The Greensboro City Council meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 15 was largely about the events in Charlottesville, Virginia on Saturday, August 12 and Nov. 3, 1979 in Greensboro
At the meeting, the City Council voted to apologize on behalf of Greensboro for the city’s role in the shootout that took place nearly 40 years ago between the members of the Communist Workers’ Party and members of the Klu Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party. That shooting left five dead and others injured.
The motion to apologize, made by Councilmember Sharon Hightower, passed on a 7-to-1 vote, with Councilmember Tony Wilkins voting no and Councilmember Mike Barber absent.
Wilkins said before the vote that he wanted an opportunity to reconsider his no vote in the coming weeks since he’d had no time to study the implications of the apology or time to even reflect on the “surprise” motion that Hightower had just “thrown out” at the meeting. Wilkins also said he needed time to read through material on the shootings that was being provided to the council.
The motion to apologize came in the middle of the speakers from the floor segment of the meeting soon after the meeting started. Several speakers had already addressed the council on the race-related violent confrontation in Charlottesville the weekend before that had drawn national attention. That violence that led to one death and numerous injuries was clearly on the minds of city councilmembers. Some speakers at the August 15 meeting drew parallels between events in Charlottesville and the 1979 shootings in Greensboro.
A decade ago, Greensboro’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which studied the Klan-Nazi shooting intensely, found a lack of action by the Greensboro Police Department was one factor that contributed to the deaths.
Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan also drew a connection between the two events separated by four decades.
“Certainly, what happened in Charlottesville did bring 1979 front and center to our lives again,” said Vaughan, who added that she was in college at the time. “I did not live here then, but I remember hearing about it all the way in Connecticut.”
Vaughan said she’d been in contact this week with city staff and some City Council members to discuss actions that the city could take to help matters in the current atmosphere of division and unrest.
Councilmember Goldie Wells said she had sat at the same City Council dais when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission presented its report.
“I made the motion that the city make a resolution and I was voted down,” Wells said.
Hightower said the time had come for the city to finally apologize.
“We don’t need to read all of that to know that one of the things they wanted was an apology from the City Council,” Hightower said.
She said the board had been asked to apologize many times over the years.
“We do care what has happened in Charlottesville, but we care more about what has happened here,” she said.
Vaughan said five lives were lost in 1979 and Greensboro had felt the scars ever since.
“The city has been torn apart for almost 40 years,” the mayor said.
She added, “Frankly, when we watched what happened in Charlottesville, it was similar to what happened here in Greensboro.”
Wilkins, who cast the only no vote, said he wasn’t prepared to vote on a motion that was coming out of the blue.
“I know it’s election time,” he said, insinuating the motivation for the sudden move that clearly appealed to the crowd in the meeting room.
“We had no idea that it was coming,” Wilkins said. “It’s political grandstanding at its finest.”
Hightower said she’d made the same motion a year ago, so this was nothing new for Wilkins or the other councilmembers.
Wilkins said there was no rush and the council hadn’t had time to read over materials related to the apology.
“Couldn’t we do that a month from now after we’ve read it?” he asked. “I haven’t read it.”
When it was clear the motion would be voted on that night, Wilkins said, “I am not going to support this surprise motion,” which drew jeers from audience members who wanted to see the City Council apologize.
Wilkins made it clear that his main objection was procedural and he asked Greensboro City Attorney Tom Carruthers if he could revisit his vote at the next meeting or the meeting after that. Carruthers said he could if a member of the prevailing side brought the motion back up.
Vaughan told Wilkins and the other councilmembers that she hadn’t anticipated a motion to apologize either that night but she was willing to support it.
“My intention was not to take a vote tonight, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t,” the mayor said, adding that this was an “organic moment” brought about by the events in Charlottesville and the comments from speakers from the floor.
Vaughan also said Greensboro had a lot to be proud of when it came to what happened here in the civil rights movement but she added it wasn’t disrespectful to anyone to apologize for mistakes the city made in 1979.
The vote to apologize came after emotional pleas by several speakers.
Olivia Kellogg, an activist in the Black Lives Matter movement, spoke passionately on recent events.
“Last night I heard about Durham, tearing down a Confederate statue,” she said, adding that statues of that type show support for “white supremacy, black slavery and genocide.”
“The far right wants to claim the past,” Kellogg said.
Tessa Kirkpatrick also spoke on recent racial events and on the Klan-Nazi shooting.
“This type of tragedy is not new,” she said.
“In fact, Charlottesville is quite a lot like Greensboro in a number of ways,” she also said, adding that both were considered progressive Southern cities.
“It’s been nearly 40 years since the Greensboro massacre – 40 years of grieving and waiting for reconciliation,” Kirkpatrick said. “This injustice looms over our city which has yet to acknowledge its role in the attack. I urge you to set a new example.”
At the end of the meeting, Hightower thanked the board members who voted in favor the apology and said it was the “absolutely right thing to do.”
Hightower said perhaps now the city could move on to address other matters related to racism.