutu here. These are some of the papers. After five people were killed in broad daylight, and the police gave the permit to the Klan and Nazis and then refused to come and to provide any protection, we didn’t know this was happening. It’s a long story, and a longer cover up story. That’s why this police issue is deadly. You cannot arm people, give them the authority to use their weapons and don’t have sufficient oversight. And they– CONWAY: –Okay. JOHNSON: –lie and get away with it. So that’s part of that whole story. CONWAY: Well, let me just go back, just about that particular story there. JOHNSON: It was an outrage, yeah. CONWAY: In a local trial and also in a federal trial they were found not guilty. JOHNSON: That’s right, and– CONWAY: Why? That puzzles me a little bit. JOHNSON: The atmosphere here was so thick with hatred. We had been doing some work, Marxists and the whole, communism was, it was like we were Pol Pot, Stalin, Mao Tse-tung in the worst presentation of each of them, rolled together in one, and the trial never was about the facts. It was about who we were, and in some sense the Klan and Nazis were [on] video with their guns, shooting into the crowd, killing the lead organizer at Haw River, killing the lead organizer at the textile mill plant, killing a Latino brother who was organizing non-academic workers at Duke, killing the former president of Bennett College student government Sandi Smith, who was organizing at a textile mill, and the doctor who was there to protect people was shot flush in the face. In terms of the Klan getting away, because the police were implicated in this, because they were, essentially organized a counter-demonstration [crosstalk] to attack the march. CONWAY: [interposing] Okay, yeah. JOHNSON: So the DA could not even call certain people to testify because they would have–So we had no real representation. CONWAY: Okay. JOHNSON: The district attorney was, because he was representing the state and the state was implicated, so that’s the short version of it. [AUDIO CLIP: Voices chanting, “Death to the Klan.” Gunshots, indistinct shouting] CONWAY: But I understand it took like, maybe decades for you to finally, you and other people to organize to get it recognized as a massacre. JOHNSON: Well, it was just recognized as a massacre less than a year ago. CONWAY: Okay. JOHNSON: In May of 2015. CONWAY: Okay, so that’s three decades at least[crosstalk, unintelligible]– JOHNSON: –That’s three decades. And actually, this was–I would not have believed that this could have happened in the city that I’ve lived in most of my adult life if I had not experienced it, and sometimes I’m reluctant to tell the story because it’s practically unbelievable that the police would give the Klan the parade permit, deny us the right to, [crosstalk] constitutional right– CONWAY: [interposing] –demonstrate– JOHNSON: –No. To have armed, the Klan leader came over, he got scared and said that, my people have machine guns, there’s going to be, this is not going to be good, I think you all should call it off, and the police refused to call it off, refused to tell us and refused to be there. So that was the ugly trinity of that day, and then they had to demonize me and us, because that’s the only way that you could get a verdict. When we finally had a trial we had no standing. They would not allow our lawyers to join the case, friend of the court, or whatever they call it. We then filed a civil case, and for the first time in the history of the United States police officers, Klan members and Nazi members were found jointly liable for wrongful death. By the way, it was one wrongful death. CONWAY: Yeah, and they paid that family. JOHNSON: And they paid that family, and he was the doctor, so it was clear that they [crosstalk] weren’t [unintelligible]– CONWAY: [interposing] –Was he white? JOHNSON: He was Jewish. CONWAY: Hmm, interesting. Okay, [crosstalk] okay. JOHNSON: And actually, there was one white, two Jews, one Latino and one Black kill. CONWAY: Okay. JOHNSON: So that’s what happened then, but each trial took six months, five to six months, so you can imagine the amount of falsehood and propaganda that could be, that lawyers could put out in a six month period, and we had three different trials. CONWAY: And I understand that there were children there all throughout the protest and rally. In fact, your children were there? JOHNSON: My two daughters were there. [crosstalk] They were– CONWAY: [interposing] –How old were they? JOHNSON: They were seven and eight. And there were lots of children there, and Sandi Smith, a Black woman, as I said she was the former student government president, she was doing her best to get the children behind the building, and she had put some of them back there, was coming back for more, and she was hit right between the eyes. All of it was painful, but Sandi’s mother dropped her off at our home, Joyce and myself, and we just felt so–It was hard to go to South Carolina and tell her that her daughter was killed. So, it was–But at the time, nobody really thought of us as humans, so nobody cried for you. CONWAY: Yeah. JOHNSON: They were constantly blaming and covering up, and that’s why this police issue is so central to our history here in Greensboro. We’ve found out that the lying and cover up is deeply embedded in the culture of the police department.
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