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Jacqueline Luqman talks with Rev. Nelson Johnson, one of the survivors of the Greensboro Massacre, about how knowing this history of white supremacist violence might have better prepared us for what we face today.

Story Transcript

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: This is Jacqueline Luqman with The Real News Network.

The nation was shocked at the right wing violence that resulted in the murder of Heather Heyer and injury of several other activists in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. But if we knew the history of right wing white supremacist violence in this country–the very recent history–perhaps we would not have been as surprised as we were.

SPEAKERS: Help us. Help us. Help us.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Here to talk to me today about that history that we should never forget, and why we should never forget it, is Reverend Nelson Johnson. Reverend Johnson is a survivor of the November 3rd attack by the Ku Klux Klan and American Nazi Party members on union and Communist Workers’ Party demonstrators, and is the current co-director of The Beloved Community Center in Greensboro, North Carolina. Reverend Johnson, thank you so much for joining me today.

REV. NELSON N. JOHNSON: Good to be with you.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: So the footage we just saw is of the massacre that I just introduced that so few people, even those people who are anti-racist and union activists today, especially the newly involved political, so few people are aware of what happened at the Greensboro Massacre. So can you tell us what happened in Greensboro, North Carolina 40 years ago on November 3rd?

REV. NELSON N. JOHNSON: Well, we were active union organizers in the textile industry, and we know that the rise of the Klan passing out literature saying that the union is just some way that black people are trying to get in charge of white people. And they were showing a movie. What’s that movie? Birth of A Nation. And we decided to oppose that. And we went down to China Grove and we did oppose it. There were a few policemen there, and nothing happened except we voiced our opposition to it. We planned a conference in Greensboro on November the 3rd, which was about four months later; 1979. We subsequently made a decision to have a march through the community that I had worked in for about 12 years and built seven grassroots organization. And we were bringing workers from around the state and some from Southern Virginia, and we were bringing together black and white workers and the community that we had been successfully organizing over a decade.

What we didn’t know is that the police, who delayed the parade permit and then gave it to the Klan and Nazis, and systematically made sure that they were not there when the Klan and Nazis came. They knew they had guns; they had an informant inside of the group. He actually got scared and told them that they should cancel it. Well, they didn’t cancel it, they didn’t inform us, and they didn’t show up at the march site and they didn’t stop on nine-car caravan that they saw the guns being put in and had been told that they were going to disrupt the march, and yet the police were nowhere to be found. Subsequently, five wonderful people and very good organizers were shot to death. Somewhere between eight and 10 people were wounded, including myself, and the police only showed up after most of the Klan caravan had left. They stopped one and that’s what happened on that day.

To make it more personal, Jim Waller, president of Hall River Union was shot in the back. Sandy Smith, the former student government president at Bennett College, and who was the lead organizer at the Revolution Cone Mill plant in Greensboro, shot between the eyes when she was trying to get children out of the line of fire, including myself and eight-year-old children. Bill Sampson shot through the heart; he was the chief organizer at the largest denim producing factory in the world. And Cesar Cauce shot through the heart; a worker at Duke–non-professional staff, cooks and so forth. And Michael Nathan, who was a doctor and who was attempting to come to the aid of the others was shot flush in the face.

Actually, because I negotiated the parade permit and the police required me to sign that, we would have no weapons conceal or otherwise. I asked him, do you know something I don’t know and he said, you have to sign this in order to get a parade permit and then within minutes after they gave me the parade permit, not on that same day they gave it to the Klan, I couldn’t get a copy of the parade permit or they had a policy to make it available in 72 hours. Well, almost two weeks had passed, and I hadn’t gotten it. We had people coming from all of these towns, so I held a press conference and demanded that they give us the parade, tell us why they weren’t going to give it to us and they came out and gave it to me and gave it to the Klan at the same time.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Goodness gracious. Reverend Johnson, I’m floored because there’s so much that you just conveyed that I didn’t even know, so let me try to make it clear for our viewers what you just said. You were an organizer with other union organizers in this town, in this southern region, and you were organizing black and white workers, domestic, non-professional garment workers, but just working class people across the spectrum and you were successful at it. You had built seven grassroots organizations and the Klan in 1979 their response to this coalition that was building successfully and growing between black and white workers was to not just protest the coalition but to show the film Birth of a Nation.

REV. NELSON N. JOHNSON: That’s right. And that was several months before the assassinations occurred–

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: I’m sorry, go ahead.

