The Drama of Greensboro

The Drama of Greensboro

By Charles Young

Vol. 2, No. 6, 1980, pp. 14-19

Greensboro is the insurance capital of North Carolina, not a textile and tobacco town, as it was referred to in the national media back in November following the slaying of five leaders of the Communist Workers Party during the anti-Ku Klux Klan rally. The media may be excused its hasty retreat to historical stereotype, however, for the killings did take place in a Black neighborhood, and they were carried out by a band of raiding Klansmen. It is perhaps natural then, when viewing the incident from a distance, to assume that the attack falls into the pattern of old-fashioned Southern White-racists direct action. But the reality is a little more complicated than that.

While textiles and tobacco do play a significant role in the city’s economy, as employers of some of the lowest paid workers in the area, the real money is with insurance, and with those who look out for it, the bankers.

Greensboro’s skyline shows as much. Most of the traditional retail establishments, large and small, moved out long ago to the shopping malls. But the town is not dead. Far from it. The tall buildings are filled with bankers, lawyers, accountants and insurance executives, along with all the office support forces.

Lending its support is the recently completed city and county governmental center, a sprawling complex of fortress-like structures bedded down within broad open plazas liberally sprinkled with meticulously designed plantings and an abundance of those large round white-frosted lamppost lights so dear to the hearts of modern-day architects.

And within shouting distance in the next block is the newest jewel in the mid-town crown: another major insurance company is nearing completion of its own monument to growth and prosperity. The topping-out ceremony for this magnificent edifice took place just prior to a November 3rd rally which returned Greensboro to the nation’s attention.

The rally was an outgrowth of the frustration the Communist Workers Party had experienced in its effort to organize a union at one of the city’s textile mills. The CWP had found that not many workers were very much interested in aligning themselves with a group which advocated such stringent measures against the existing power structure, including the mill’s owners, a longestablished family dynasty that has contributed sianificantly to the city’s overall economic posture.

Probably in an attempt to draw greater attention to its cause, and to generate a more favorable public image, the CWP decided to switch its focus to the Klan and to stake itself out as the leader in the fight against what it described as the resurgence of Klan mentality, not only in the South but throughout the nation.

And it gave them a rallying cry: Death to the Klan.

The slogan began appearing on posters around town and in leaflets passed out at shopping centers. By the time November 3 rolled around the word had gone out that the CWP rally was to be a challenge to the cowardly Klan to show themselves. They would be exposed as anti-Black, anti-labor terrorists who were ignorantly following the dictates of the imperialistic power structure which was determined to suppress the poor and the underprivileged.

To many residents of Greensboro, this appeared to be a fairly standard garden variety accusation, coming from a group venting its spleen out of frustration at its own failure to put forth an

Page 16

effective and persuasive program of labor organizing. Consequently, the fateful rally attracted very little notice outside the ranks of the two opposing groups.

But then the shooting started. And a lot of things changed.

As word spread about the shootings, the local outrage was not so much a protest that the people had been killed as it was anger that the warring factions had chosen Greensboro as the site for their battle. Eventually both groups were identified as outsiders and not representative of the nature of this city.

But after the smoke cleared it appeared that the Klansmen were interlopers and the CWP people, for the most part, were local and some with close ties to the civil rights struggle of the 1960s and others associated with more recent leftist activities.

It was a sticky situation for the defenders of Greensboro’s reputation as an enlightened and open society, in which all divergent viewpoints were tolerated. To some it appeared that an opportunity had presented itself for the city to reach out and lay firm claim to its liberal reputation by issuing a blanket condemnation of the Klan. To others the idea of coming down on the side of militant leftists; especially union organizers, was anathema. Apparently, the viewpoint held by the CWP was just a bit too far left.

As a result, the city’s leaders assumed a somewhat remote posture, seemingly content to let blame for the killings rest equally at the feet of both groups, neither of which deserved much regard. The important thing, according to the city fathers, was to provide protection for the general public, in case these groups of crazies got together again for further attempts to ventilate each other’s ranks.

