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Oral history interview with John Alexander by Kathy Carter
June 19, 1989
John Alexander (1945- ) was an editor of the Greensboro Daily News and the News and Record from 1975 through 1990.
In this transcript of a June 19, 1989, oral history interview conducted by Kathy Carter with John Alexander,
Alexander discusses his impressions of Greensboro, specifically his memories of the public sentiment regarding race relations. He also discusses the factors that led to the November 3, 1979, incident and the aftermath of this event on the city.
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Oral history interview with John Alexander by Kathy Carter
[Begin Tape 1, Side A]
This is an interview with John Alexander of the Greensboro News and Record. Is it all right if we go with first names?
Okay, well I'm Kathy.
John, are you a native of Greensboro?
How long have you been here?
I've lived here for, let's see, this is the end of my fourteenth year. Before that I lived in Charlotte for three years, I worked for the newspaper there.
Okay. Let's see, so fourteen years would put you in Greensboro in the mid-seventies.
Okay. And you came to Greensboro to work at the News and Record?
Is that right? Okay. You grew up in Charlotte, is that correct?
No, I'm not a native of Charlotte.
You're not a native of Charlotte either. Where are you from?
I'm from Jacksonville, Florida—its my home town. I've lived in a lot of different states but I only came here to work and that really was the first time I'd been here.
I see. Okay. And when you came to Greensboro did you come as a reporter?
No, I came here as associate editor of what was then the Greensboro Daily News, then I was the editorial page editor of the Daily News. I've basically had that kind of position ever since I've been there. It's changed and evolved but it's been basically as an opinion writer.
Right. Okay, so you had been here for, I guess, four years then before the Klan incident, is that right? In 1979, if I remember correctly.
What do you recall about that time? Public sentiment—
In the mid-seventies when I first came here?
In the mid-seventies and then move on.
In terms of race relations or civil rights or—
Race relations, I suppose. At that point we had had what was considered to be desegregation of schools, although there are those that might debate that back and forth. Yeah, race relations.
Well, I think, probably in a lot of areas, I think there was a sense of complacency, it seems to me, in town, particularly among the people who were in power at the time or who were the ones calling the shots. One of the big issues when I first came here was the attempt to get a district form of election for [the Greensboro] City Council and there had been a couple of referendums at that point already that had failed or misfired in some way. And there was dissatisfaction in the black community particularly, although in other sections of town as well, that they did not feel that they had adequate representation on the city council. So this was a big issue when I first came here.
In fact there was a referendum, I believe, in the fall of 1975 when I first came here. And as I recall up until that time the newspaper had not favored this change but when I came here, I had come here from Charlotte where we had gone through similar transition and I felt it was a good thing for the city and supported it, a supporting editorial. As I recall, the referendum failed once again and that, I think, created or generated some ill feelings, particularly in the black community. So there was a mixture of complacency, particularly in the white community I think, and grumbling and dissatisfaction on the part of groups that perceived that they were shut out or cut out of having a voice in their government. That was a major issue at the time.
As far as the school system was concerned, my recollection is that the desegregation effort of the previous several years had been considered reasonably successful. There was very little disenchantment that I recall. There were some attempts to redistrict various school attendance zones. That always causes controversy, and it did at the time—not in 1975 but a couple years later. It was a fairly large plan that was put out. It caused a lot of controversy, but I don't know that it was necessarily a racially related thing. It was more one of people being disrupted. There was also an attempt to create an elected school board and that began with some controversy. It passed very narrowly. We supported the change. But some of the same arguments were offered there, that southeast Greensboro and other sections of town as well did not have enough input into school decision-making, that it was controlled at the time by the city council. So that was another issue that was of some concern.
But overall I think there was a feeling, as I say, at least on the part of some, that Greensboro had come through a lot of turmoil in the sixties fairly successfully and people were generally proud of the role the city had played in the civil rights movement, and there was a feeling that, at the time, blacks were being elected to prominent positions, most notably Henry Frye who was in the state legislature, I believe the first black in the state legislature. People were very proud of him. He, I think, may even have led the ticket one year, and there was at least one black and there were at different times there had been two blacks on the city council and black representation on the school board and so forth, so I think there was a feeling that the city had done pretty well and considered itself rather progressive in its view of race relations. But there were these underlying feelings of dissatisfaction.
When you say this was the view on the part of some, are you talking about the white establishment, the business community, the city council?
