PROLETARIAN HISTORY: The Greensboro Massacre

Photo: Paramedics cart away an activist shot by Klansmen in Greensboro, North Carolina

By Gabriel Roshan

On November 3, 1979, five activists were murdered in Greensboro, North Carolina, by the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and the American Nazi Party, in a shootout known today as the “Greensboro Massacre.”

Activists Sandra Smith, César Cauce, James Waller, William Sampson and Michael Nathan were gunned down in broad daylight at a “Death to the Klan” march organized by the “Communist Workers Party” (CWP). The Greensboro Police Department (GPD) was fully aware of the KKK’s plans to incite violence against activists at the march, and they were resolved to let it happen. The police did not act in neutrality; they were staunch collaborators with the KKK and the American Nazis.

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Victims of the Greensboro Massacre

The CWP was originally part of the anti-revisionist New Communist Movement, but were never fully committed to anti-revisionism and ultimately became followers of the arch-revisionist Deng Xiaoping. They came out of the Workers Viewpoint Organization (WVO), who sent its members to Greensboro to organize workers in the textile mills. At that time, the Klan was attempting to contend with unions and WVO for influence over white workers in the mills.

WVO had been vocal about their hatred of the Klan and the need to smash them. In a press statement leading up to the march, the group said that the KKK “must be physically beaten back, eradicated, exterminated, wiped off the face of the earth.”

Tensions between the groups had escalated months earlier in China Grove, 60 miles southwest of Greensboro, when WVO disrupted a showing of The Birth of a Nation, a silent film produced by white supremacist D.W. Griffith in 1915 to portray the founding of the KKK during Reconstruction as heroic. WVO led the Black masses in a march to the community center where the film was being screened. The KKK caught wind of the march and barricaded themselves inside. Elated, WVO proceeded to burn a confederate flag on the center’s doorsteps.

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WVO poster for “Death to the Klan” march and conference

Nelson Johnson, leader of the WVO, applied for and successfully obtained a parade permit, promising the police they would not bring anything but 2-by-2 pieces of wood for picket signs. Both sides were armed with handguns, but the Klan had high-powered rifles and shotguns. WVO advertised a different location to throw off the Klan, but this plan was unsuccessful since the Klan was able to obtain the correct location as it appeared on the permit through one of its own members, Eddie Dawson, who was also a paid police informant.

Dawson had also notified his police handlers that the white supremacists planned on first heckling anti-Klan demonstrators, and if provoked, they would use force without hesitation. Dawson was an agent provocateur, he was personally invited to a Klan rally in Lincolnton on October 20 by leader Virgil Griffin, at which he gave a 30-minute speech to recruit Klan members to confront the November 3 protest. He posted KKK flyers in the area before the parade, was in regular contact with Griffin to coordinate the disruption, and showed Klan members the exact planned parade route the night before. On the day of November 3, Dawson let his handler know that a caravan of armed Klansmen and Nazis were en route to the march.

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Klan members pull rifles and other weapons out of a car

The rally began with songs, chanting, and the burning of a hooded KKK effigy. When the Klan showed up, they began taunting the protesters with racial slurs, soon thereafter their vans were attacked by activists with sticks. A Klansman pulled out a rifle and began firing at the activists, while WVO fired back with handguns. Four activists were murdered on the spot and another died later at the hospital, 10 more were injured, including a Klansman who was beaten with a picket sign.

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WVO member kneeling over the body of a murdered activist

Only one person was arrested directly after the shootout. In total, 16 people were arrested from both the KKK and WVO, but only five Klansmen were indicted. In 1980, the state’s prosecution saw the acquittal of all five Klansmen by an all-white jury. Later in 1983, the federal government reopened the investigation with 9 men charged, but the result was the same.

