AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Forty years ago in Greensboro, N.C., five people were killed during a Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazi massacre. They were community activists who were trying to organize textile mill workers. This weekend, a conference will celebrate the lives of those killed and explore the responses to right-wing violence then and now. David Ford from member station WFDD reports.
DAVID FORD, BYLINE: On that November day in 1979, throngs of people gathered at a housing project in Greensboro.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST AMBIENCE)
FORD: Several TV stations, including WFMY, were there at the start of the anti-Ku Klux Klan march and conference. The Reverend Nelson Johnson helped organize it.
NELSON JOHNSON: I rose early that morning, and I was a little troubled because the fog was thick. But by about 9:30 the fog started to lift, and it was a beautiful, bright, sunny day, and I was feeling quite jubilant.
FORD: A few hours later, that feeling turned to terror when 10 cars carrying dozens of American Nazi Party and KKK members stormed in.
JOHNSON: I was fighting for my life. A Nazi charged me with a long butcher knife. He tried to drop and bring it up to rip my intestines, and I blocked it with my arm. The knife went through my arm, and I can't lift this finger to this day.
FORD: The protesters also had guns, and as the shots faded, Johnson saw the bodies of his friends lying motionless, the Greensboro Police Department nowhere to be found. Johnson says he felt utterly betrayed. When the police did arrive, they wrestled him to the ground and hauled him to jail.
Six years later, in a civil suit filed by survivors against the city, a jury found eight people - including two police and their informant - liable for the death of Dr. Mike Nathan, who was among the five shot and killed. His wife, physician and activist Marty Nathan, says the city's settlement was not enough. She wants officials in Greensboro to address head-on what their predecessors did, rebuke the cover-up and assure people it will never be repeated.
MARTY NATHAN: And I need that. My daughter needs that. She was six months old at the time. She never knew her father because they let this happen. And I want her to be able to come to Greensboro one day and say, OK. I feel safe here.
FORD: For people like Marty Nathan, the work to remember the events of that day continues. She says even decades later, just getting the word massacre on the city's historical marker was considered a major victory. Here's Greensboro's current mayor Nancy Vaughan.
NANCY VAUGHAN: It was a statement of regret for the loss of lives and for those who were injured. And we know that it has divided this community, and we are committed that something like that would never happen again.
FORD: Mayor Vaughan concedes this will continue to be a divisive issue here. Choreographer Ana Maria Alvarez finds the word divisive in this context confusing. After all, she says, this is about her family, both parents union organizers witnessing the murder of their closest friends at the hands of Klansmen and neo-Nazis.
ANA MARIA ALVAREZ: It's a continuous healing and a continuous building the movement and the legacy of - and that we owe it to the Greensboro Five to continue to move forward powerfully and to not stop la lucha, the fight.
FORD: As the community reflects on what happened 40 years ago, artists like Alvarez are coming together, harnessing the lessons and horrors of the past and transforming them through the joy of song and dance. She says it's one way to inspire future activism and honor the past.
For NPR News, I'm David Ford in Winston-Salem, N.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.