I think probably the established business and government leaders at the time, for the most part, felt that the city did pretty well in race relations. The Human Relations Commission was fairly active, had been active during this time. And I think there was a feeling that if problems arose we could handle them as a city and that race relations were really pretty good. Not that there weren't disagreements but that somehow the city had done well and that you have to look at the school integration or the civil rights movement, all the different aspects of it, that Greensboro stood out in the South as an example of how good race relations could be achieved.
Right. Was the Chamber of Commerce putting forth this attitude as well? I know that in the sixties certainly after things had calmed down the chamber seemed to start projecting that image.
I would say so. The chamber had been, in the late sixties, had been recognized for playing an important role. There were people in the chamber who promoted good race relations, and they had a community committee that, a racially mixed committee, that met regularly, and they made statements of support for various changes and whatnot. A lot of that had died down. The chamber was more complacent when I got here. It was less willing to get involved, to stick its neck out in community affairs. And when it did—I can't recall whether it was that referendum in 1975 or a subsequent one, there were two or three—there were threats of withdrawal by some members of the chamber when the chamber staked itself out of the district election issue. People didn't like—members didn't like that. Some of them threatened to withdraw or did withdraw, temporarily. They came back in as members but—And the executive director of the chamber left a little bit under fire, I think. I don't remember the exact year. So the chamber was not at that time at the forefront, or the cutting edge, of community issues in the way it had been, as I understood it to have been, a few years before—some of the people involved may have moved on or retired or whatnot. But I think the chamber still felt, you know, still promoted a sense that we had good race relations in Greensboro.
Sure. How about the perceptions of the media by the black communities, especially at referendum times, when apparently the paper, with your arrival, seems to have reversed its stand that it had taken that possibly might be—
I think that's correct. I'm not entirely sure, but I think that's accurate. I really don't know, I always feel uncomfortable characterizing how one particular group or another feels about the paper. I think it certainly was noted at the time, I believe, by the people involved. I've never been aware of any great hostility there. There are some issues on which we may have differed with the black community or certain persons in the black community at certain times.
But overall, you know, I'd like to think there was a feeling that we were at least fair in our judgments. Now I'm talking about editorial policy now because news coverage is another issue, related, they're related, but I know there was a feeling at the time, probably justified, that the newspaper didn't pay enough attention to the black community in terms of coverage and perhaps in terms of content. And that's probably a fair criticism, I don't know for sure. I know we do, again, we are told that we're doing a better job of covering the black community now than we did, say, ten or fifteen years ago. That's probably an accurate statement. But on the major issues, on affirmative action, and employment, and supportive activities at A&T [North Carolina A&T State University], and the district elections for city council, and elected school board, you know, I think we stood with the black community at that time on those issues and I think that was certainly, as far as I know, was appreciated and recognized.
Okay. In your best estimation then, how did Greensboro get to a place from being a place that was very complacent, proud of its race relations and so on, to a place in which the Ku Klux Klan end up shooting people?
Well, I think, I guess I'm sort of—in looking back on that period, I think I'm probably a little bit in the middle. I think the incident itself could have occurred somewhere else. It didn't necessarily—there were not indigenous things going on in Greensboro that made it happen here, other than the fact that certain of the people who, some of those who planned this event or were involved in it, happened to live here. It could have happened in Durham, it seems to me. It did happen in China Grove [North Carolina]. There was a confrontation in China Grove before this, that led up to this, and there was a breakdown in police communications about that. Had we had—I think had the people realized the seriousness of that incident, I think there would have been a stronger police presence at the time of that confrontation, but word didn't get out or our police failed to check. There was definitely a failure there to check that out.
In fact, I think one of the reasons the police seemed to take the whole thing lightly was that they didn't really think there was a problem. They really didn't—I don't think they thought the Klan represented a threat. I don't think they thought the CWP [Communist Workers Party] represented a threat other than as some kind of a nuisance factor, perhaps. I don't think anyone thought there would be an armed confrontation like that. I was aware that the—what was called the Workers Viewpoint, WVO or something. Before it was the CWP, it had another name before that—you know, I was aware of some of the people involved in it. It seemed to me that they were a group who kind of seized on societal problems that existed and tried to capitalize on them and to somehow through their tactics to have a confrontation in order to show the world that there was a problem and how ugly and bad it was. And so there were some that were involved in organizing the mills, and there was an ugly strike over at Traders Chevrolet when I first came here that I think subsequently someone looked into, and I think at the time some CWP people, some of the people, may have been involved in that. It was pretty ugly. There was a lot of rock throwing, some violence, maybe from both sides. I don't know—and I am not assigning blame. I just think you could kind of tell when this group was present because they would be—they would try to make you aware of the problem.
