Interview: Loving thy neighbor in North Carolina

Nelson and Joyce Johnson. Photo by Sarah Gibson.

If you hear “Civil Rights history” and “Greensboro,” the first events that likely come to mind are the North Carolina city’s lunch counter sit-ins in 1960. But less celebrated and far less resolved is the 1979 Greensboro Massacre, in which members of the local KKK, with the tacit support of police and FBI agents, shot and killed five anti-Klan protesters. No one has ever been been convicted. At the heart of the truth, reconciliation, and memorialization process since the massacre are the Reverend Nelson Johnson and his wife, Joyce Johnson. After surviving the massacre, the Johnsons received death threats but continued to work locally and nationally in racial justice movements. In 1991, they founded the Beloved Community Center, an organization that focuses on interracial organizing and police and prison reform. At the core of their work is the slow, intimate process of relationship-building with the most marginalized members of their community, a calling the Johnsons attribute to their Christian faith.

I met with them last year as Greensboro was debating whether to erect a plaque at the site for the massacre. In between answering calls about city council meetings and taking care of a sick grandchild, we talked for nearly four hours. Although our interview occurred before the presidential nomination race had gained momentum, their insight into the particular spiritual and psychological state of our country resonates especially today.

Sarah Gibson: Can you tell me about the communities where you grew up?

Joyce Johnson: I grew up in Richmond, [Virginia]. I was born in '46 and grew up in a segregated community that was very nurturing, where there was a strong sense of community despite the poverty and discrimination. My mom was a single parent for a while and worked as a domestic worker for most of that time. Our pastor was aligned with progressives, and the meetings for the sit-ins were held at our Baptist Church. Already as a pre-teen I began thinking I wanted to change [racial inequality]; I thought I would do it in just a few years, get that racism taken care of, you know, and then move on (laugh).

Nelson Johnson: I grew up in a little town of 1,000 in Halifax County, [North Carolina]. The people who were descendants of the owners of our people—the slave masters—all had the same name as us. My dad had a little land but a lot of people were sharecroppers. Farming was really hard work—I didn't see any future in that whatsoever. Most of the people I graduated from high school with got out of the area as fast as they could and went up to Baltimore.

SG: It sounds like despite its violence, segregation also created opportunities for cross-class solidarity by forcing all economic backgrounds to live beside one another—in the 1960s were you already sensing the loss that might accompany integration, or has that understanding emerged in retrospect?

JJ: No, I think it was there [even then]. At Duke, I quickly began to understand the estrangement that might happen because of integration. When I was in downtown Durham, [North Carolina] people would ask where I went to school, assuming I went to an HBC and I would say “Duke” and Black people would be shocked. Some were proud, and others seemed to resent you…. It was like the Duke plantation because the only Black people working there were non-academics. I found Black students on campus who started believing the myth that we were better, and I didn't buy that. But let me stop—Nelson—you should go ahead.

NJ: Oh no, I'm enjoying this (laugh).

SG: What was your process of politicization after high school?

NJ: I left the Air Force in 1965 and I came to NC A&T, an HBC in Greensboro, in the middle of the Black Power movement. I was totally swept up in it. I had never been to a place with so many Black people talking so much smack (laugh). I became enamored with the need for knowledge, with a sense of history that I hadn't gotten in school, and the sense of urgency of doing something.

SG: That urgency seems echoed today in the movement against police violence and systemic racism. Do you think that the way people are talking about the necessity of change now is similar to what you felt in the ‘60s?

NJ: I think there's a definite similarity, but it's important to make clear the differences. The people today who feel a deep, deep sense of urgency are the poor Black men and women who are treated any way by the police. The richest 1 percent in the world owns half of the world's wealth and the lower 80 percent of the world owns 5.5% of the world’s wealth. The significance of those numbers means that a lot of people have to seek a way to survive that's outside of the law. It's arithmetic almost. The police will have to increase, and as they increase it becomes a greater part of their culture to define certain people as unworthy.

JJ: I agree that the circumstances mirror what we were seeing in the 1960s, but the absence of community is so profoundly deep. I can think of people who got into trouble in my day, and their parents might not have been well-established but someone knew them, someone—from church, from the neighborhood—could vouch for them and say, “This is Joyce's boy and let's give him a chance.” Well, communities have splintered. There's a real sense of abandonment from the people who have not been doing so well and their cousins who may have done better.

NJ: You know, when you are an oppressed people, the classes are crushed together despite each person's different gifts and skills that would normally separate them from the pack. In the Black community in the 1960s, it didn't matter if you were a doctor or professor; at sundown you were Black. There's much more of a class division now. There is a sense in which integration opened up the door for upward mobility for some and blocked others.

JJ: Back in the Civil Rights Movement we were aspiring to get more fully into the system itself, not fully recognizing that the system itself is organized such that someone's always going to be oppressed. So getting in meant that you were also part of the oppression of other people, including your own people. You became part of undermining your own humanity and soul.

SG: Maybe this is reductive, but it seems that what you're talking about are the basic features of capitalism itself, of there being a class of superfluous, undervalued people that is actually inherent to how our economy and society function.