REV. NELSON N. JOHNSON: …And protested that. And then several months later we were having a conference that was going to be preceded by a march and that’s when they showed up and kill five people and wounded a number of others.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: So Reverend Johnson, you applied for a permit for, you know, public gathering. You were told that your group could not be armed, and they didn’t actually give you the permit. But then you hold a press conference in order to force the city to provide the permit cause you’re still trying to follow the rules. Then you find out that the Klan was also issued a permit. They were issued their permit on the same day that they were forced to give you a permit and then it comes out as this horror unfolds that the police all the time knew that the Klan was going to disrupt this event. Not only did they know that the Klan was going to disrupt this event, but they knew that the Klan was armed.

REV. NELSON N. JOHNSON: Well, armed… And let me clarify one thing.


REV. NELSON N. JOHNSON: They gave the Klan our permit.


REV. NELSON N. JOHNSON: Which show that we were compelled by the police to sign that we would be unarmed. We had a deep discussion about this the night before and I felt that the police, the Klan did not have a history of coming into a black community in the middle of the day where they knew the police would be there and they were unclear whether we would be armed or not. It is a constitutional right to be armed.


REV. NELSON N. JOHNSON: That actually set up the situation that unfold on that day. The police knew when they came into town, took pictures of them at a Klansman house a few miles out of town, saw them loading their guns in the car and drove from I-85 about four miles across town and the unmarked police car was behind them, didn’t call for any help, didn’t stop them carrying concealed weapons and didn’t informed us and later said that they were confused on the starting part of the march, even though they gave us the parade permit and nothing was changed. It was where it said it was going to be.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: So as this horrendous crime, these awful hateful murders unfold with an unmarked police car behind the caravan of Klan cars. You say that the police were nowhere to be found. They didn’t show up until when? When did you say the police showed up? Finally.

REV. NELSON N. JOHNSON: After eight of the nine caravan cars had left and the last one was slow leaving. That one is the one that they stopped. But I want to say that they not only knew it, that there was a police officer in the area, a woman named April Wise who was there on a domestic issue. She was called out of the area, so all the police were called out of the area and the police assigned to meet me, Lieutenant Hampton did not show up and instead he was a black man. He was replaced by two white men who didn’t show up and Hampton has gotten police chief jobs and at least three cities in three different States since then and we’ve learned through a third trial, by the way, to all white jurors, found the Klan not guilty of anything.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: That was my next question.


JACQUELINE LUQMAN: There was a trial, there was indeed a trial of these Klan members, so that means that someone was taken into custody, someone was charged, there was a trial and you just said an all-white jury found them not guilty.

REV. NELSON N. JOHNSON: All not guilty. There were three trials, two criminal trials. One was for murder, the other one was for violation of civil rights on murder they argued that they were simply defending themselves. On the civil rights case, which has to be rooted in racial animus, they didn’t actually say they didn’t do this, but they said it wasn’t based on race, it was based on communism. And so in some sense it was almost confessing that we had a right to come in and just shoot people because of the word communism.

And actually, before November 3 we were not called the communist workers party. We were going to announce it on that day. But all of that went by the wayside. You would not believe the level that this city went to demonize us and to cover up and lie and obfuscate. And it was only the third trial, which took place in 1985–this would have been about five and a half years after this North American death squad–that’s what I call it–facilitated by the police, including the FBI and BATF. And if we had time, we could go into that. Well, for the first time in the history of this nation, Klan members, police officers and Nazi members were found jointly liable for one death, and that was Dr. Michael Nathan, who was not a part about organization, but who was a friend offering medical services for that day.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Oh my gosh, you’re right. I wish we had time to go into all of that and I just may have to ask you to come back and talk about this some more because I’m thinking about these three trials now, Reverend Johnson, and how these Klan members who admitted to committing these murders were actually captured on tape. The footage that we saw in the beginning of this interview is actually from news footage from that day.

REV. NELSON N. JOHNSON: There were four television cameras there who had no problem finding the location. It was the police who said that they got confused on where the march was going to start, even though they issued the parade permit. It is absolutely absurd. The kind of cover stories and demonization and the weaving together of a false narrative that actually was consumed by the majority of people, a significant minority of people in Greensboro. And I would say this: of all the people in the United States who heard of this, the people who would be most confused would be in Greensboro because it rained down falsehoods and on demonization such as my two daughters were there, they were seven and eight years old. Sandy got shot while she was trying to get them to cover and they said that we had gone mad and we hope to have some sensational shootout with the Klan that would include getting ourselves and perhaps our children killed.


