What’s Race Got To Do With It?

 / What's Race Got To Do With It?

Signe Waller and Dr. Marty Nathan, both widowed in 1979 Greensboro Massacre, died last week

Two activists widowed in the 1979 Greensboro Massacre died last week after a lifetime of social justice work.

Signe Waller Foxworth and Dr. Marty Nathan both lost their husbands in the 1979 confrontation between Ku Klux Klan members, neo-Nazis and members of the Communist Workers Party. In their separate ways, both women continued to fight for their beliefs for the rest of their lives.

Waller died Friday at 84. Nathan, 70, was working as a doctor in Northampton, Massachussetts when she died November 30.

Their husbands — Dr. Jim Waller and Dr. Michael Nathan — were killed by white supremacists. The historical marker at the corner of Willow and McConnell Roads sums up the terrible day that shook both women in just 25 words.

“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.”

Even that brief acknowledgement of the tragedy and how it would be characterized — remained a hotly-debated political controversy when the marker was finally approved in 2015.

In 2017 the Greensboro City Council voted to issue an apology for the massacre. That apology was actually issued last year, more than 40 years after the tragedy.

The News & Record’s Nancy McLaughlin wrote about Nathan’s work after her husband’s killing.

From that story:

Widowed at age 28 with an infant daughter, she used the money from the lawsuit against the Ku Klux Klan, Nazis and the Greensboro police for the wrongful death of Dr. Michael Nathan to start the Greensboro Justice Fund, which over the next 20 years gave away $500,000 as grants to small groups fighting for civil rights and social justice in the South.

In an interview before the 40th anniversary of what is now called the Greensboro Massacre, she said the travesty of that day lingers on. Five people died and 10 were injured during the shootings and no one was ever convicted of the deaths. She said the confrontation would fuel the white supremacist movement, notably Charlottesville’s Unite the Right rally that took place in 2017.

“I wish that they had been put in prison because of all the young men that they have inspired over the years,” Nathan told the News & Record in 2019, “and I would include in that the Charlottesville Klan and other white supremacists.”

The paper’s Jennifer Fernandez spoke with community members, including Guilford County Register of Deeds Jeff Thigpen, about Waller and Nathan after Waller’s death on Friday.

“They did the work. Every. Single. Day,” Thigpen said.

He described Waller Foxworth as “always community-minded,” and someone who “sought to stand for meaningful things and on behalf of those who had little power.”

“She lived every day to try to create meaning,” Thigpen said.

Her work on social justice and equity for all inspired others, said Joyce Johnson, who is co-executive director of the Beloved Community Center with her husband, the Rev. Nelson Johnson.

They had long been friends with Waller Foxworth.

“She was a person of great purpose and commitment,” Joyce Johnson said

But she was more than just the persona portrayed in the media, the Johnsons said. Waller Foxworth was a loving wife and mother, a gracious host, an excellent teacher and an intellectual who loved to read and talk about books. She loved to cook and had a flair for the arts.

She also wrote a book, ”Love and Revolution,” about Nov. 3, 1979, and its aftermath.

She was a fighter up until the end, according to the Johnsons. Although she had been ill, Waller Foxworth stood through the annual memorial service on Nov. 3 instead of sitting. And she chose to have surgery, believing there was still work for her to do.

“She was tenacious in her commitment and beliefs of justice for all people,” Nelson Johnson said.

On teaching schoolchildren about race in America: When we know better, we do better

Image: AdobeStock

Politicians confuse guilt with empathy. What they can learn from a 6-year-old and 1776.

A few years ago when my son was learning about the Civil Rights Movement, he offered his class the recent example of the Black man at Starbucks who was arrested after trying to use the bathroom.

He told me about this on our car ride home but I didn’t know where my six-year-old heard about that incident. When I asked him, he said he heard it on the news I was watching.  Even our kindergartners are flies on the walls soaking in information.

When my kindergartner processed that event on his own, he didn’t identify with the white employee and feel guilty. He identified with the Black man who needed to use the bathroom and felt empathy.

I don’t want politicians to interfere and tell him he came to the wrong conclusion.