The funeral march on November 11 for the five casualties provoked a rash of bitterness. Threats of retaliation and revenge had been daily utterances for a week. Otherwise disinterested citizens were busy making plans to be as far away from the march as possible. Rumors were rampant that the Klan would be in town armed and along the march route, eager to take advantage of the opportunity to pick off a few more of its enemies.

Consequently, a massive show of power was mounted by the city and the state. A state-ofemergency was declared, suspending the right to bear arms. Just under a thousand local police, state highway patrolmen and National Guardsmen were called out, ostensibly to protect the marchers but more realistically to prevent anyone with a weapon from getting into the area, whatever his viewpoint.

About two thousand people showed up for the procession, from various parts of the eastern seaboard. Media coverage was heavy. The day was rainy and cold, lending credence to the cliche about appropriate weather for a funeral. The mood was tense, faces grim. The riot troops, in full battle gear, formed a gauntlet along the funeral route. Swat teams manned rooftops and overpasses, combing the area with binoculars. Military helicopters fluttered back and forth above the scene, guns visible in open doorways.

For about three hours the crowd waited in the rain for the march to get underway while local officials and parade organizers argued about the CWP’s insistence that its members be allowed to carry arms to protect themselves from further Klan attack. A compromise was reached, and the CWP leaders were allowed to carry their guns but without ammunition.

The procession moved off, the caskets bearing the bodies of the five slain CWP members in th, lead. The march covered the two miles to the cemetery without incident.

With emotions running high, anti-Klan groups here set in motion an effort to organize a march later in the month as a general civil rights protest. However, general apathy toward the proposed march soon emerged among Black community

Page 17

leaders, and although rio one was talking publicly, in private it was conceded that it was risky business for local Blacks to let themselves become too closely identified with leftist extremists.

Clearly, there was going to have to be a change in leadership among the anti-Klan groups if any successful march could be staged. The CWP simply was too radical to serve as a catalyst for the kind of coalition that would be necessary to attract favorable attention from activists over a broad spectrum. The result was the birth of a February 2 Mobilization Committee, with a Black New York minister as its leader.

What followed then was perhaps the most carefully organized civil rights effort ever undertaken in Greensboro. Even the city’s demonstrations of the 1960s could not compare in degree of detail with what was to come. Organizations from a wide area of the country were to be courted and, if at all possible, brought into the fold. The umbrella was to be inclusive of any and all groups who could keep their private differences private and would pledge to participate peacefully.

The principal complicating factor, and the one which produced the most heartburn among the more cautious local liberals, was that the Mobilization Committee was planning its demonstration on February 2, the day after the 20th anniversary of the original civil rights sitins at a local dime-store lunch counter. The sit-ins in 1960 by four Black students from a local college had led to a nationwide breakdown in segregated eating facilities, raising the four to the status of folk heroes.

The February 2

Page 18

Committee’s timing was causing problems for the people in town who wanted to bring the four catalysts back for a commemorative celebration of the event. The four had now been successfully assimilated into the established system and the passing years had been kind to them, making them suitable figures to honor in public ceremony.

The February 2 people were just barely tolerant of the February 1 people. Friendships among Blacks and Whites in both groups were, to say the least, being stretched and strained. The February 2 people didn’t seem to find any particular fault in the desire of the February 1 people to bestow praise on the four students twenty years later. It was just that, so far as the February 2 people were concerned, theirs was a far more timely and important undertaking: a renewed commitment to fight suppression of all people everywhere.

The city fathers were not conspicuous in their willingness to cooperate with either group. For example, through some oversight along the way, the money to pay for the historical marker to commemorate the 1960 sit-ins had not been appropriated. When the state came through with a plaque, a sequence of events then occurred which led to a serious breakdown between the city and the Mobilization Committee.

An application by the Mobilization Committee for use of the city’s coliseum as its rally site was turned down, with the explanation that the facility had already been rented for the proposed date. Later it came to light that the city had agreed with an out-of-town promoter to co-sponsor a rhythm-and-blues concert made up of little-known entertainers. The co-sponsorship arrangement meant that the city would bear half the cost of putting on the show and would reap half the profits or losses.