Basically I think, you know, they were considered a very small, some fringe group, and my feeling was that people basically, most people had never heard of them, and if they had, they kind of tolerated them as kind of a fringe group, as a group that would make noise about a whole lot of—but I don't think people paid a whole lot of attention to them. I know we didn't give them a whole lot of coverage. There had been some coverage of some of these demonstrations and whatnot. We had never had a major story about the group because there were only three or four people in it at that point that we knew of. So, I think, you know, I'm not—I guess my attitude was that, other than indigenous problems that any city would have, particularly a city in the South, what any city could have, where you still have disparities of income between different groups of people, where you still have a certain amount of de facto racial segregation in housing and so forth, where you have rich people and poor people living in the same community and so forth. I'm still not aware that there was anything in particular that said that Greensboro was ripe for this. If anything, as I said, I think there was sort of a laid-back attitude that the police had that is reflected in the community. That contributed to the incident in my opinion, because I just don't think that people were alert. I don't think the police were really very alert. They basically fell down on the job.
I know there was talk at a time of a conspiracy with the Klan, on the part of the police—with the Klan. One of the Klansmen [George Dorsett] did live in Greensboro, had been, at different times, had been a police informant, and played a role in it. There were some suspicious aspects to it, I think, but none of it really turned out to be, in my estimation, none of it turned out to be anything really conspiratorial. I just think the police were lax. I think they didn't think anything would happen. I think the CWP, to some extent, contributed to the problem because they sort of invited the Klan to come. They had this very violent confrontation, we now know, in China Grove a few weeks or maybe a month or two before. And they passed out leaflets at that time inviting the Klan to a demonstration here, to come to a demonstration here in Greensboro. Of course, there were conflicting reports as to when and where the demonstration was to be held. There was a lot of confusion about it.
We almost didn't cover it here at the paper. We had one reporter who went there, who was assigned to go. I don't think anyone had any inkling that there would be any violence or even if the Klan would show up. I think it was just considered a group trying to gain some publicity and trying to challenge the Klan to see what would happen, in essence. Of course, the reporter went and the whole thing unfortunate—it was on a Saturday morning, and again, there was a lot of confusion about where he should go and what he should do when he got there. There was some indication that—the police claimed all along that they tried to send the police to a different location—they [CWP] denied it, and said that the police had deliberately stayed away.
Looking back on it, I still, other than the fact that these folks happened to live here, and they picked Morningside Homes as the site to, again, to show poverty and to show the evil of poverty and of housing segregation and whatnot, public housing. I really don't know and in talking to some of the demonstrators, some of the CWP folks there after, I certainly don't think they thought that anything like that would come—I don't think even they, even they in their wildest dream ever thought the Klan would show up in force and actually kill people. I think maybe they thought a couple of scuzzy types might come and they might shout at each other back and forth and say, “Get out of here!” or whatnot and “You're bad!” and that kind of thing, sort of like what happened in China Grove.
Of course, they did bring weapons to the demonstration. I don't think they had them, and as far as I know, they did not have them on their possession when they started their march. So you know, I think it was a great shock. It was a greater shock, for that reason, that no one was really prepared for, really had no reason to think that anything would come of it.
Well, there was the real sense of surprise, I remember, when the news broke in Durham and of course was covered quite extensively because—
A lot of those people came from, had been at Duke [University].
Yeah, they had been at Duke, and again there was the sense that Greensboro was an extremely progressive southern city.
Well, you see, again this is—my argument was that the police department was just not accustomed to dealing with something like this. I mean, we hadn't had violence of any kind, other than just the usual homicides and whatnot. We hadn't had—virtually no demonstrations, no violence. There had been some at A&T back in the late sixties, but then I think that they even called the National Guard out for that. But the local police really, you know, had really, I think, just kind of got lulled to sleep. I just don't think they really thought anything would happen. I think that they concluded—that obviously was a tragic mistake, which they reluctantly have admitted.
