Nearly 40 years ago, Greensboro, North Carolina, was rocked by a deadly attack by the American Nazi Party and the Ku Klux Klan on a march by labor and civil rights activists. Understandings of the event have diverged wildly. In the aftermath of the march, Greensboro daily papers used terms like “shootout” and “confrontation” that implied equal responsibility as much as they used terms that implicated neither group, like “shootings” and “incident.” The weekly African American newspaper, however, described the event in the context of racist violence elsewhere and focused on whether the police and local government had taken the necessary actions to prevent the violence. “We were demonized,” said the Rev. Nelson Johnson, who helped plan the march. “I was once with a bond greater than the Klan and Nazis, who were charged with murder, and I was charged with speaking in front of the courthouse.” Nelson Johnson and fellow activist Joyce Johnson visited the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center on Tuesday to offer Charlottesville advice on healing and promoting equity after the white supremacist rallies in the summer of 2017.
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Eventually, the Johnsons and other survivors of the attack decided those who had misunderstood them could change their minds. The survivors created an independent Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2004 to involve the entire community in telling the truth about what had happened. They modeled their project on the commission that had reckoned with apartheid in South Africa and received advice from South African leaders like Archbishop Desmond Tutu. “You’ve got to believe in the potential of other human beings, and you’ve got to work to help that come out,” Nelson Johnson said, paraphrasing Tutu. After two years of analyzing trial records, local and federal law enforcement records and interviewing participants and witnesses, the commission concluded that Klan and Nazi members intended to provoke violence but that the most important factor in the outcome of the march was the lack of a visible police presence and intervention. Several event attendees had already met the Johnsons during the 2018 Community Civil Rights Pilgrimage, which was prompted by the violence the year before, and had decided to bring the lessons from the pilgrimage back to the region. The event was organized by the University and Community Action for Racial Equity in partnership with the Heritage Center and Albemarle County’s Office of Equity and Inclusion. Albemarle also provided food at the talk as part of a series of events related to the pilgrimage, including the screening of a film about lynching, a community discussion after the pilgrimage and an exhibition in the Crozet Library. Staff members and elected officials from both the city and the county attended the event. Heritage Center Executive Director Andrea Douglas said that a group of people have been discussing what reconciliation process would be appropriate locally and asked the speakers how they decided on the initial group that would push for the commission. “We looked around and those we were looking for were us. We had been the victims of Nov. 3, 1979, and we declared that we are the survivors,” Joyce Johnson answered. The connections between Greensboro and Charlottesville are likely to continue. The Johnsons invited Charlottesville’s mayor and vice mayor to Greensboro in November to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the violence there.