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Black Power in Greensboro
In the mid-1960s, the ideals of black self-determination and pride were being spread throughout Greensboro and the nation. The term “Black Power” first entered the national consciousness through Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) leader Stokely Carmichael’s speech at the March Against Fear in 1966. Black Power soon became known as a movement for solidarity within the black community and the fight for racial independence. Later that year, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party, which would become perhaps the most recognizable proponent of Black Power ideology on a national scale. The organization sought to empower the black community and improve quality of life, while providing protection against white attack with armed self-defense.1
Locally, the seeds of Black Power took root in several organizations, many with ties to Nelson Johnson, a North Carolina native who entered North Carolina A&T University in Greensboro in 1965. Johnson heard debates regarding the merit of direct action versus nonviolence while stationed in Germany during his service in the air force in the early 1960s. Johnson had been a supporter of Martin Luther King Jr., but began to question the effectiveness of nonviolent tactics in securing civil rights.2 As a student at A&T, Johnson volunteered with the tutoring group Youth Education Services (YES), an interracial group that provided aid to low income children throughout the state. Johnson soon noticed that black children preferred to work with white tutors. In an interview with Tom Dent, he recalled that, “We [the black tutors] thought it was perpetuating an already weak sense of black identity.”3 This realization fueled his interest in promoting pride and self-reliance in the black community.
Listen to Nelson Johnson discuss
his experience with YES.
Many African American students in Greensboro—including Johnson and Tom Bailey—joined the Foundation for Community Development (FCD).4 In 1967, Johnson joined the staff of the Foundation for Community Development (FCD), a statewide organization with the goal of promoting community activism in low income communities throughout the state.5 Under the leadership of Durham-based Howard Fuller, the FCD began to adopt more Black Power ideologies.6 At a FCD training camp, Johnson recalled beginning to question white involvement in black issues, showing the organization’s burgeoning separatist beliefs.7 That same summer, he joined the Grassroots Association of Students (GAS), which also included some YES and FCD members, to help organize black student activists on North Carolina campuses.8
Discussion of Black Power ideology was not limited to campuses of historically black colleges like Greensboro’s NC A&T University and Bennett College. In the fall of 1967, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro played host to a controversial Black Power Forum, organized by UNCG students to discuss “Black Power, its history, its political and social implications for us and the nation.” 9 Topics at the event ranged from “Black Power and self-image” to “the ghetto” and “urban renewal.”10 Administrators of the university received considerable criticism from the Greensboro community for allowing the event to occur on a state-supported campus. The event, however, exposed both white and black Greensboro to Black Power ideals and proved the community was not immune to radicalism. [View items related to the Black Power Forum.]
The years of 1968 and 1969 witnessed a massive and organized push toward Black Power among African American activists in Greensboro, partly catalyzed by national events. Following the February 1968 Orangeburg Massacre, in which three students were killed and twenty-seven injured when police shot at South Carolina State University students protesting a segregated bowling alley, Nelson Johnson led a march of A&T and Bennett College students carrying an empty coffin to a local cemetery where the S.C. governor was burned in effigy.11 As the Greensboro College student newspaper noted, “It is evident from the above accounts that Southern Negro college students and some white students, especially those in the Piedmont section of North Carolina, are deeply concerned about their rights…[and] interested in combating their injustices.”12 Johnson later recalled the Orangeburg Massacre response as “a key point in terms of crystallizing massive action at the campus.”13
Following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. two months later, students responded by taking to the streets of Greensboro in protest. While marching downtown, African American students chanted “Black Power” and damaged property.14 Police responded with tear gas, and the National Guard was called in when crowds refused to disperse. After a day of peaceful demonstrations on April 5, shots broke out on the A&T campus, violence attributed to Black Power extremists.15 The National Guard was again called in and used tear gas to end the shooting. In response, Mayor Carson Bain called a curfew and A&T President Lewis Dowdy sent students home.16
Listen to Lewis Brandon describe
the impact of King's death.
New organizations developed in Greensboro in response to growing dissatisfaction among African Americans in Greensboro. In the summer of 1968, the Greensboro Association of Poor People (GAPP) was formed, and would become one of the largest sources of community activism in the city. The organization was created as a coalition of A&T and Bennett students and community members against city policies that marginalized black citizens.17 Nelson Johnson, a founder and leader of GAPP, described its purpose: “People need power. They need to define themselves. And they need to use power in a way that was meaningful for them.”18 Also that year, the Black Liberation Front (BLF) formed on A&T’s campus. They fell on the most radical side of Black Power, calling for blacks to “pick up the gun.” The BLF opened allied with the Black Panther group in Winston-Salem and were accused of armed violence in the King assassination insurrection.