REV. NELSON N. JOHNSON: And actually this is, I’m saying this, seeing our nation creep in that direction now.


REV. NELSON N. JOHNSON: But I would not have believed that a city of over 250,000 people could be that misled but now I know that initial can be that misled if we don’t find ways to actually bend the moral such that truth and falsehood are not conflated and confusion does not abound. That justifies this kind of balance.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: And I’m so glad you mentioned how you’re seeing this nation creep back toward this type of blind racist hysteria as we think about all of the unarmed black and native and innocent people who are shot by the police and captured on video or who are assaulted by white supremacists and it’s captured on video and people in this country, a large segment of this country still goes with the narrative of, well, we don’t know everything that happened and so this massacre is evidence that this is not new. This phenomenon that we’re seeing today is not new. But I want to ask you Reverend Johnson about what’s going on now in Greensboro because you and your family you stayed in Greensboro and you are challenging the city for what? What are you challenging the city? What are you demanding from Greensboro right now?

REV. NELSON N. JOHNSON: We are demanding a full throated apology from the city. We’ve actually built effective coalitions since then. For a while we were isolated. I was put in jail on one point on twice the bond of the Klan. They were in jail on $50,000 for murder. I was in jail on $100,000 because I was accused of cursing in public.


REV. NELSON N. JOHNSON: And but fortunately the judge was a black woman and she threw it out. So it was only for a day or two that I was in that pink suit but right now we believe that we have to fight for the truth, and we had a truth commission here, bishop Tutu came over, work with us. We convened seven truth commissions from around the world in 2006 after our truth process, but right now you see the people gathered here for the 40th anniversary and we are getting people all over the nation to write to the Greensboro City Council and demand a full apology.

I’m proud to say that I our mayor pro tem, who is a black woman, gave that apology but not on behalf of the city she did it on behalf of herself when we had a religious service as the last activity of the 40th anniversary, but the city council must now name specifically what the police did, how they did it, and why they did it, and they have to fold in the FBI and the BATF. Otherwise, we can’t correct this and we can’t use it as an alarm to the nation to say that this is where this goes until truth is unhooked from falsehood and confusion doesn’t block clarity because without truth and clarity, people are disarmed and confused and bumping into each other and using race as the principle instrument to do that.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Again, Reverend Johnson, I wish we had just an inexhaustible amount of time to continue talking about this issue in this continued work but I do want to say this, I am honored that you are continuing to do this work, but I’m also appalled as a black woman and as a journalist that 40 years from an incident that was facilitated by law enforcement that resulted in the murders of innocent people, that you still have to fight for this, that you still have to fight for this.

REV. NELSON N. JOHNSON: We have to fight. We have the fight and we’re going to fight this fight in Greensboro, but we hope that we can be an inspiration to the nation. It’s not like this is just something that happened to people who use the word communism. We no longer use that word, but if you fight against the concentration of political power and the concentration of money, people are going to oppose you. And we have to actually struggle against that and restructure the whole society so that people are not wallowing in the obscenity of too much but other people are sleeping on tattered rags and under bridges and in boxes, that has no place in a society that has the capacity to create the wealth that this nation has created. And it’s obscene, it’s sinful, and it has to end.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Reverend Johnson, I thank you so much. You and your wife and your family and your comrades and the citizens of Greensboro for continuing this fight for continuing to uphold this truth but thank you in particular for coming and speaking with me today about.

REV. NELSON N. JOHNSON: And thank you so much for what you do. You a microphone to help amplify voices all over the nation.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Reverend Johnson, I just have to end with this. We struggle to win.

REV. NELSON N. JOHNSON: That’s right.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: And with that, I am Jacqueline Luqman. And this is The Real News Network in Baltimore.

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Jacqueline Luqman is a host and producer for TRNN. With more than 20 years as an activist in Washington, DC, Jacqueline focuses on examining the impact of current events and politics on Black, POC, and other marginalized communities in the US and around the world, providing a specific race and class analysis at the root of these issues. She is Editor-In-Chief and a co-host of the social media program Coffee, Current Events & Politics in Luqman Nation with her husband, and is active in the faith-focused progressive/left activist community.