NJ: Language is a funny thing, like who is for or against capitalism—it's a sort of meaningless discussion. The direction that the economy has taken in the nation and the world has to be changed. Otherwise, it will ask people to drown without even struggling when they sink. The question that we are confronted with in the next 25 years is: Can we raise the level of knowledge and the level of ethics and morality fast enough to actually make the transition without the nation turning on itself?

SG: You've talked about the need for deep compassion for people whose lack of access to opportunity has pushed them into cycles of crime. What are the ways that people who have real proximity to crime can maintain compassion even in the midst of fear?

JJ: The simple answer is love and compassion. There are people who are close to me—folks I grew up with, or family members—who have been intimately acquainted with crime, so it's not like I think you should just ignore the fact that someone stole your laptop. Theft is something that I don't uphold, but I know that our economic, political, and social system is based on theft, in terms of wages and people's lives. Since the inception of this country we've been going to other places and stealing people's land and resources, so understanding that and knowing that people are mimicking some of what they see, is important in compassion.

SG: You host community meetings at your church with people from many different faith backgrounds, including folks who have an antagonistic relationship with the church. How does the language of the church resonate with these people?

JJ: First of all, we acknowledge that not everyone is coming from the same place. For me, the spirit of love and inclusiveness and respect for everybody is what drives me to do what I do; the studying and practicing of that takes the form of Christianity. I've found that there's no limit to spirituality—many folk who don't practice religion are very spiritual people, and for me, spirit is that thing you can't define; you can't see it except for when it's manifested in practice. It's not a declarative I'm-following-Jesus-Christ-no-matter-what kind of thing; some of it is just being yourself. People tend to respect that.

NJ: How does love show itself in particular situations? It's been my experience that with people who've had bad experiences of religion—of being shouted at and preached at, who've been renounced and so forth—I lead as best I can with what love looks like in this particular situation and this moment. Last month I met with some felons. When the question of religion came up, most people said: "I don't want to be bothered by that. I've had such a bad experience with that." But they liked me (laugh) so we're setting up a meeting—we're having it in the church, but they're not “coming to church,” so to speak. It's interesting, that balance.

SG: Have you found that your being a Reverend gives you access to certain politicians or adversaries who otherwise might not welcome you?

NJ: In 1987, eight years after the KKK had attacked us at an anti-klan march in Greensboro, I heard that they were planning to come to Greensboro. After praying about it, I decided to reach out. I called Carol [the Grand Dragon for the KKK] and explained that I would meet him anywhere. He said "Okay, the condition is that you come and come by yourself and meet me at a filling station, and I'll have on a Yankees hat.” When I headed down there I got scared and I stopped and prayed. It didn't release me from all the fear but it released me from enough that I kept going on. At the filling station I saw this double-seated pick-up truck with six men in it. One man got out and he had a Yankee hat on. I said, “Are you Crawford?” He said, “Get back in your car and follow me.” I thought he was going out to the woods somewhere but he went to a Holiday Inn. We started to talk and I asked him, “Why are you against Black people? We haven't done you any harm.” They came up with every reason they could hate us. They started talking about raping their women, us taking textile mill jobs. I said, “Carol, listen to me: I'm not saying no Black man ever raped a White woman, but in these huts and in the Masters' house, our women were abused to no end. You know that. The textile mills are leaving—we don't have any jobs; you don't either. Name me a Black men who's the owner of one of those mills”.
I said: “We have a common claim, however we understand it. And that common claim is that we're Christians and I heard Jesus say: Love your enemy, particularly those who despise and abuse you. I'm down here on the basis of my obedience to and belief in that. I'm here to ask you to not come to Greensboro because you're spitting on the graves of the people you killed”. They agreed they would bring their firearms but not load them. At the end, Crawford said, "Do you know why you're sitting where you are?" I said, “Because this is the seat you offered me." He said, “My men are out there and they've had a bead on you, because we thought that you were gonna have some guys bust through here, and that you had a trail car behind you. We thought you were trying to set us up." “No”, I said. “I came down here on faith, to ask you not to come. So if this is the best I can get, I'll take that and I'll take you at your word.” I turned their names over to a White church in Greensboro. I felt I had done what I could do to make connections, but that the White church ought to take this up. I never heard from them, and that was the end of my conversation with the Klan. But that was a case when faith was central; I laid out their claim and tied Jesus to it.
I didn't take offense outwardly at what they said about Black people. I was talking to the great grandchildren of poor Whites who probably didn't benefit from the plantations, who lost the war and still feel they have been the targets of the carpetbaggers. I was trying to go where they were, so that I could feel what they were feeling without compromising my own integrity. How do we understand somebody else's journey? That's the way that I've approached street groups and gangs and everyone else. I think Love requires us to, as someone says, seek first and understand.

SG: It sounds like you hoped that the White church would take up this effort. Can you talk about the need for White communities to engage in dialogue amongst themselves about White privilege, racial justice, and racial violence?

