Survivors mark 40th anniversary of 'Greensboro Massacre'
Posted November 4, 2019 7:07 p.m. EST
Greensboro, N.C. — Five people marching for workers rights in Greensboro were killed 40 years ago Sunday when members of the Ku Klux Klan and the Nazi Party opened fire on them.
All weekend, survivors and others in the community gathered at North Carolina A&T State University and Bennett College to remember the lives lost and the lessons learned from what has become known as the "Greensboro Massacre."
Nelson Johnson, who had spent more than a decade advocating for workers' rights in Greensboro, organized the demonstration against racism in 1979 and brought along his 7- and 8- year-old daughters.
“If we expected a shootout, why would we bring our children?” Johnson said Monday.
The march rallied together the Communist Workers Party and other local activists under a "Death to the Klan" banner.
"We were where we said we would be. We were going to pick up people all along a 3-mile march," Johnson said.
But he did not expect the Klan to show up for a daytime protest in a mostly black community.
"They’re known for coming up on people at midnight and dragging them out of their houses,” he said.
No police were around when a caravan of nine cars rolled in and the driver of the lead car fired into the air.
"It was almost a signal for people to dismount out of their cars, and that's actually where the conflict started," Johnson said. ""Klansmen took out guns from their trunk of their cars and simply shot people.”
Johnson acknowledges his demonstrators were armed as well.
Five people were killed, all of whom had joined the Workers Party march.
"It’s not easy to look at friends shot down in the street," said Johnson, who still bears a scar on his arm where he was stabbed by a neo-Nazi.
Several Klan and Nazi Party members were acquitted of murder at trial. The jury concluded that they acted in self-defense.
A civil lawsuit found, however, that the white supremacist groups violated the marchers' civil rights and that Greensboro police failed to do enough to prevent the shootings.
Johnson said he takes responsibility for his group's role that day.
"The slogan was 'Death to the Klan.' I think that was a big mistake," he said.
But he says the city has never fully owned up to its own mistakes. Greensboro officials have, over the years, acknowledged police tactical errors.
"When you apologize, you need to say what you're apologizing for," he said. "They regret that it happened. Well, we all regret that it happened.
“I think this has become all too common in the nation where people kill each other and then give some explanation for it,” he added.