Historical marker for 1979 Greensboro shootings deaths must go up

The following editorial appeared in the Greensboro News & Record:

A proposed new historical marker in Greensboro contains only 25 words. The fevered response to it by some city leaders may not fit on a billboard.

The N.C. Highway Historical Marker Advisory Committee unanimously approved a plaque commemorating the event, which tore deep rifts in this community and has had undeniable ripple effects. It would be placed on the vacant, grassy corner of McConnell and Willow roads and would read: “Greensboro Massacre – Ku Klux Klansmen and American Nazi Party members, on Nov. 3, 1979, shot and killed five Communist Workers Party members one-tenth mile north.”

The planned, tweet-length marker is a terse and accurate accounting of what happened on that tragic day, vetted by historians. Still, some people would just as soon not see the sign. Here are only a few of their objections – and why most are wrong:


It doesn’t tell the whole story.

No historical marker does. The bigger story has been covered in films, newspapers, books, magazines and a 209-page report.


It involved “outsiders.”

By that logic, so did the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, fought by our city’s namesake, Gen. Nathanael Greene, a Rhode Islander who died on his estate in Savannah, Ga. The 1979 shootings happened here, in a local neighborhood.


It will hurt the city’s image.

The sign would go on a quiet corner in a once-blighted area that has been remade into an attractive community. If anything, it bears testament to how far we’ve come.


It was not a major event.

The shootings made international headlines and likely would have remained on front pages worldwide if not for the taking of hostages in the U.S. Embassy in Iran the following day.


It describes the event as a “massacre.”

A Truth & Reconciliation Commission that revisited the shootings in a 2006 report (and found fault on both sides) avoided the word. “One reason was that we defined massacre as the killing of five or more defenseless people on one occasion by a single person or coherent group. (This is similar to the use of this term by the East Timor Truth and Reconciliation Commission),” Bob Peters, a TRC member, said in an email Sunday to Michael Hill of the Historical Marker Advisory Committee. While noting “the Klansmen had an arsenal” versus “the peashooters” of the communists, Peters favors the marker but not the word “massacre.”


No other cities commemorate tragic events.

One in Wilmington reads: “Alex Manly, 1866-1944 – Edited black-owned Daily Record four blocks east. Mob burned his office, Nov. 10, 1898, leading to ‘race riot’ & restrictions on black voting in N.C.” Some facts are in dispute. “More certain is the fact that the event marked the climax of the white supremacy campaign of 1898 and a turning point in the state’s history,” says an essay on the state Department of Cultural Resources website.

As for Greensboro, the state marker committee does not need the council’s approval but won’t place the new plaque without it. Our history is what it is: the good, the bad and the ugly. If we’re smart, we learn from it and move forward, but there’s no point in denying it. Or ignoring it. The sign should go up.

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