The officer [Captain Trevor Hampton] who planned the operation—the police approach to it—was himself black. This was not often brought out when there's so much talk about racism and whatnot in the police department. Of course, many of the [CWP] demonstrators were white. There was a black, Nelson Johnson, and Sandi Smith, I think it was, who were also in it, but there were as many whites as blacks and maybe more whites than blacks. So it was more of a—the issues were more class and ideologically—it cut more ideologically along class and ideological lines than they did on racial lines, in my opinion.
So that was one reason that it was such a shock, not only because of the city's reputation but in fact there just hadn't been any violence here. There really hadn't been any confrontation. So, I think—my theory is that it was a kind of an elaborate game of ideological “chicken” which the two groups played back and forth. You had maybe one Klansman here in Greensboro, some from Winston, others, several from the countryside in Lincoln County. These were basically “good ole boy” types, redneck, whatever. Some of them were involved, had been involved, in the Nazi party—pretty nasty people to start with. They thought their honor had been challenged by a group of Communists, you know, “Reds” or whatever, and they were going to come down here and teach them a thing or two. I don't know that they really, I mean I don't know, but I don't think they really came here with the intention of killing anybody. I think it was they got here, and suddenly this group of people comes out and starts banging on their cars with sticks, you know, and suddenly they feel like they're threatened, you know, and then it just, it escalated. One side challenged the other back and forth and they got in fistfights and then went to guns.
Now, where are the police? That was the big—if the police had been there in force, it would not have happened. I really would not have. There would have been some shouting and all the things people thought would happen, but there would not have been any killing, I don't think. If they just even had one squad car there on the corner, but they had pulled back, or they claimed they didn't know when it was going to occur. So, you know, and there were a lot of outcries at the time, “Why didn't they arrest the Klan before they even got here?” Well, you just can't do that, constitutionally, it's not allowed. I think they were trying to bend over backwards to kind of let the First Amendment play itself out and, of course, it did so in tragedy.
Now, what I think the most interesting thing is—the aftermath of this whole thing, which to me, as I say, it was a tragic isolated occurrence, in my opinion, brought on by, to me, two fringe groups from different extremes of the ideological spectrum. Naturally, my tendency was to sympathize more with the CWP because, you know, they were, they were more, I think they were people who were more recognizable to me in their backgrounds, but also they were the ones who were killed. I mean, they did fire their weapons but not very effectively and not very often, and they were the ones who were killed. It seemed to me that regardless of the fact that they had challenged the Klan to come here and so forth—and they did. I mean they had to bear some responsibility for the fact that there was a meeting of the two groups and the fact that they had brought armed weapons. I think they had to bear some responsibility—that still does not justify what occurred and, you know, I think really that justice was never done in the case. I think these people should have gone to jail. They should have been convicted of something.
So you have different phases of it. The original incident, I think, was a shock. I don't think there was anything going on in Greensboro that made it inevitable that it would happen here. Once it happened, I think the community's, all of the community's guards were down, and I think the community responded initially rather badly to the whole—we weren't prepared for it.
There was an attempt to ban marches, to keep the CWP out and the Klan, as well. There was a big hassle over the funeral march that took place. There were attempts to, you know, to dismiss it totally as something that Greensboro had no role in whatsoever. Well, as I said, it wasn't inevitable, but I think that doesn't excuse the fact that the police were not more alert. It doesn't explain away the fact that some of those involved did live here. So I think there was a great defensiveness on the part of the city, which I guess would be a natural reaction. But I think then there were attempts to completely try to stifle debate, to sweep problems under the rug.
I think that the incident, what it did was it kind of tested all of the systems that had supposedly been put in place, you know, after the civil rights era, the first wave of it anyway in the sixties, and I think, I think it really, the system really just was strained to the limits, and in some cases kind of broke down. There was tremendous fear and suspicion, particularly in the black community, because, you know, this had taken place in a black neighborhood, and I think likely some people felt they were threatened. You know, there was, as I said, the police presence was not—behavior was not adequate at all. There was a feeling, that once again the black community had taken it on the chin. It was in their backyard that all this had occurred. [The black community said] “Why? Why are we always the ones to get this kind of mess?” I don't think the blacks were particularly sympathetic at all, contrary to what the CWP hoped. I think that there was not a particularly great outpouring of sympathy for their cause, but I think people just were frightened. I think they just felt their security, their safety had been violated. And then I think there were a number of people who were concerned, you know, that some of the secondary issues that arose from this such as the condition of public housing in Greensboro, some of the things CWP had tried to latch on to, there was a feeling that these problems weren't going to go away. They were here before, and they were here after.
