Nov 15, 1999

The Ku Klux Klan: From Greensboro to New York City 

By Manning Marable

Twenty 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."

These 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.

The 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.

After 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.

For 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.

Despite 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.

Progressives 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.

On 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.

History 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 hand!"

Yet 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.

Dr. Manning Marable is Professor of History and Political Science, and the Director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies, Columbia University. "Along the Color Line" is distributed free of charge to over 325 publications throughout the U.S. and internationally.