When I saw the images and heard the video of the young white supremacist men parading with lit torches around the campus of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, my thoughts returned to another massacre on the streets of the quiet southern town of Greensboro, N.C., my home for 20 years.
Shortly after 11 a.m. on the Saturday of Nov. 3, 1979, a nine-vehicle convoy containing 37 members of the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party fired their shotguns into a crowd of 100 black and white protestors during a rally calling for economic justice for textile workers in North Carolina. Five people (one black, three white and one Cuban American) died and 10 others, including my childhood friend, Paul Bermanzohn, were wounded.
Paul and I grew up together in an immigrant neighborhood in the Bronx. Our parents both came from Poland. My parents immigrated to America before Hitler rose to power; Paul’s parents, however, endured the horrors of Nazi Germany and were the sole survivors of their large extended families.
Paul was especially targeted as one of the organizers and was deliberately shot in the head by a Klansman. Like his parents, Paul miraculously survived. The perpetrators were all acquitted. It wasn’t until May 25, 2006, that the results of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission condemned the KKK, the American Nazi party, the Greensboro Police Department and the city itself for being responsible for the events 26 years prior and the subsequent coverup.
Paul almost died defending the rights of the most vulnerable. I became alive with an insatiable passion to make things right. I answered the prophetic call and deployed myself to serve the people in my Greensboro community.
How does one even begin to repair the broken hearts of a city torn by violence and hate? More than a decade later, I would enter seminary to become a rabbi, a teacher and a preacher for social justice.
In my recently published memoir, “You are the Book,” I expand on my role in the aftermath of the Greensboro Massacre, and describe how I bore witness to other acts of bigotry that turned deadly. Unfortunately, the hate and violence caused by white supremacy and anti-Semitism appeared over and over again in my life. While I have encountered the worst tragedies of hate, I have also received the greatest healing of love. Despite the pain, I learned ways to keep my positive view.
Remembering the past will help us to deal with today’s challenges. While each generation thinks it’s encountering something new, looking back can shed a bright light on how to make positive changes.
Every time I enter the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, I confront the evils of the past and I teach the value of history to the masses. The motto of this institution is written boldly along the walls: “What you do matters.” It has become my moral imperative.
Rabbi Tamara Miller served as the director of spiritual care at George Washington University Hospital and is a docent at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.