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Two takes on the Greensboro massacre

Speakers at this year’s South By Southwest received a pass that allowed admission to all interactive sessions as well as all film sessions, which gave the geeks a chance to see what a film festival looks like. It also gave me a chance to catch two documentaries in two nights, a rare privlege, and to encounter a film provocative enough that it got me to watch an additional documentary last night.

The first film I caught was the premiere of What Would Jesus Buy?, the story of performance activist “Reverend” Billy Talen’s quest to decomercialize Christmas. Backed by a gospel choir, the Reverend Billy preaches the gospel of The Church of Stop Shopping in churches, malls and parking lots around America, leading to an anti-shopping rally in Disneyland on Christmas Day. Predictably, he gets arrested a lot. It runs very close to being a one-joke story, but the earnestness and commitment of the 30+ choir members made the film work for me, and it was a treat to watch the choir members perform live at the end of the film.

While WWJB gathered a huge crowd at the Paramount theatre downtown (no doubt due in part to the involvement of producer Morgan Spurlock of “Supersize Me” fame), another premiere Rachel and I attended had a much sparser crowd. “Greensboro: Closer to the Truth” is Adam Zucker’s film about a little-known chapter of recent American history: the Greensboro Massacre.

In the late 1970s, a group of activists in Greensboro began working in the Cone Textile mill, attempting to organize textile workers to lobby for better wages. The interracial group of activists also challenged racism and bigotry, which put them in conflict with the Ku Klux Klan, which was alive and well in North Carolina at that point. In July of 1979, the Klan held a showing of the notorious pro-Klan film “Birth of a Nation” – the Greensboro activists held a noisy protest at the site of the screening, disrupting the event.

On November 3, 1979 the activists held a march in Greensboro titled “Death to the Klan”. Starting in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Greensboro, marchers planned to travel through the city, waving signs and singing. Shortly after the march began, a caravan of cars and trucks carrying Klan members and neo-Nazis arrived. Activists began beating on the Klan vehicles with their protest signs. Klansmen left their cars, retrieved weapons from the trunk of a Ford Fairlane and opened fire on the demonstrators, killing four immediately, and wounding others, one of whom died a day later.

Surprised you didn’t hear about it? It happened the day before US hostages were seized in Iran, pushing the story off the front pages. And the event was extremely embarassing for Greensboro, as the local police didn’t appear at the march until after the murders occurred. The police and the ATF had informants in the Klan and knew that armed men were coming to the march, yet the Greensboro police ordered officers to take a “lunch break” at 10:30am, allowing the Klan to confront the demonstrators. When the police arrived, they arrested the labor activists and held their leader on twice as much bail as any of the Klansmen and Nazis.

Two trials took place – state and federal – and the Klansmen were found not guilty. But a civil suit found the Klan, the Nazis and the city jointly negligent and awarded $400,000 to the survivors. But that only went partway towards healing the wounds caused by the massacre. Inspired by truth and reconciliation commissions in South Africa, some of the massacre survivors lobbied for a truth and reconciliation comission to evaluate the events of November 3, 1979. The town never agreed to participate, but independent funding allowed the commission to hold public meetings, interviewing victims, witnesses and, remarkably, some of the Klan members who participated in the shootings.

Zucker’s film focuses on the idea of reconciliation and on the healing of wounds. Nelson Johnson, who had been the firebrand leader of the activists in 1979 has become a reverend, and gives the impression of being as wise in his age as he was impulsive in his youth. One of the Klansmen interviewed comes off as a somewhat sympathetic figure whose pride about his state and his identity led him to a reprehensible stance. The message, in general, seems to be that we can heal, even from terrible wounds. What’s less clear is whether the city of Greensboro accepts responsibility for the massacre. The former mayor of Greensboro, Jim Melvin, clearly feels that the events of November 3 need to be buried so that Greensboro can thrive.

We got to talk with Zucker after the film. He mentioned that he’s got no personal ties to the city: he was researching a film on TRCs around the world and thought that an American TRC would be a fascinating part of the story. I asked Zucker what he hoped the film would do to influence Greensboro in the future and didn’t get an especially satisfactory answer – he mentioned that Jim Melvin refused to speak to him more than once, and was a pretty hostile interview. It sounded like it’s not realistic to hope for more than increased local awareness of what happened almost thirty years ago.

