Joyce And Nelson Johnson

Joyce and Nelson Johnson

Civil rights activists: Nelson, b. 1943; Joyce b. 1946

“No nation can endure that violates truth. One human truth is that we are all called to honor the dignity, worth, and potential of each person, as well as the Earth itself. The failure to do so causes ongoing conflict and violence, and untimely lays the foundation for war; but there is hope as we learn to speak truth and walk together.”


  • Winter 1968-69: Nelson Johnson and Joyce Hobson meet in Greensboro, North Carolina
  • May 1969: Protests break out in Greensboro and the National Guard invades the A&T campus
  • May 24, 1969: Joyce and Nelson are married
  • November 3, 1979: Klansmen and Nazis kill five labor activists in Greensboro, enabled by lack of police presence.
  • 1985: Klansmen, Nazis, and members of the Greensboro police department are found to be jointly liable for the deaths of the activists.
  • 1991: Beloved Community Center founded
  • 1993: Faith Community Church founded
  • 2020: Greensboro City Council apologizes for the killings and launches social justice scholarship program

Nelson Johnson met Joyce Hobson met during the winter of 1969, when the two were already activists. She’d graduated from Duke University in 1968, having arrived in North Carolina from Richmond, Virginia in 1964, one of six African American students admitted to the prestigious Southern college that year. He’d run away from the family farm in the hamlet of Airlie, North Carolina, in 1961. After four years in the Air Force, he returned to his home state to attend the predominantly Black, North Carolina A&T State University. During college, she’d helped found the Afro-American Society and organized protests for more inclusive education at Duke. By the end of 1968, he’d led protest marches, supported striking university cafeteria workers, and, just 25 years old, had founded the Greensboro Association for Poor People to support the residents struggling to make ends meet on the city’s east side. When they met and fell in love, the two talked of working together to end racism before returning to more traditional, professional careers.

Tensions in Greensboro were rising during the spring of 1969 when the school system refused to seat the winner of the Black, Dudley High School election for student council president.  The authorities said that the teenager was too radical, evidenced by his close relationship with Nelson Johnson, and they rebuffed Nelson’s attempts to negotiate a solution. When the police began beating up striking students, Greensboro’s Black community, and the students at A&T, became agitated. On the night of May 22, 1969, armed skirmishes between police and citizens escalated. Several police officers were injured and one A&T student lost his life. Veterans of the war in Vietnam studying at A&T secreted guns into dorms to protect the perimeter of the university. Then on the morning of May 23, Greensboro’s mayor ordered a military strike on the Black campus. The National Guard overwhelmed the dorms with teargas, helicopters, and 650 troops. It was the largest military operation on a college campus in American history. The next day, May 24, as tanks rolled by the A&T campus, Nelson and Joyce were married.

Their relationship forged in conflict and engagement with a difficult, but essential question: After civil and voting rights were extended to African Americans in 1964 and 1965, what would it now take to overcome cultural and institutional prejudice to achieve true equality for minorities in America? Before he was assassinated in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. observed that the struggle for human rights had replaced the fight for civil rights. After the violent Dudley/A&T rebellion, Nelson and Joyce Johnson had no illusions about the resistance they would face as they sought the key to opening America’s inspiring ideals of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” to all its citizens.

Over the following years, as they organized laborers, inadequately housed tenants and students around the country, they sought an ideological model for their work. They embraced Black Power, Pan-Africanism and in the mid-1970s, communism, betting on the power of organized industrial workers to create a more just economy in the United States and abroad. By 1977, a multiracial chapter of the Workers Viewpoint Organization had gained a foothold in Greensboro’s enormous textile mills. Besides facing resistance from the mills and the police, the activists had to overcome racial prejudice and a growing White Power movement to bring white and black mill workers together. To address this, they planned an Anti-Klan March and Conference under the slogan “Death to the Klan” for November 3, 1979.

That fall morning, a caravan of nine cars carrying Ku Klux Klansmen and American Nazis arrived at the start of the march. A fight broke out. Then shooting erupted, killing five of the labor activists and injuring many more. Although Nelson Johnson obtained a parade permit and the assurance that the police would protect the march, there were no police present when the white supremacists arrived at Morningside Homes, a Black public housing development in Greensboro.

Despite video of the shooting, all-white juries acquitted the Klan and Nazi shooters, both at state murder trial and a federal criminal civil rights trial. In 1985, a federal civil trial found Klansmen, Nazis, and members of the Greensboro police department jointly liable for the deaths of the activists.

The shooting and the trial outcomes left Greensboro divided and the Johnsons, particularly Nelson, ostracized. He and Joyce began attending church, and he became a pastor, embracing radical Christian love and liberation theology instead of a “dictatorship of the proletariat.” With allies, the Johnsons founded the Beloved Community Center to advocate for economic, racial, and environmental justice. He started the Faith Community Church. And, after years of litigation and hardship, reinserted himself into North Carolina’s public and political life, continuing to lead important struggles for worker justice and against police brutality.

To face the many unanswered questions surrounding the 1979 shooting — why weren’t the police present and why didn’t they stop the Klan and Nazi caravan — the Johnsons pushed to bring a truth and reconciliation process to Greensboro. A citizen-based commission was established to investigate the shooting, the police response, and the trials that followed. It concluded that “some [Greensboro police] officers had been deliberately absent,” essentially allowing the murders to take place. For many years, city officials refused to accept or even read the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report.

Then, in 2020, due in large part to the Johnsons’ and others’ tireless insistence that Greensboro publicly acknowledge the truth of the 1979 shooting, the City Council apologized for the absence of the police that November day and launched an annual social justice scholarship for five students from Dudley High School in the names of the five murdered activists: Jim Waller, Cesar Cauce, Sandi Smith, Mike Nathan, and Bill Sampson.

The Beloved Community Center on Arlington Street in Greensboro still buzzes with activity. Along with powerful pictures representing Greensboro’s history, plaques naming state and national awards the Johnson’s have received for their decades of dedication to struggle for a just and sustainable world decorate the Center’s walls. Nelson and Joyce Johnson have never stopped trying to solve the problems that brought them together in 1969.

– authored by Aran Shetterly

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