But we had—there was an attempt by the city's leadership to paint Greensboro as a terrific place with great race relations, but all these other things I mentioned had been smoldering, the district system, and problems with public housing, and crime, and problems with the bus system, and so forth. So as a result of all of this, we wrote a lot of editorials saying that while the incident itself may not have had it's roots and things in Greensboro, that the community's response had not been accurate. It pointed out problems in race relations that we didn't know we had, if that makes sense. It was more of the reaction to it, it's the way we handled it and the way we dealt with it, rather than the incident itself. It seemed to me the great—it was as much of a shock almost, and there had to be—there was a lot of scurrying around. A lot of old lines of communication had gotten rusty, but some were somewhat revived between whites and blacks.
For example, what?
Well, there were a lot of interfaith church services and this sort of thing, and there were community meetings. The Human Relations Commission really geared up all of a sudden, not that it hadn't been meeting, but I mean, there were some heated sessions where people came and discussed their fears and complaints. You know, there were a lot of points of contact between black and white leaders that perhaps people again had been a little smug about maybe or complacent about, that really hadn't been used in a while. And I think there was a fear that, in all the confusion and chaos, that maybe there would be other incidents, other things might happen.
And you had the CWP, of course, with the drum beat of conspiracy—of the Klan controlling the city and whatnot. It looked terrible. I mean, looked at in terms of the fact that the Klansmen came in, shot these people, and left. Not even all of them were arrested on the way out. You know, most of them were not even arrested on their way out—it took them a while to arrest them all.
So you had a—I think, a real test there. I think the community did not pass the test in the way it should have, or thought it would. So we wrote a lot of editorials about that, and I did some writing, a series of editorials on: Okay, now that this has happened and it seems to have opened up some ugly scars or whatever, what are they, and what can we do about them? Such as the district system, I mean, you know, they didn't demonstrate—I mean this didn't happen because we didn't have a district system, but if we had had one, maybe the black community would have had a more immediate avenue of contact with the city to find out what's going on, how did this happen, what did the police say, and so forth. I think there was just—I think it was just all that resentment boiling over. Why don't we have the buses? Why don't we do more for low-income housing? This is one of the big issues. Maybe if we had had better housing, maybe there wouldn't have been, you know, the grounds to stage this event, if Morningside Homes had been fixed up, which they have been since then, and a lot of it has gotten, gained a lot of federal money for rehabilitation. You know, things of that kind that should have been dealt with, probably, that the city had let lie dormant.
So, that was sort of my view. I guess I didn't buy the line that the city was basically a tool of the Klan, specifically the police department. But I also didn't buy the line that this was just a totally isolated incident, with no bearing on Greensboro whatsoever, that this was still a terrific place to live with no problems. And, I don't know anybody that has said anything that quite—in a varnished amount. But, I mean that's the way it sounded and I think that was a mistake. I think we had to face it honestly, the fact that we had some problems with race relations. It was demonstrated that we didn't have the lines of communication that we thought we had, that we had not perhaps responded as to the concerns of the black community. So when something like this happened, we were not prepared for it, we weren't ready for it. I mean with all of this resentment about other things had gotten mixed in, you see.
It's been ten years since the Klan-CWP incident. Has Greensboro become complacent again?
I'm a newcomer. I've been here only a year and I've heard an awful lot about how very fine Greensboro is in race relations.
I think there's more to this. I don't know how much more you want to hear, but there's some other phases to this thing, the two trials that took place. The first trial, the state trial, in which they [members of the Nazi and Klan group] were acquitted, there was another uproar after that. How could this happen? And we were among those who questioned, even though you had a jury of peers. I believe strongly in the jury system, whether they are right or wrong. I'd rather have a jury than, say, [Chinese Communist leader] Deng Xiaoping or somebody determining my fate.
But part of the problem in my opinion at the time, and I think now, is that the state went for the first degree murder, and it's much harder to prove, and gave, did not give the jury the option it might have had if they had gone for some other, say, second degree or whatever, when they did not have to prove premeditation or conspiracy. Those are very hard things to prove. So the state prosecutors thought they were right at the time, but they probably overplayed their hand in trying to show that they took it seriously and were not going to let these people get off the hook. The trouble was they walked out scot-free.
