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Survivors of Greensboro Massacre recall its impact, their paths to activism

Survivors of the 1979 Greensboro Massacre spoke about their experiences at Duke as inspiration for their  activism during a Tuesday event hosted by the Trent Center for Bioethics, Humanities and History of Medicine.

The Greensboro Massacre took place Nov. 3, 1979, during a Death to the Klan march organized by the Communist Workers Party. Klu Klux Klan members shot and killed five marchers and injured others. Three of the victims killed, as well as all three of the panelists at Tuesday's event, had attended Duke. 

The panel of activists and survivors were CWP activist and physician Paul Bermanzohn, School of Medicine ’74; activist and physician Martha Nathan, School of Medicine ‘77 ; and Joyce Hobson Johnson, who helped establish the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commision, Trinity ‘68.

Rosalyn Pelles, former executive director of the North Carolina NAACP, moderated the talk, titled “Remembering a 1979 Moral Moment: Medical Activists, Racial Justice and Confronting the KKK."

While the massacre was a significant event in its own right, Bermazohn stated that the violence had a “devastating impact” on other progressive movements of the time period.

“When we were shot, the hit was taken not only by us, but by the Labor Movement and by the Black Liberation movement,” said Bermazohn. “People were scared of the spectacle of people being shot down in broad daylight.”

Bermanzohn, whose gunshot wound to the head made him the most gravely injured of all the Greensboro survivors, recalled the reasons that many Duke doctors were present at the Greensboro Massacre.

“Now some people like to believe that Duke doctors were so plentiful at this event because Duke was an oasis of progressivism. Actually I have a very different view of the situation,” Bermazohn said. “The reason a lot of Duke doctors were there was because Duke was such a bad place. Duke was a place with the most severe racial and class inequalities and they were really on display.”

“We were radicalized fighting Duke and I think that's the explanation for why so many Duke doctors were there,” Bermanzohn said.

Bermanzohn was not the only medical student drawn to activism after witnessing medical racism. “My experience at Duke was also a radicalizing one,” Nathan said. She described her second year of medical school, during which students were sent to public wards. She found that at these wards, “nearly all patients were Black, poor and denied sufficient privacy.” 

Nathan met her husband Michael Nathan while at Duke medical school. He was killed during the Greensboro Massacre. 

In a brief documentary shown during the presentation, historians revealed that the Greensboro police knew before the march that KKK members had guns in their cars. There were few police officers present at the march to protect protesters.

“Historically, police have functioned to keep order against those who threaten the social structure, the same structure that always denied people of color democratic rights,” Nathan said. 

The Greensboro City Council issued a resolution Oct. 6, 2020, apologizing for the city’s role in the Greensboro Massacre. 

Johnson drew parallels between the Greensboro Massacre and the violence that occurred after the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally in 2017. “White supremacy has reached a peak and is organized,” Johnson warned. 

The panelists also emphasized the role of unions as central to activism during the 1970s and 1980s. Pelles noted that while the people killed in the Greensboro Massacre are often cited as anti-Klan demonstrators, their activism was largely focused on unionizing the half-million textile workers in North Carolina during this time. 

Reflecting on the limits of medicine, Bermanzohn recalled the myth of a doctor who, faced with the casting of dozens of patients with broken legs, eventually decided to find and repair the hole that was causing so many injuries.

“We found the limits of caring through medicine. In order to really care for our society we must become politically engaged in all the things around us, against climate change, against racism, against terrible wages, against all the things we know that are wrong,” Nathan said. “Choose the ones that hit you in the gut and grab hold of them.”

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