I am a child of Greensboro, NC. It’s your typical, American, working-class town. My city, like many cities in the US, is a mixed bag of progress and racism. A protest helped change my hometown and contributed to the nation’s desegregation efforts of the Civil Rights Movement. This moment, however, is coupled with the acknowledgement of another event in our town’s history, when a White-Nationalist attack on a peaceful group led to a massacre. Similar groups are currently showing up at peaceful BLM protests. White, far-right, militia groups are coming, armed and dangerous, to peaceful protests to protect “their” America. Though not a new phenomenon, we can learn what not to do by studying the history of my beloved American hometown.
Greensboro became a focal point of the Civil Rights movement in 1960 as four brave Black men sat down at a segregated lunch counter. They were refused service and attacked by White patrons but came back the next day with more Blacks seeking equality. While it wasn’t the first sit-in protest, it is one of the best remembered. The group, known as the Greensboro Four, ushered in the desegregation of lunch counters across the nation.
The Greensboro Sit-Ins
The desegregation of a national chain’s lunch counter was progress. Laws changed, but America’s systemic system of privilege and oppression made sure change didn’t eradicate the power structure. Racism would lead to another racialized event in 1979, an event similar to the recent Kenosha domestic terrorist attack where three people were shot at a peaceful protest. In Greensboro, the Ku Klux Klan and Nazis killed five people during an anti-Klan rally on November 3, 1979. It was later determined that the police knew about the plans and, suspiciously, were away from the area. This attack was recorded, but the killers were found innocent.
In 1979, not that long ago, White militia groups attacked protesters. They killed people, in broad daylight, during a protest being held in a Black community. They did so under the protection of the law. Even their trial was a sham. The judge favored the American-flag-wearing KKK members. He often ejected the victims from the courtroom. The all-white jury found the group acted in self defense. The KKK drove there and attacked them. Yet, they were allowed to go home. Just like Kyle Rittenhouse went home.
The Greensboro Massacre
The Klan of the past is the alt-right Proud Boys’ hate groups of today. These groups have one goal. It’s not law and order. It’s not to protect businesses. It is to protect Whiteness and to intimidate Blacks and their allies. It is to reinforce hate, racism and privilege. Many are being protected under the color of the law. It is evident in the fact that the Kenosha domestic terrorist went home that night. He walked past several police cars while victims yelled, “He just killed people.” Not one cop stopped an armed White man in 1979. Not one cop stopped an armed White teen in 2020.
They claim to be “protecting” America, but they are protecting Whiteness. We have to call out the racist elephant in the room. America, my hometown’s history is a lesson. This is who we are, and until we make real change, we will remain a racist country fighting to protect Whites. Until we address the self-righteous and violent people showing up at Trump rallies and peaceful protests, we will be a country choking on its own hate. We will be a nation crushing Blacks under the knee of oppression.
We can’t ignore the reality of the privilege afforded White domestic terrorists like Kyle Rittenhouse or Dylan Roof. These killers are being celebrated by certain factions of our society. The far-right groups and Whites who claim to be ‘not racist’ are defending their actions. Memes are created making Rittenhouse a hero, dismissing the loss of life that is bringing people out into the streets. The possible destruction of property is considered a feasible reason to shoot and kill BLM protesters. Whites, who refuse to see the crushing knee on the neck of George Floyd as a racist act of injustice, demand law and order.
In those 8 minutes and 46 seconds, Whites saw a Black man under that knee. In those 8 minutes and 46 seconds, Blacks saw themselves, their sons, and their dads dying under the throat-crushing knee. Those seven shots fired into Jacob Blake’s back pierced the skin of Blacks nationwide. The death of Breonna Taylor reminded Blacks that justice is not swift for Black victims. Every time a Black person dies by the noose of racism, all Black people are traumatized and suffer a loss because we know it could easily be us. It is this collective understanding, not simply George Floyd, that has people taking to the streets. It’s that knee and what it signifies. It’s the knee and the weight it puts on the shoulder of Black people. The knee is a symbol of oppression. People are tired of the weight of oppression, and they are taking to the streets. Though many whites joined in these actions, this progress is only a beginning.