That was a great shock and I think, again, our whole criminal justice system was put to a test. And fortunately we had a very good judge. The judge kind of handed to the jury on a platter a number of options. The jury just didn't buy it. So there's been a lot written about it, a lot written about the method of the jury selection—as I recall there were not blacks on the jury for the state. But, the circumstances were very murky and the defense played very cleverly in the fact that the CWP people did have weapons and did fire them, and they even may have fired the first shot. There was some question about that.
So—and when you're going, trying to go for first degree, you have to prove beyond, really beyond a reasonable doubt because you are going possibly for the death penalty. So that was—that really misfired. And it's just really tragic that, you know, at least they weren't convicted for something, whether it was rioting or even manslaughter, because people were dead. And the fact was that none of them were dead, but several of the others were dead. So, you know, if it was really just a clash between two groups who just shouted at each other, then how come there weren't some dead on both sides? It was all one-sided. So I just didn't think that was right or fair.
And then came the second trial, the federal trial—the same thing, with the same outcome. It went on and on and on, and the federal prosecutors really didn't—weren't able to make it stick either, so they got off again. I just think—I still think that was—that really sticks in my craw, still, that they weren't convicted of something, violating civil rights, or even, not even a weapons violation.
Or disturbing the peace.
Something. And I think a lot of people felt very, very upset and outraged about that, people who maybe didn't sympathize with the CWP at all, but just felt that no one should have the right to drive in like that, and calmly open up the trunk of their car and shoot people, even if the other people had weapons. They were the ones who were—it seemed to us they were the ones who were provoking or doing more than provoking—since it was a provocative group. So, I think you had—the issue just didn't die. It kept coming back, you know, in such ghastly forms of the trials, again. And then the trials took weeks and weeks and weeks each. And there were appeals and whatnot. So it really lingered for several years afterward.
Now then we had the famous city council election of 1981. The district system was finally elected but it was done really somewhat by coercion in that Dr. [George] Simkins of the NAACP—the city wanted to annex new territory—Dr. Simkins of the NAACP said he would file suit against the annexation unless the city agreed to a district system, because they were going to bring in all these basically pretty white voters and that would dilute the black vote. And the city, I think, considered challenging them back and forth and so forth. But a committee was put together with blacks and whites—an ad hoc committee met and came up with the district system that we now have—and decided it was better to do it voluntarily at home than to have it imposed by the justice department by a federal judge somewhere else.
But it was done grudgingly on the part of those who had opposed the district system in the past. Nonetheless, it was put in. But in the last—I don't really—I think it was the last at-large city council election—the district system, I think, was on the ballot—my memory is still a little vague. But we had the result of an all-white city council, and I think that that was in 1981. And there was a big outcry over that. I think it stirred up a lot of the passions that had been, again, had been lying there all along, that had been stirred up in 1979, a feeling of frustration of people not having access to government, of being told what's best for them, rather than letting them decide for themselves. So I think that was another psychological set-back in terms of race relations in the city. There was a very tense time after that election.
Once the district system was in place, I think, for the first time, I think it must have been in '83, the district system actually went into effect. Then we had, we got black representation and I think generally things have been somewhat better since the district system has been put in place. It has not fulfilled some of the promises that people had for it. But I think it's working in terms of people having a sense that they have more access and more accountability and so forth. I think it's worked. But that election was a very ugly one, and again, brought out a lot of feelings of hostility.
Now, as far as current conditions are concerned, I think, you know we did a big survey on race relations here at the paper, I think it must have been a year, last year, maybe just the latter part of the previous year, and the finding at the time was that, as usual, the whites think things are fine, are doing fine, and blacks don't think that. I mean, there's a tremendous disparity in the perceptions of blacks and whites as to how well we're doing. And, you know, I have gathered just from what I've been hearing lately that there is a lot of frustration and hostility still in the black community right now, over some of the actions of the county commissioners, the bad feelings about the coliseum and some of the hiring practices there, a general feeling that affirmative action and civil rights court rulings and legislation are being rolled back on the federal level. I think we may be poised for perhaps another of these outbursts if we are not careful.