I’d remembered that my friend Sean Coon, who moved to Greensboro a few years back, has been writing about the massacre. Looking back at his posts, I realized that his brother, Andy Coon, had been working on a documentary about the massacre called “Greensboro’s Child“. It’s got a very different focus from Zucker’s documentary and reveals a set of details that tell a significantly different story.

Coon’s documentary focuses on Kwame Cannon, the son of Willena Cannon, one of the organizers of the Smash the Klan rally. Kwame was ten years old at the time of the rally and was participating in the march when the shooting took place. In Coon’s documentary, he tells the story of running from house to house, knocking on doors, fleeing the gunmen. It’s not entirely surprising that Kwame’s childhood wasn’t an entirely easy one. By sixteen, he’d begun treating his older cousin, Kurt, as a father figure. Unfortunately, Kurt was a burglar and trained Kwame to be a burglar – Kurt scouted houses during the day and asked Kwame to break into them at night.

Kwame was arrested and charged with six counts of non-violent burglary. Under North Carolina law at the time of sentencing, he could face fifty year sentences for each of six counts. His incompetent, drunk lawyer “plea bargained” down to two consecutive life sentences. The sentencing judge begged Kwame not to take the deal – he did, and ended up serving thirteen years in jail until public pressure forced the governor to commute his sentence.

Coon’s documentary suggests that a reason for Cannon’s absurd sentence was retribution for his mother’s succesful civil suit against the city, but doesn’t make an overwhelming case. Kwame’s mother, Willena, makes it clear that she sees her son’s plight as part of the systematic persecution of African-American men at the hand of the US judicial system.

In “Greensboro’s Child”, we get a much harsher picture of Jim Melvin and of the city of Greensboro. (I wonder whether Melvin was so uncooperative with Zucker because of how poorly he comes off in this documentary.) Coon shows evidence that the Greensboro police were monitoring the Klan that day, taking photographs of their approach to town. With two paid government informants in the Klan, it’s absurd to suggest that the police didn’t know what was likely to transpire. The contrast between documentaries also brings out some important details that Zucker’s glosses over. Zucker refers to the activists throughout as the Communist Workers Party, and suggests that’s part of the reason they were so ill-treated. Coon makes it clear that they called themselves the Worker’s Viewpoint Organization until after five of their members were killed – only then did they declare themselves communists.

The impression Zucker’s film gives is of a town that’s reluctantly facing its dark past. The impression Coon’s gives is us a deeply troubled, racist city more concerned with smoothing over the dark past at the expense of justice. I realize both of those characterizations are likely unfair and inaccurate – I’m well aware that terrific bloggers like Ed Cone have covered this situation with far more detail, subtlety and grace than I could possibly summarize in this post. I’m fascinated first that an event of this magnitude in American civil rights history could have happened without most Americans knowing about it, and even more fascinated that two excellent documentaries frame the events in such different ways.

2 thoughts on “Two takes on the Greensboro massacre”

  1. ethan, i can tell you first hand that this town has never recovered from that day. or maybe the scars run deeper. *everything* in this town is contextualized through the lens of race. not that 11/3 was even about race, but nelson johnson – a black man, activist in the 60s & 70s, survivor from the wvo/cwp clash with the kkk and current day reverend around the corner from me at the beloved church – pushed for the TRC.

    that fact alone threw this town in a tizzy.

    quite honestly, i never heard the term “white guilt” spoken aloud until i moved here. apparently, here in greensboro, it applies to every situation that a black man or woman is found innocent of an allegation.

    but other than that it’s a great place to settle down! ;)

  2. Ethan,

    thanks for the mentioning “Greensboro’s Child,” in the same breath as SXSW. That was a laborious and huge project that took up many days and nights of my young life. As I look back I see many different angles my documentary could’ve taken but that is esay to say in hindsight. Many people in Greensboro have told me that my documentary helps them understand why that day was so important in the history of Greensboro.

    That is a scary thing to realize, when the media has been trying to tell the story for almost thirty years now people are still confused about what to think. That is why I continue to screen it around Greensboro.

    You want to find out some interesting facts about it check out my post.

    i admire your blog and your passion

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