Alumni doctors and an infamous day in Greensboro

Trent Center hosts "Remembering a 1979 Moral Moment: Medical Activists, Racial Justice, and Confronting the KKK"

A COMBINATION of the shared distance of our current experience and the shadows of the past came together in December, when the Trent Center for Bioethics, Humanities & the History of Medicine held a panel discussion as part of its Boyarsky Series on Race & Health. Called “Remembering a 1979 Moral Moment: Medical Activists, Racial Justice, and Confronting the KKK,” the presentation looked back at the Greensboro Massacre, the infamous November 3, 1979, attack by the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party on a peaceful labor rally in Greensboro. The killers were acquitted by all-white juries in criminal court. But when the survivors sued in civil court, attorneys uncovered that the police had helped the killers and enabled the crime. Greensboro finally issued an apology for the events in October 2020.

The panelists recalled the massacre, its aftermath, and their own stories. After an opening presentation from a documentary film, panelist Paul Bermanzohn M.D. ’74 looked directly into his Zoom camera and spoke. Of the five people murdered that day, one had been a Duke medical professor and two were Duke alumni. Bermanzohn, shot in the face during the violence, and several other Duke doctors were also there.

“Some people like to believe that Duke doctors were so plentiful at this event because Duke was a home of progressive thought and action,” Bermanzohn said. “An oasis of progressivism.” The reality, he said, was quite the opposite. “I think that the reason there were a lot of Duke doctors there is that Duke was such a bad place. We cut our political teeth by organizing to struggle, to try and get Duke to change and improve.”

Marty Nathan M.D. ’77 agreed. She attended the protest along with her husband, Michael Nathan ’69, M.D. ’73. And Michael was one of the five killed that day. Long before that, “my experience at Duke was also a radicalizing one,” she said. Describing the carpeted semiprivate hospital rooms middle class and white patients got compared with the “public” wards to which poor and Black patients were assigned then, she said, “the racism and classism literally stunk. I can still smell the combination of urine, feces, and vomit.”

It’s not an easy video to watch, but you can watch it right now (the center has the video available on its pages). And though the panelists were unstinting in their criticism, they looked back not in anger but in the attempt to teach, to inspire. Joyce Johnson ’68, a survivor of the massacre and also one of the founding co-chairs of Duke’s Afro-American Society, went on to help found the Greensboro Truth and Community Reconciliation Commission, modeled on the process founded by Bishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa. “We’ve got to face the truth of our past,” she said, “and the truth of today.

“It’ll be different. And it’ll be better.”

Members of the Duke community watched the presentation from all over Durham, all over North Carolina. From all over. They asked questions, and panelists responded, spoke to one another from different rooms and different states. And viewers asked questions. “Our moment seems so similar to yours,” one asked. “And so little has changed. It seems likely we have to stand in the streets and like you face what comes to make change. Do you still believe change can come, and do you have suggestions?”

Nathan answered that change comes in one way: “Person by person.” Said Johnson, “Have the larger vision of equality, of truth, and knowing that it’s going to be a struggle.”

The struggle remains, and if people must face the questions of the day on Zoom, that’s the way they will face them.

“Change can come,” Johnson said. “Change has gotta come. We can do this, y’all.

“We gotta do it.”

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