I think we made some progress in putting the district system in place. We are about finally to take some action on the bus system, but it's taken ten years to do it almost—more than that. You know, we have a low-income housing program in place so we're finally beginning to take action in some of these areas. I think there's a lot of good feeling about the visions process and the bonds passage and so forth. But I think the merger issue [the merging of the Greensboro, High Point, and Guilford County school systems into one] is going to be one if there is one—there's going to be some racial—there already is some racial overtones and undertones to that debate, but I think there will be more. I think it could potentially be something fairly ugly. I don't know that there would be violence. I'm not suggesting that, but I think there are some very hard feelings in that debate. There is certainly a racial component to it, so I think we have—we're into perhaps another period right now of being tested.
And I think, yes, I think it is possible we've maybe fallen back into complacency a little bit. I just don't think these problems are solved that easily—that's one of the things I've learned. When I came here from the outside, Greensboro looked like a very progressive place, it had all these good things going—we had Henry Frye and all of these terrific people who had been elected. And that was true. I mean, there was certainly a lot of that has happened, but I think that—I do think that Greensboro has a tendency to be complacent and to be self-satisfied sometimes in this area, and I think it's coming back to haunt the city. Often because of events that maybe imposed from outside that we might not have much control over, like the shootout. I don't think there was much the city could have done to prevent those two groups from getting together. We do have the right to assemble and demonstrate if they want to. You know, I think we did a much better job when the Klan came to town. Was it last summer? I can't remember.
I can't remember.
The Klan came to town and marched and there was a counter-march, very successfully, that had more people at it than the Klan march. We were ready for that one. We knew. The police were all over the place. And we had a couple events after the 1979 incident. We had a big police presence out, and the city really came out in force and they really didn't want the Klan here and every group in town issued a statement of some kind opposing this, and it was a counter-demonstration. So, I think the city responded much better to those demonstrations.
But, you know sometimes the problems—it's easy to find the Klan, to identify them, now that we know what they're capable of doing. But there are other types of racism and other problems of race relations that maybe aren't as visible as the Klan, who don't announce that they are going to come to town to march on a Saturday morning, and do so. I think those are the ones we have to watch out for, mergers being an example.
So, I don't think we're, again as our survey showed, I think that blacks still have a long way to go. We had another leadership series, on leadership in Greensboro, this past November and one of the messages coming out of it was there are not enough blacks in leadership positions, there are not enough blacks working their way up the ranks of new leaders. We need to find ways to bring them in, to open up the doors and let blacks and women in, particularly, but blacks particularly. There is now a group that's doing this—I don't know how successful they have been—but you have to be proactive and you have to think ahead and you have to plan. You have to try to find issues like mergers where there might be racial problems in advance and try to anticipate it rather than just react. So I think that's been a problem we've had. We just assume because we have black elected officials, because we've made progress, and blacks and whites know where to find each other, that we've really done a great job. I just don't think it's that simple.
Any last words?
That's a mouthful.
It's amazing how easy it is to fill up an hour of tape, isn't it.
Yeah, well, I knew I would as soon as we got going on this subject. No, I don't think so, I think we just have to be vigilant. And we have to have in place institutions and organizations and systems that we can call on, that we don't just test them, dust them off and test them, every ten years.
You know, we shouldn't just be having inter-faith religious services when there's a crisis. In fact, I was just in a meeting of the Greensboro Ministerial Fellowship and that's a group that at one point had sixty or seventy members, it was racially integrated years and years ago—very influential in town. It's now dwindled down, I guess there are maybe thirty active members but about maybe fifteen or twenty come to the meetings. And there was an appeal made at their last meeting to start having—there was a request, I think from some group, that they start having pulpit exchanges between the ministers from the black church and the white church and then vice versa, maybe the choir or whatnot, and have some exchanges, and do it on a regular basis.
Don't just wait until something blows up in your face and then scurry around and try to find, to do that stuff. It's to do it on a regular basis. Then we don't have the stereotypes, we don't have to cut through the stereotypes and hostilities and suspicions to get to know each other. I think that's the problem. I think in the white and black communities—and it's not just in Greensboro, it's in most cities—they live in different worlds. They're happy and they're comfortable in those worlds. They have their own friends, their own clubs and associations. It's only in the workplace or maybe in the schools that they intermingle. And so when something happens, when something occurs, there are no regularly established channels of contact. And I think if people could just meet each other and get to know each other for example through some church exchanges or whatnot or club exchanges. I think then when something happens people will say I'll call—
[End of Interview]