As a veteran social studies teacher, and mom of two young students, I’m baffled by some folks’ resistance to teach the past and the present honestly.

Those supporting state bills challenging the teaching of honest history would do well to consult the Declaration of Independence, where a large section of that document is devoted to listing historical grievances.

Our grievances from the Declaration of Independence are rectified and enshrined in our Constitution’s Bill of Rights.

This historical pattern of expressing grievances then celebrating remedies we work together to achieve is how Americans “form a more perfect union.”

For all the times I’ve taught the Declaration of Independence, I’ve never heard from a family whose ancestors lived in Britain in 1776 that this content made their child feel guilty.

When we teach honest history and honest present, we teach empathy and growth, not guilt.

About ten years ago in my middle school world history class, I welcomed a new student from China mid-year. Shortly after his arrival I was set to teach a lesson on Tiananmen Square, which many know is an ugly historical event censored in China.

Out of empathy, I worried about adding to this student’s culture shock by exposing him to this event. After consulting with colleagues I did not censor the event from this student since I would be perpetuating China’s censorship in my American classroom. There were no complaints from the student or his family after that age-appropriate lesson.

When we know better, we do better. Folks trying to stop kids from knowing better are also interfering with their ability to do better as they fulfill the American call to “form a more perfect union.”

When politicians claim that honest history will lead to “psychological distress” (such as HB 324 in North Carolina) they’re saying students will respond with guilt, not empathy. They’re wrong.

Our students would be better served in alleviating “psychological distress” by those same legislators offering more student support staff such as psychologists, social workers, nurses, counselors, and smaller class sizes.

In North Carolina, the same legislators wanting to micromanage school curriculum continue to ignore our state’s constitutional obligation to provide a “sound basic education” to every student as reaffirmed in the 1997 Leandro decision which has yet to be fulfilled over twenty years later.

Legislators’ obsession with curriculum is a distraction from holding lawmakers accountable for what students actually need.

Efforts to vilify educators, and censor our past and present are more reflective of history’s most notorious authoritarian rulers.

We must call on our state legislators and school boards to allow our students to grow with facts and empathy when learning about our past and present.

Our educators understand how to provide age-appropriate instruction. Our policy makers should focus on how they can best support that effort.

Kim Mackey is a National Board Certified social studies teacher for the Wake County Public School System and an active member of Wake NCAE, and Advisory Board member of Red 4 Ed NC. This post appeared originally on her website, educatEDpolicy.

Author Theodore Johnson offers a hopeful and patriotic take on combating American racism (video)

In his profound and exhilarating new book, “When the Stars Begin to Fall: Overcoming Racism and Renewing the Promise of America,” author, scholar, and former U.S. Navy Commander Theodore Johnson persuasively argues that racism is both alive and healthy in our country and a profound – even existential – threat to its democracy.

Happily, however, Johnson doesn’t leave it there.  Weaving memories of his and his family’s multi-generational experiences with racism alongside strands of U.S. history, Johnson makes a persuasive, optimistic and patriotic case that we can still find a blueprint for national solidarity in the exceptional citizenship long practiced in Black America.

Johnson, who grew up in Raleigh, is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Fellows Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, where he undertakes research on race, politics, and American identity. Prior to joining the Brennan Center, he was a National Fellow at New America and a Commander in the United States Navy, serving for twenty years in a variety of positions, including as a White House Fellow in the first Obama administration and as speechwriter to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Last week, NC Policy Watch was fortunate enough to host Johnson for an online Crucial Conversation in which he outlined his book and responded to questions from the audience — a recording of which which can be viewed and shared via the link below. For the sake of brevity, we’ve edited out the introductions and opening niceties from the recording.


The miseducation of Black conservatives

Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson speaks at a recent event alongside Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger

An infamous one-liner from 1970s-era sitcoms goes like this: “Some of my best friends are Black.”

It’s also a classic comeback for White racists when the racist is caught being, well, racist.

When that happens, racists mysteriously pull out a Black buddy (such as the Clayton Bigsby character from the old “Dave Chappelle Show”) to secure a hood pass for the misdeed. White actors and politicians are especially adept at this magic trick.