In the spring of 1969, Vincent McCullough and Johnson—both activists and GAPP members—were elected president and vice-president of the A&T student body, respectively. Their election showed A&T students’ support of more radical tactics and community involvement. McCullough and Johnson used their leadership to rally the student body around community issues.19 In March, GAPP helped organize a cafeteria workers strike on the campus. Students gathered behind the cause, refusing to dine on campus and marching to President Dowdy’s home in protest. Eventually the school conceded and workers won some of their demands.20 The strike later extended to UNCG’s campus, where many A&T students worked as food service employees. [View items related to the multi-campus food workers’ strike].
That May, Johnson began building Students Organized for Black Unity, (SOBU) what he envisioned as a national organization uniting black community activists. The founding conference, on May 7, happened to coincide with a defining moment in Greensboro racial history and the city’s relationship with Black Power.21 That month, Claude Barnes, a known advocate of Black Power ideology, was barred from running for student body president at historically black Dudley High School for unknown reasons. Many Dudley students were already angered at the school administration for policies they deemed unfair and culturally insensitive, including some, like dress regulations and lack of African American history curriculum, that black students at A&T university had also been protesting on the college campus.22
When Barnes won the election with write-in votes but was still denied the presidency, it touched off a walkout protest on the campus.23 Dudley students then appealed to participants of the SOBU conference at nearby A&T for help, and A&T students began protesting at the school, for which Nelson Johnson was subsequently arrested.24 On May 21, a restraining order was issued to end protests at Dudley and the National Guard was alerted.25 Protests quickly moved to the A&T campus where gunfire broke out and an exchange of fire between police, National Guards, and snipers on A&T’s campus occurred. In the early morning of May 22, A&T student Willie Grimes was shot and killed, the source of the bullet unknown. The next day, National Guard troops raided Scott Hall at A&T and recovered only a portion of the expected weapons. The semester ended early and all students were sent home.27 [Read more about the Dudley/A&T incident]
After the event, members of the black community rallied together to conduct an investigation into the violence. Open meetings were held by the North Carolina Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights from October 3-4 that year. Their report, “Trouble in Greensboro”, published in March 1970, reiterated many of the sentiments of black youths in the Black Power movement. It stated: “The main issue was the unequal treatment of citizens of Greensboro because of their race: discrimination in housing, employment, education, and the delivery of services, coupled with the institutional racism and the unresponsiveness of the official system.”28 The report went on to discuss how many involved in the clash at A&T felt that they lacked representation in local government, leading them to respond through other means.29 However, city government did not respond to changes recommended by the report.
Black Power ideals remained a force in Greensboro throughout the early 1970s as GAPP continued to organize worker and citizen rights protests in the city. In the winter of 1969 into early 1970, GAPP helped organize a strike of blind workers at Industries of the Blind. In the summer, GAPP aided the city-wide public school cafeteria workers’ strike. Then, in the fall of 1970, GAPP led the AAA realty strike, during which renters refused to pay rent to landlords who let sub-standard houses.30 Throughout the mid-seventies, GAPP efforts focused on fighting competency testing and busing, arguing that both policies marginalized black youths.31
But perhaps the most vivid evidence of Black Power in Greensboro was Malcolm X Liberation University, led by Howard Fuller, which relocated from Durham to Greensboro in 1970.32 In the eyes of its founders, MXLU represented an alternative to the perceived institutionalized racism of the American educational system by focusing on black self-determination.33 The move to Greensboro was spurred in part by “its level of community support and enthusiasm for the ideas of Malcolm X Liberation University,” although only about sixty students were enrolled.34
However, in the mid-seventies, Black Power began to give way to competing ideologies. In particular, members of the Black Power movement became divided into more-separatist Black Nationalism versus class-focused Marxism camps.35 When local leaders such as Nelson Johnson took a more Marxist stance, they gradually lost support and funding from the black community, which was turned off by communist rhetoric.36 By the end of the seventies, Black Power in Greensboro and throughout much of the U.S. had dissolved, but its legacy remained in a history of struggle and violence.
CRG Project Assistant
1. Seale, Bobby, Seize the Time: The Story of The Black Panther Party and Huey P. Newton, (Black Classic Press, 1996), 59-62.
2. Dent, Tom, Southern Journey: A Return to the Civil Rights Movement (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc. 1997), 48.
5. Chafe, William H., Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina at the Black Struggle for Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), 175.
20. Ibid.; Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission “From black power to multicultural organizing in Greensboro,” (2006), 49-50.
21. North Carolina Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Trouble in Greensboro: A Report of an Open Meeting Concerning Disturbances at Dudley High School and North Carolina A&T State University (1970) (4.23.38), 10.
24.Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 53.
30. Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 55.