I attended the National Crisis of Race and Policing meeting initiated by the Beloved Community Center at Bethel AME Church on Monday, July 11.
A number of liberal and black organizations were listed as sponsors, but it turned out to be just another meeting called by Rev. Nelson Johnson of the Beloved Community Center, and another opportunity for him to give the same speech he has been giving for 40 years.
In the 1970s, Nelson Johnson became a communist and was a member of the Communist Workers Party that infamously had a shootout with the Klan and Nazis in Morningside Homes in November 1979.
At that time, the communists were calling for a violent overthrow of the US government. The communists said that tens of thousands of people would have to die but that the government had to be overthrown.
Nelson Johnson’s rhetoric has changed over the years; he now calls for systemic change. He said Monday night that it didn’t matter if Greensboro had a new police chief, a new city manager and a new mayor, that it was the system that was corrupt and had to be changed. He said that in Greensboro, we need to “uproot this cuture and put in place a different culture.” Different words but the same message.
Nelson Johnson talked about the history of slavery in this country and how whites had to pay for that history. Slavery ended in the US in 1865.
Sitting there listening to Nelson Johnson, I heard the same speech I have heard him give for the past 25 years, and the same speech I have read about him giving since the 1970s.
Nelson Johnson ignores the fact that the country has moved forward, perhaps not as fast as he would like, but it has moved forward.
In 1979, the idea that the people of the United States would elect a black man as president was a pipe dream. Today it is a reality.
In Greensboro we have elected a black mayor and have had black city managers, police chiefs, chairmen of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners, school superintendents, city councilmembers, county commissioners, North Carolina Supreme Court judges and a black county manager and chairman of the Guilford County Board of Education. The public schools in Greensboro have been integrated for 59 years.
The country has moved on, but Nelson Johnson talks about the days of Jim Crow and segregation.
The solution he sees to the problems in society is the overthrow of the government, or, in today’s terms, systemic change in the government. The change that society has chosen is more gradual, but it is moving forward.
Is there still racism today? Absolutely. A couple of weeks ago we had a photo of a black man dancing with a white woman on the cover. We received a phone call from a man who said he would never read our paper again. He and Johnson both appear to be caught in the past.
On one of the back rows of Bethel AME Church on Monday sat former Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Skip Alston. He was not just the chairman of the Board of Commissioners, he was also the most powerful person in Guilford County government for years. When Alston was chairman, nothing was done without his approval.
On one of the front rows sat Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson. She was first elected to the City Council in 1993. She was the first black candidate elected to an at-large seat on the Greensboro City Council under its current system. She was the first black mayor pro tem and the first black mayor. She has been on the City Council since 1993, except for two years when she lost her re-election bid as mayor in 2009.
Yvonne Johnson is as powerful as any member of the City Council. She almost always votes with the majority or the majority almost always votes with her. Those of us who follow the actions of the City Council know that if you can find out how Yvonne Johnson will vote, you know what the City Council is going to do over 90 percent of the time.
Yvonne Johnson has not been on the City Council for over 20 years because she only has the support of the black community. She has been on the City Council because she has support of the majority of voters in Greensboro of all races.
Greensboro has had three black police chiefs. The first, Sylvester Daughtry, became chief in 1987 and was chief until he retired in 1998. He was followed by Chief Robert White, who was chief until 2003. Tim Bellamy was chief from 2007 to 2010.
If there is inherent racism in the Greensboro Police Department then these men have to take some responsibility because, except for the three years from 1987 to 2010, the Police Department was led by a black man. Two of them, Daughtry and Bellamy, came up through the ranks, starting as patrol officers.
The very church where Nelson Johnson was speaking held a good mix of the people of Greensboro. The church was packed, with chairs in the aisles and people sitting in the choir loft. My estimate of the crowd was about 50 percent black and 50 percent white.
It would have been a good time for a speech about how far Greensboro has come, but instead Nelson Johnson gave a speech on how bad Greensboro is and how bad the Police Department is. Two black deputy police chiefs were in the audience.
Nelson Johnson did say that the goal was “to build unity” and “to transform not just the Police Department but the City of Greensboro.”
Greensboro is transforming, but it seems Nelson Johnson hasn’t noticed.