The matter of memory : visual and performative witnessing of the Greensboro massacre
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This report explores the role of documentary art in the constitution of collective memory in Greensboro, North Carolina, between the years 1999 and 2004. In that city on November 3, 1979, Ku Klux Klan and Nazis killed five labor organizers in broad daylight. Television news crews, on site to cover the anti-Klan march scheduled for that day, captured the killings on film. In spite of this evidence, all-white juries twice acquitted the Klan/Nazis of any wrongdoing. In the weeks and months that followed the massacre, city officials and mainstream media sought to disassociate Greensboro from the event, generating a master narrative that portrayed both the Klan/Nazis and labor organizers as outsiders, and the city as an innocent bystander. This narrative covered up the fact that the Greensboro police had extensive prior knowledge about the potential for violence, and yet were mysteriously absent when the Klan/Nazis arrived on the scene. In a third trial—a civil suit brought against the city by survivors of the shooting—Klan and police were found jointly liable for wrongful death. Twenty-five years later, the massacre and its aftermath served as the impetus for the first Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the United States. In the years leading up to the Commission, six artists—including the author—made or presented artwork in Greensboro about the killings. Importantly, none of the artists were from Greensboro or had any direct connection to the massacre. However, through their creative processes and final artworks, they made an implicit claim about the political relevance of remembering and engaging with the full history of November 3, 1979. Collectively, the art spanned a variety of mediums, including theater, paintings, music, and dance. Through interviews with the artists, archival research, and qualitative analysis, this report argues that the artists helped to generate the potential for an expanded, poly-vocal collective memory of the massacre. They did this through practices of citation and translation—converting the archive of factual history into aesthetic and material forms—that made the events of November 3, 1979 available to community members for encounter and interpretation in the present.