years ago, on November 3, 1979, five principled and dedicated activists for
social justice-Cesar Cauce, Dr. Mike Nathan, Bill Sampson, Sandi Smith, and Dr.
Jim Waller-were brutally murdered in Greensboro, North Carolina by the Ku Klux
Klan. History has recorded this tragedy as the "Greensboro Massacre."
five anti-racist organizers and ten other activists who were seriously wounded
had been participating in an anti-Klan public march and demonstration, held in a
largely African-American community. In broad daylight, a car caravan containing
about seventy-five Klansmen and Nazis descended on the public rally. For about
ninety seconds, they opened fire on the unarmed demonstrators, and then drove
from the scene of the crime. Local police had been given ample warning about the
threat of Klan violence, but had chosen to do nothing to protect the
demonstrators. There was also direct evidence indicating that law enforcement
officials gave the Klan the exact location and route of the march, several days
prior to their attack.
Greensboro Justice Fund, a nonprofit organization, was established in 1980 to
finance a civil rights suit against the killers, and to educate the general
public about the outrageous violation of human rights. Television videotaped
recordings of the massacre indicated that the killings had occurred coldly and
methodically, with the Klansmen and Nazis actually looking for and identifying
individuals to murder. Six murderers were eventually tried, and an all-white
jury acquitted the racists.
years of legal struggles, a successful civil suit was won by the victims and
survivors of the massacre. Today, the Greensboro Justice Fund provides tens of
thousands of dollars in financial support to dozens of social justice
organizations throughout the United States. In 1998 alone, the Fund contributed
to twenty-four groups, such as the Citizens for Police Review in Knoxville,
Tennessee, for their work against police brutality in that city; to the Black
Workers for Justice in North Carolina; to anti-Klan organizers in Gainesville,
Georgia; and to a Youth Task Force in Atlanta, for general support of
anti-racist education among students and young adults.
those who still think of the Ku Klux Klan as a marginal fringe group, consider
what happened last month in New York City. Leaders of the Church of the American
Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, estimated to be the fastest-growing Klan faction in
the country, sought to stage a rally in New York City. The Klansmen announced
plans to wear their traditional white hoods and robes, masking their identities.
an 1845 New York State law prohibiting demonstrators from wearing masks, two
Federal District Court Judges ordered city officials to allow the Klan to march
through the city streets, wearing their hoods to protect their anonymity. The
Klan’s legal battle was led by the New York Civil Liberties Union, which argued
that despite the racial hatred and long history of violence by this
organization, that it nevertheless had a Constitutional right to freedom of
assembly and expression. A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for
the Second Circuit unanimously disagreed, overruling the lower court. A last
minute appeal on the Klan’s behalf to the Supreme Court was denied by Associate
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
in New York were divided over the issue of whether the Klan, as a white
supremacist and terrorist organization, should be granted the right to publicly
demonstrate. Al Sharpton and the National Action Network, as well as Conrad
Muhammad, former head of the Nation of Islam’s Temple No. Seven in Harlem,
supported the right for the Klan to demonstrate. Despite these differences over
the issue of civil liberties, all progressives agreed that the Klan should be
confronted and denounced by united action.
the day of the demonstration, only 18 Klan members showed up in lower
Manhattan-and they were challenged by thousands of anti-racist demonstrators.
New York police estimated the anti-Klan protesters at 6,000, although most
observers placed the crowd at over ten thousand. The anti-Klan demonstrators
were black, Latino, Asian and white; there were trade unionists, clergy and
students, all brought together by a tremendous spirit of solidarity against the
ugly face of unambiguous racism.
never repeats itself the same way twice. Yet there were some parallels between
Greensboro in 1979 and New York City in 1999. While the NYPD protected the
Klansmen, fourteen anti-Klan demonstrators were arrested by police. Many
observed that it was more than curious that over three thousand police officers
had been ordered into Harlem to intimidate and disrupt the 1998 Million Youth
March, but only 200 cops were detailed to the Klan demonstration, primarily to
insure the safety and welfare of the Klansmen. Instead of Klan executions, we
have witnessed the assault and murder of unarmed black people by the New York
Police Street Crimes Unit. There is a clear connection between what happened in
Greensboro with the murder of Amadou Diallo. It is not surprising that a number
of counter-demonstrators in New York shouted, "Cops and Klan go hand in
the destruction of white supremacy will require more than simply pushing back
the Klan off our streets today. The fight against racism also requires us to
learn the lessons and to honor the sacrifices of those who died in Greensboro
two decades ago. It means taking the initiative to stop racial profiling and
harassment by the police. It also means that we must rededicate ourselves to the
struggle to remove from public life those politicians and government officials
like New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who may wear business suits, but who
pursue Klan-like objectives through their public policies.
Manning Marable is Professor of History and Political Science, and the Director
of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies, Columbia University.
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