Who are these Bigsby characters right-wingers are apparently inviting to their summer cookouts? Are they what some Blacks call sellouts?

For hundreds of years, Blacks have deemed some brothers and sisters sellouts because they are willing to betray their community for the favors of whites.

In his 2008 book titled “Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal,” Dr. Randall Kennedy, a Harvard Law School professor, describes “sellout” as a word Blacks use to stigmatize and marginalize other Blacks considered disloyal to the race.

When confronted about America’s history of systemic racism, many white conservatives are quick to remind us that Africans sold other Africans into slavery. They conveniently leave out the part about manipulation by European interests.

Here’s what the late Walter Rodney had to say about Europeans’ role in the slave trade in his seminal work, “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa,” which was published in 1972:

“From the beginning, Europe assumed the power to make decisions within the international trading system. An excellent illustration of that is the fact that the so-called international law which governed the conduct of nations on the high seas was nothing else but European law. Africans did not participate in its making, and in many instances, African people were simply the victims, for the law recognized them only as transportable merchandise. If the African slave was thrown overboard at sea, the only legal problem that arose was whether or not the slave ship could claim compensation from the insurers! Above all, European decision-making power was exercised in selecting what Africa should export – in accordance with European needs.”

The fact that African Americans have had traitors in our family baobab tree, like every other race, is no anomaly. Nor is it a family secret that a handful of Black people were slave owners and that some Black folks snitched on enslaved brothers and sisters to gain meritorious manumission.

One of the earliest examples of white supremacy in black face comes courtesy of William Hannibal Thomas who in 1901 published “The American Negro.”

According to UNC-Charlotte historian John David Smith, author of “Black Judas: William Hannibal Thomas and The American Negro,” Thomas’ book, “under the guise of a black self-help manual,” helped to justify Black inferiority in the minds of White Americans. Thomas’ book has served as a blueprint for Black conservative thought.

The playbook for modern Black right-wing politics can be traced to the 1980 Black Alternatives Conference held at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. The conference was organized by the Institute for Contemporary Studies, a California-based public policy institution, to counter the Black leftist movement. According to James B. Lowe’s book, “The American Directory of Certified Uncle Toms,” the Reagan-inspired Institute of Contemporary Studies, attracted about 125 black lawyers, physicians, dentists, Ivy League professors and commentators.” Read more

Further reading on Wyatt Outlaw, NC history and the cost of white supremacy

If you’ve already read today’s Policy Watch special report on the 1870 lynching of Wyatt Outlaw and its connection to the modern problems in Alamance County, you may want to read more.

Today’s piece is the first in a Policy Watch series on Alamance County that will include pieces on local government, the sheriff’s department, public schools and environmental justice.

But our initial story on Wyatt Outlaw and  the history and continuation of white supremacy in the state would not have been possible without the scholars and activists who spoke to us for the piece and the work they’ve already done. All of it is worth your time.

If you were intrigued by what  Duke University’s Dr. William Darity had to say about systemic inequality and the racial terror campaigns designed to preserve it, you should read  From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century, Darity’s recent book with co-author A. Kirsten Mullen.

Dr. William Darity.

The Rev. Ervin Milton  talked with us about modern Alamance County and the connections to story of Wyatt Outlaw. He is a regular contributor at the Burlington Times-News. His columns, including this week’s on the meaning of Lent,  can be found here.

The Rev. Ervin Milton.


Dr. Keisha Bentley-Edwards, a developmental psychologist and assistant professor of Medicine at Duke, helped us with a closer look at the psychological aspect of white supremacist thinking and the cycle of violence it has perpetuated throughout our history. Her paper, How Does it Feel to be a Problem? The Missing Kerner Commission Report, is essential reading.

Dr. Keisha Bentley-Edwards.

For a deep dive into the life, death and legacy of Wyatt Outlaw, you need to read Dr. Carole Troxler’s “To look more closely at the man”: Wyatt Outlaw, a Nexus of National, Local, and Personal History She is a historian and professor emerita at Elon University whose work on the Outlaw story is widely considered definitive.

Dr. Carole Troxler.

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