Until most Americans, especially White Americans, are ready to move, we will continue to have these traumatic racial events. Blacks are not asking for change. We are demanding the removal of the crushing burden of racism. We must get honest about the problems of America. Racism is raw, real, and deadly. It is supported by a system of White Privilege. Its goal is to keep the status quo. To keep power concentrated in the hands of Whites. We can’t change this by being kind or color-blind. We need systemic and governmental change. Whites must admit that privilege surrounds them.
Whites don’t have to worry about their sons being killed while playing at a park. RIP Tamir Rice. Whites don’t have to worry about being shot in their home through their kitchen window. RIP Atatiana Jefferson. Whites can eat ice cream on their couch without wondering if they locked the door. RIP Botham Jean. If Whites are jogging, they don’t worry about the two pickup trucks driving by them. RIP Ahmaud Arbery.
This isn’t just about the police. The police are a symptom of America’s deep and dark problem with racism. Most of these officers are not card-carrying members of the KKK, out to kill. They’re a product of our American culture, taught, like we all are, to fear Blacks. They are influenced, just like you, by the images our society puts forth about Black people. These shootings prove the cancer of racism infiltrates our psyche in a manner that makes us see Black men as dangerous, crazy, and violent. Our society, through TV and racist crime statistics, demands we see Black men as armed and/or dangerous. It is assumed that dominance over Blacks must be kept intact in order to protect the existence of Whites, AKA the suburbs.
The narrative suggests that if society doesn’t police Blacks then they will ruin your schools, your suburbs, and your America. Racism isn’t always about the card-carrying, N-word-loving, and hate-filled member of the KKK. All of the isms (racism, sexism, classism, etc.) have remained in control because we are not trying to undo the systems of oppression and privilege that operate all around us. Be honest. It’s automatic. It was set up to be so. It’s set up to make it possible for an officer to shoot someone 7 times in the back. It’s set up for us to vilify the victim by pointing to his record and his unreachable knife. It allows an officer to bury a knee into another human’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. It allows for a 17-year-old to hunt for victims while police offer him water.
Racism allows Whites to create a narrative making these acts justifiable. It makes a hero of Rittenhouse while handcuffing a paralyzed Blake to his hospital bed. America is at another painful, racialized crossroad. We can confront privilege and oppression, or we can reinforce White supremacy and racism. The far-right is protecting Whiteness. The images of a raised Black fist, protesting just to live, is being used to scare Whites about the ‘browning’ of America. The narrative that the suburbs are under attack is coded language for “Whites are under attack.” Many Whites are falling for the lies instead of listening to the truths of Black Americans. They don’t see the pain of Breonna Taylor’s mother just like many didn’t see the pain of Emmit Till’s mother. They don’t see the connection between the KKK in 1979 and the Proud Boys of today.
Blacks and our allies will continue to march and seek justice. We will empower our communities to fight for change and demand it now. We will raise our fists. We will use our money and talents to bring about change. Black athletes are standing in their power. Black parents are standing in their power. Black youth are standing in their power. Americans must act. Seven shots or 8 minutes and 46 seconds, jogging while black, and all the other murders will define this generation. American towns, just like my hometown, are being defined by these moments of racial injustice. It is time for America to understand BLACK LIVES MATTER. Until we move, more folks will die, and Blacks will continue to shout, “I CAN’T BREATHE!”
Kenyona “Sunny” Matthews is a motivational speaker focusing on issues of diversity, inclusion, and anti-racism. She is a University of Akron School of Law graduate who focused civil liberties. She earned her bachelors from Guilford College majoring in Political Science, Philosophy, and African American Studies. She was an active college student helping to start an Anti-Racism team at Guilford College, responsible for organizing city-wide diversity/inclusion events, and developed coursework focusing on race and racism.
For booking and engagement inquiries email firstname.lastname@example.org.