The good news, I guess you can say, is that here in Greensboro we’re no longer arguing over whether we’ll have a state historical marker commemorating the killings of five Communist Workers Party members by Klansmen and Nazis in 1979. Instead, we’re arguing over whether the sign will say “massacre,” as the state advisory committee (trained historians) recommended, or something with fewer emotional overtones, like “killings” or “shootings.”
Any of those options is fine with me as long as the city takes this opportunity to come face to face with something it would rather forget. Nov. 3, 1979, was, pretty inarguably, the worst single day in Greensboro’s history. We’ve practically had to be forced at gunpoint to reckon with what happened that day and afterward, and how it happened, and why. But now, at least, the ground has shifted from “whether” to “how.” It’s not as much progress as I’d like, but it is progress.
Today’s story reminded me, though, of something from a story last week on this same issue, and an argument that cries out for a response. City Council member Mike Barber said:
“The bigger issue for me is that in a city of almost 300,000 people, we continue to have just a handful of people who live their lives looking in the rearview mirror. Other midsize cities are concentrating on the positive, marketing the positive, attracting jobs and businesses. We continue to discuss what happened when gas was 28 cents per gallon. That’s what holds Greensboro back — a small group of people who make an industry of racism and unhappiness, marketing all that’s unpleasant and negative no matter how long ago these things occurred.”
My initial response? Two syllables of basic Anglo-Saxon.
Who in the pluperfect hell is Mike Barber (whom, by the way, I’ve known since our daughters were in day care together) to decide that trauma suffered by other people is unworthy of thought, reflection, or mention? Who in the pluperfect hell is he to tell those who suffered that trauma to get over it? If his daughter had been killed in the shootout — or had died prematurely in any other way — would he be OK with me or anyone else telling him to get over it? Somehow I doubt it.
We’re supposed to believe that Greensboro is being held back, or even could be held back, by such a small group of people? Please. It’s OK for places from Andersonville to Auschwitz to “market all that’s unplesasant and negative no matter how long ago these things occurred,” but it’s not OK for Greensboro? Please. (And, boy, “market” is a revealing word, isn’t it?)
But, much worse, ridiculing and diminishing the tragedies in the lives of others displays, at the very least, a stunning lack of human sympathy. Doing so for political gain, as here, demonstrates nontrivial amounts of sociopathy. And because this kind of lack of sympathy and lack of empathy is at the heart of so many of the issues that divide us as Americans, it’s also bad for the country. White people tell victims of racism to get over it. Men tell women who have been raped, and/or whose rights are under assault in areas ranging from reproductive health to equal pay, to get over it. The wealthy tell Americans whose wealth has been stripmined where it hasn’t been swindled to get over it. People looking to capitalize on the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina and the Army Corps of Engineers tell longtime New Orleans residents who lost their homes to get over it. And on and on. It goes against everything that we have told ourselves about what the United States stands for — not least, that we’re all in this together. Yet that is where Barber has chosen to place himself.
Mike Barber could argue against the marker on historical grounds. (He says he’ll go with whatever a majority of the council decides.) He could argue against the word “massacre” on the marker on rhetorical grounds. I might or might not agree with him, but these are subjects over which reasonable people of good will can disagree even if many of the arguments we’ve seen so far have been disingenuous. But Barber’s comments, uttered from a place of race, gender, and class privilege and obviously aimed at strengthening that place politically, put him squarely in the middle of a stream of American political thought whose source lies somewhere between Bob Haldeman and Nathan Bedford Forrest. If anything is truly holding Greensboro back, it’s that kind of attitude. It’s despicable. It’s evil. And I just thought someone should say so.