NJ: The mutuality of growth in Whites organizing and educating other Whites is not there when Blacks like myself are doing all the racial justice work. it's not that we shouldn't do it; it's just that the process would be richer, more powerful, if, say, the Lutheran church in Greensboro invited the Klan to talk some things out. When Whites are working with poor and marginalized Whites, they actually have to say and believe something that reduces their own stature. In other words: why are poor White folk feeling like this, and what role have privileged White people played in that process? The traditional explanation is that Crawford was telling me: We're bad off because of y’all. Y’all took our women and our jobs; you stole stuff from us." A White person committed to racial justice can't agree with that—they know better—but they have to say something. What is it that you will say? The same goes for Black community, which is very stratified. Middle class folk need to sit with their brothers and sisters, because you're where you are partly at their expense. People of faith should be working on this.

SG: Yes, I can see how anti-racist education within White communities requires a greater introspection on the part of privileged Whites.

NJ: People are always saying frank conversations of race are difficult, and they are, but that begs a question: why are they so difficult? Because to some extent, the creation of Whiteness itself was required to enslave people, to oppress them. You have to dismantle the history of Whiteness itself, since we are all inscribed in some group that provides security and identity—a family, a gang, a church. For a group that's enslaved for 200 years and whose color was used to justify that, you inscribe your identity in the context of this Whiteness. I am a Black man in part because there are White people; otherwise I would be, simply, a man. That's deep—it's not “Oops we made a mistake.” It's hundreds of years of that thought. We, Black folk, have to struggle with that and come out of it. So should other people. The privilege of being White, at the end of day, is not a privilege, although it is a material advantage. It's a tremendous spiritual and psychological sacrifice, because it makes you believe you are more than you are, that you are somebody you're not. And conversely, it inscribes deeply in the Black psyche that we are less that we truly are.

SG: Does this work have to happen in a church?

NJ: We have to create something outside of the church but still intricately related [in order] to bring this about. I see Jesus that way; he was always a part of [the temple] but he was very much outside of it, and he upset people—healing a woman in the front of the temple when women weren't even supposed to be inside. Lincoln wrote that the ultimate critique of a society is its religious institutions. Where our society is today—it is a critique of the church...You can't have 500 churches in Greensboro and Greensboro have some of the things it's doing without that being a critique of the church. You don't want to renounce the church entirely, but how do you work inside and out of it?

SG: What's your involvement today in BlackLivesMatter locally and nationally? There's been a debate about leadership in that movement; do you think the lack of traditional leadership and more horizontal decision-making structures is its very strength?

JJ: My interactions mostly has been positive. I see leadership—I just think they're striving to be more in touch and connected with those with whom they're working, and more democratic. Often "leadership" mimics leadership in the dominant culture that really divides and confuses and oppresses us. I see clear leadership in these young people; they have different roles, and they appreciate that and therefore are all the stronger.

NJ: I saw people having a view of not exalting any one leader. A way to think about this is to start by asking: "What is leadership?" One concept is to control and to dominate, and another is to facilitate the capacity and potential of others; [this] is slower, it takes more time, it hears more deeply. I think that's the kind of leadership that is required of the coming period. It's not going to look like King; it's going to look like what we've seen with these young people in Ferguson and here in Greensboro—meeting together, talking to each other.

SG: What has it been like to share this work and life with your spouse?
JJ: It's really been a joy and a challenge. We've loved our children and are crazy about our grandchildren…I've often said what has motivated me has been my children because I really want them to have a better world. I just cringe sometimes to think about the kind of world that my grandson is growing up into. He has wonderful potential. He's smart, active, questions everything—just all the right characteristics, but I know that those characteristics will be a threat to his existence. So working together with Nelson, it's a real joy to have someone who has taken the same aspirations as you have. I truly believe that we were brought together by the spirit. The way I tell it, we met and three months later got married. For the first year I was questioning "What have I done?" (laugh) and I'm sure he was questioning too. But common interests and love for our people and for children, kept us together. It was just wonderful when we'd get back home—(we'd ten work in different places) and spend some time summing it up. It was deep and rich.

SG: How have you balanced and challenged gender roles within your family?

JJ: I'd often tell people that Nelson couldn't ever be too good because he was born in America and therefore carries some of the scars of male dominance. So his aspiration was for equality, but part of my role was to check him, like, "This ain't equal," you know? And what I've found that we've served as a model and example for a lot of people, because so many of our friends who were really committed to the struggle—it's been hard, in terms of family ties. But any family can play a role. In fact, if you look at Selma, there are many families who did things; it's not incompatible. It's mainly a motivator. (To Nelson) So what say you, papa?

NJ: Ditto! (laugh) I don't know how I would have done this without having a loving wife and I think we're a real compliment to each other. That's a short way of saying what you just said.

JJ: But you don't speak short briefly too often, so...

NJ: Well, I could speak my tongue.

JJ: (laugh) No I'm not advising you to. Don't misunderstand me.

NJ: Joyce has a way of reminding me that I'm a male.

JJ: (laughs) And I love you for it!