In a later civil trial filed by survivors, known as Walter vs. Butkovich, it was found that GPD “were jointly liable with white supremacists for a wrongful death,” not all five deaths but only of Dr. Michael Nathan, who was not a member of CWP but a supporter. The city of Greensboro, on behalf of GPD, paid out nearly $400,000 on behalf of the defendants, including the white supremacists, in return the plaintiffs were kept from filing any future lawsuits.

25 years after the massacre, on June 24, 2004, activists and community members initiated the Greensboro Truth and Community Reconciliation Project (GTCRP), which created the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission (GTRC). Based on the South African Truth and Reconciliation commission, the goal was to implement “restorative justice” in areas affected by war, genocide, or apartheid.

Since 2004, they have held many community forums, scoured through countless documents, provided an exact recap of the sequence of events and recommendations on how to move forward. So far there has been an official state historical marker erected near the site and in 2017 the Greensboro city council issued an apology for the incident. These two meaningless gestures were the main recommendations by the GTRC among others, including developing a school curriculum to focus on the Greensboro massacre, issuing of public or private apologies by those who feel regret about the sequence of events, and reforms such as livable wages and anti-racism trainings for city workers.

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State historical marker for the Greensboro Massacre

“Restorative justice,” just like all justice under capitalism, is no justice at all. No number of public apologies, historical markers or healing is justice when the conditions of imperialism exist. The report developed by the commission places the majority of the blame on the police for not acting to stop the massacre, but also claims that inflammatory rhetoric by the CWP provoked the KKK. By focusing on rhetoric over the political roles the police and KKK play in enforcing national oppression and bourgeois rule, the commission demonstrates its service to the ruling class.

Revisionists and opportunists alike have decried the whole event as “adventurist.” The masses, however, especially Black working-class communities, were supportive of the anti-Klan march and showed up in large numbers. The march and its planning did have several errors, but none of them were the result of overestimating the people’s readiness to fight. Johnson even publicly apologized for this action, turning his back on the correct aspects.

First and foremost of these errors was trusting the police by applying for a parade permit and giving them the exact route of the march. It is no secret that the police ranks are full of reactionaries and enemies of the people, and there is a long record of collusion between police departments and groups like the KKK. The police have no interest in protecting the masses and revolutionaries from these groups. They only serve to protect bourgeois rule and enforce national oppression, especially in Black-belt areas like North Carolina.

The WVO also drastically underestimated their enemies, the Klan, Nazis, and police. While they were correct to arm themselves, they still faced a major deficit in firepower when their revolvers were matched up against the assorted rifles and shotguns of the reactionaries. It is unclear whether the WVO expected the Klan to show up at all, especially after the confrontation in China Grove, but in any case the outcome indicates a failure to prepare for this contingency.

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Police report on arms from both sides

Lastly, the WVO failed to take up Mao Zedong’s teachings on guerrilla warfare and the universal military strategy of the proletariat, which today is People’s War. Their formation seems to have had training and experience with guns, but their position was one of passive defense, waiting for the enemy to attack first before firing back. As Mao states, “The enemy advances, we retreat. The enemy camps, we harass. The enemy tires, we attack. The enemy retreats, we pursue.”

The WVO ceded ground to the enemy and allowed them to take the initiative by making their route known to police, rather than attacking them when and where they were weak.

There are important lessons to learn from the Greensboro Massacre. Honoring those who were killed means identifying and correcting the mistakes made and upholding the positive aspects, namely that they were right to confront class enemies then as it is right to confront them now. These activists may have underestimated the Klan, but they had some understanding of the risks and they were willing to march against the Klan and to attack them in an effort to fight for a better society.

The verdicts of the trials related to Greensboro further demarcated class lines, showing that the bourgeoisie and its criminal justice system is firmly on the side of reactionaries. The sacrifice of the anti-Klan activists has better prepared antifascists and revolutionaries today to combat class enemies of all stripes, and this date should be remembered not only as a failure, but as a reminder that reactionaries will not fall unless they are hit.

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Gravestone for the 5 activists murdered in the Greensboro Massacre