This one maneuver probably aroused more local public argument than any other preliminary activity. To the Mobilization Committee it appeared to be nothing less than a clumsy obstructionist tactic. And to the general taxpaying public it appeared to be an expensive way of trying to prevent what, by that time, had become an inevitable happening. The memory of the $80,000 cost to the city as its share of the expenses for the November 11 funeral march was still fresh in the minds of many taxpayers.

The lines were drawn between the city and the Mobilization Committee.

There were charges and counter-charges, none of which did anything to reassure the observing public. Angry words crystalized in a civil suit filed by the Mobilization Committee to force the city to make the coliseum available for the rally.

After much agonizing and soul-searching, and with a little nudge from the federal judge who was to hear the suit, the city reversed itself. By this time, the city administration may have realized that its adversary role had provided the impetus which would surely result in a far larger turnout for the rally.

On Saturday morning, February 2, the cars and buses began rolling into the parking areas around the stadium early. They were coming from all over the eastern and southern parts of the country, and there were even some from the Midwest.

The day was bright and sunny and cold, with wind whipping across the asphalt

Page 19

stirring up swirls of dust through the ranks of the debarking visitors. Most were solemn-faced, subdued and bleary-eyed from rides overnight and longer from such places as Memphis and Atlanta and Chicago and Detroit and Philadelphia and New York and Washington.

By noon the sunny parts of the stands at the ballpark and the infield and a large part of the outfield of the stadium where the march would begin were filled with effusive rally-goers searching for their groups, guided by the red, black, yellow, green and orange banners announcing their origins. Laughter and shouts of recognition between friends tended to drown out the efforts by some of the organizers to issue instructions over a malfunctioning loudspeaker system.

Outside the stadium entrance the leaders of the various groups conferred about the order of march which would move across town to the coliseum. Provocateurs roamed about shouting out their particular messages of protest against one thing and another, and the more serious ones passed out pamphlets and handbills describing the general state of unhealthy affairs within the system. A few budding capitalists sold fried chicken and tee shirts.

The city had organized a contingent of special police and the state highway patrol had been assigned the duty of blocking off streets and roadways leading to the march route. The governor had ordered the National Guard to town again and they were scattered about in out-of-the-way places. Although the law enforcement body was sizeable, the mood of the day bore little resemblance to the tension that had prevailed at the November funeral procession.

The march itself moved off in an orderly fashion to the chants of freedom and power, banners held high in the pristine air, and proceeded at a brisk clip through the city streets and along the four-mile route to the rally site at the coliseum and arrived without incident.

It is a festive crowd,noisy and restless. About 7,000 people in a coliseum seating roughly 15,000 have gathered. Cheers come easily. Speaker after speaker is greeted with rousing ovations following even the mildest admonishments to the power structure. There are warnings to the president and warnings to the governor and warnings to the city’s mayor. They are told that they had better wake up and start responding to the needs of the people before it is too late.

With a few exceptions, this group of speakers is not eloquent. It seems that they are not intended to be. They are the nuts-and-bolts leaders representing civil rights and leftist factions from many parts of the country, and each is given three minutes to get his message across. It is very much like a political convention, with each speaker saying pretty much the same things but trying to do so in slightly different words.

And not everybody is listening. Many are roaming about visiting with their friends and gazing up into the stands searching for another familiar face.

But the general message seems to get across. These are not the days for violence. These are not the days for confrontation. But rather, these are the days for organization. These are the days for building up the ranks of leadership. These are the days for bringing economic pressure to the marketplace. There are a couple of factions on the floor who do not agree, and they boo from time to time. But it is only a minor distraction.

The strength of the rally seems to lie in the determination to organize and to play a more dominant role in politics and business. Toward the end there is a brief moment of tension when it is announced that one of the speakers has received a death threat. But that soon dissipates as the final speakers deliver their messages.

And then it is over. There has been no violence.

Outside, night has fallen on Greensboro and all across the parking lot the buses are firing up for the return trip to the distant cities. Great clouds of diesel smoke rise in the cold night air, like curtains closing at the completion of a long and drawn-out melodrama.

(Publisher’s Note: This is an excerpt from a book being written about the November 3, 1979 killings in Greensboro, N.C., of five members of the Communist Workers Party. Copyright 1980 by Charles Young. All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reprinted without written permission of the author.)

Charles Young is a free-lance writer based in Greensboro.