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Lewis Pitts: The facts about Jim Melvin and the Greensboro Massacre

Lewis Pitts Guest columnist

  • Apr 4, 2021


A significant number of Elon law students and alumni recently petitioned to remove the portrait of former Greensboro Mayor Jim Melvin from the school because of his actions related to the Greensboro Massacre on Nov. 3, 1979, during which five anti-Klan demonstrators were killed and others were wounded. Some people have jumped to Melvin’s defense in the pages of this paper and criticized the students. This criticism misses the point and diverts attention from the core wrongdoing of Melvin.

That point is, in 1979, police officials, including the chief, had extensive prior knowledge that armed Klansmen and Nazis planned to come to Greensboro to violently attack the anti-Klan demonstrators. In late 2020, after more than 40 years, our City Council apologized for the city’s role in the massacre, admitting: “WHEREAS, Greensboro’s police department in 1979 (the “GPD”) along with other city personnel failed to warn the marchers of their extensive foreknowledge of the racist, violent attack planned against the marchers by members of the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party with the assistance of a paid GPD informant ... .”

The portrait in question is of the man who led the effort to cover up those facts.

Melvin’s misdeeds are more relevant today than ever, given the rise of violent white supremacists groups and collusion with government officials, as recently as January 6 at the White House.

Undisputed facts justify removal of the portrait because Melvin:

Refused to recognize the Greensboro Massacre as an event for which the city’s police department played a role. He continues to frame the event as a “shootout” between extremist groups while denying any city responsibility (on-camera interviews with Melvin in the documentaries “Greensboro’s Child” by Andy Coon and “Greensboro: Closer to the Truth” by Adam Zucker).

Claimed falsely that the survivors of the Greensboro Massacre were “outsiders” who had no connection to our city (Greensboro Truth & Reconciliation Commission Report, page 377).

Contended that the demonstrators “caused themselves to be killed” (Coon film).

Used his power, in concert with other city officials, to pressure news editor Gary Cepnick of WFMY-TV before he aired coverage of the event (Cepnik interview, GTRC Report, page 234).

Emphasized that the victims were communists (and yes, they were members of the Communist Workers Party) expressly to demonize them and divert attention away from the stark evidence of police collusion with the Klan and Nazi attackers (Coon and Zucker films).

Actively referenced false reports written by the Greensboro police soon after Nov. 3, 1979, and persisted in concealing the role of the police informant (GTRC Report, page 376).

Continued covering up the role of undercover agent Bernard Butkovich of the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the prior knowledge passed along to the police and city officials — well after that information was made widely available at the public federal civil rights trial in a lawsuit brought about by the victims and survivors of the massacre (Coon and Zucker films.

On multiple times belittled and discredited both the establishment of and the final report written by the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission (GTRC).

Claimed not to care what the GTRC concluded because he said he sat through the state criminal trial in which an all-white jury acquitted the Klan and Nazis of all charges. During that trial, the prosecution, led by District Attorney Mike Schlosser, made no mention of the existence of Greensboro police informant Ed Dawson and did not call him as a witness despite Dawson’s prior knowledge of the Klan and Nazis’ plans to violently assault the anti-Klan demonstrators (Coon and Zucker films).

Asserted, over and over, that Greensboro needed to be concerned with its reputation, rather than attending to the needs of survivors and others terrorized by the events of Nov. 3 (GTRC report, page 376).

The Elon law students initially wrote to the faculty and administration in June 2020, soon after the death of George Floyd, expressing their fears and requests to remove the portrait, including this: “We just want what everybody else wants: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Our lives are under attack, our liberty is in question, and we cannot be happy while dying at the hands of those supposed to protect and serve.”

I, for one, am very thankful for their leadership and courage to speak truth to power.

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