Recalling the Greensboro Massacre

Sept. 2017 Greensboro marker
Survivors, family, and community members gathered on May 24, 2015, for the dedication of a marker near the site of the 1979 Greensboro massacre. Photo by Lynn Hey/ News & Record


On Nov. 3, 1979, members of the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party (ANP) attacked an anti-Klan march in Greensboro, N.C., that was organized by the Communist Workers Party (CWP). Five members of the CWP were murdered and 10 others were wounded with the collusion of federal and local law enforcement.

Workers’ Viewpoint Organization (WVO), which changed its named to the Communist Workers Party just days before the massacre, had been organizing in the North Carolina textile industry. Members had taken jobs in textile mills and worked to build multiracial union struggles. Their work in the mills had earned them the hostility of the textile bosses, local cops, and union bureaucrats.

In this period, the KKK was reasserting itself after being dormant for years. The CWP took part in a confrontation with the Klan in June of 1979 at China Grove, N.C., where the KKK was holding a meeting. Protesters at China Grove took up the chant of “Death to the Klan!”Sept. 2017 Klan in Gettysburg

The CWP prioritized anti-Klan organizing, seeing opposition to the KKK as an obligation for communists. Party activists and their allies planned an anti-Klan conference that was to be preceded by a march through Greensboro’s low-income housing projects. The CWP leaflets, emblazoned with the slogan “Death to the Klan,” exhorted the Klan and Nazis to come to Greensboro, stating, “you are nothing but a bunch of racist cowards. … We challenge you to attend our November 3rd rally.” (1)

March permits issued by the police stipulated that demonstrators not carry any guns, despite the fact that open carry was legal in North Carolina. Violation would result in revocation of the march permit.

Police and federal informant Edward Dawson, a convicted felon and long-time Klansman, was urged by his Greensboro police handler to attend meetings where the Klan response to the march was taking place. Dawson spoke at a KKK meeting, where he urged armed action against communists.

Additionally, the American Nazi Party in North Carolina had been infiltrated by an Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) agent, Bernard Butkovich, who posed as an over-the-road trucker. Butkovich also encouraged the Nazis to go to Greensboro armed. However, he reported no discussion of an armed attack to his superiors.

In the weeks before the march, a United Racist Front was declared in a press conference by neo-Nazi leader Harold Covington and KKK Grand Dragon Virgil Griffin. At one gathering, Covington declared, “Piece by piece, bit by bit, we white people are going to take back this country.” (2)

On Nov. 3, as marchers started to gather outside of Greensboro’s Morningside Projects, a column of Klan and Nazi supporters in nine cars started to approach the parade route. Just before the fascists arrived, police officers were ordered by the dispatcher to clear the area, leaving the area unprotected. At approximately 11 a.m., the tactical unit responsible for protecting the rally was ordered to go to lunch. A Greensboro police detective had provided Dawson with a copy of the permit that detailed the parade route. Dawson rode in the lead car of the caravan, which was followed by detectives in an unmarked car.

CWP member Paul Bermanzohn recalled later, “‘Where are the cops?’ Sandi asked me. … We had a tense but consistent relationship with the police. They usually gathered in a swarm around us at least an hour before a march.” (3)

As the KKK arrived on the scene, people started yelling. Dawson leaned out of his truck window and shouted at Bermanzohn, “You asked for the Klan, you got it, you commie son of a bitch!” (4)

After a brief scuffle between marchers and fascists, the Klan and Nazis opened fire with rifles and shotguns, killing CWP members Cesar Cauce, Bill Sampson, Jim Waller, and Sandi Smith. Ten people were wounded. CWP member Mike Nathan died of his wounds in the hospital. Only a couple of CWP supporters were armed with handguns and a shotgun. The shootings were caught on film by the four different news crews that were on the scene to cover the demonstration.Sept. 2017 Greensboro

Two subsequent trials revealed the extent of police and federal collusion with the fascists. In particular the role of Dawson, who was both a federal and local police informant, shows the role of police. At the urging of the police, Dawson had disrupted meetings of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), a Maoist grouping that had an intense rivalry with the CWP. There had been clashes between CWP and RCP supporters. The FBI, ATF, and local cops were intent on disrupting leftist political activity in North Carolina.

In the first criminal trial, six fascists were prosecuted by the state, five of them charged with murder. An all-white jury acquitted all of the fascists. In a federal civil rights trial, all nine defendants were acquitted by an all-white jury despite eyewitness testimony and film of the massacre captured by news crews. Neither Dawson or Butkovich were called to testify in the first criminal trial.

In court, the fascists claimed self-defense and played on the anti-communist prejudices of jurors. The ACLU refused to defend the CWP, citing the violence and arrests. Six CWP members and supporters were held on felony riot charges. For this reason, CWP members were uncooperative with the prosecution in the trials of the KKK and Nazis. They strongly believed that cooperation would help convict their comrades. The attitude of the prosecutor didn’t help when he stated that most people thought that the communists got what they deserved. (5)

The Carter administration’s Justice Department found no wrongdoing by police in the incident, but questions remain about why police were withdrawn from the neighborhood right before the shootings and why the tactical squad was sent to lunch at 11 a.m. Politicians closed ranks in defense of the behavior of the police.

Marty Arthur (Nathan) said later: “Believe it or not, the Klan and Nazi killers walked away free from all three trials [two criminal, one civil]. They were never punished, never spent one day in prison. How can the justice system acquit murderers who four TV videotapes show firing into a crowd and killing five people?” (6) The civil trial, which concluded in 1985, found the Greensboro police department, as well as the Klan and Nazis, liable for wrongful deaths; the CWP protesters were awarded $400,000.

Progressive activists in the region and nationally wanted to build a mass political response to the killings. A mass march was called for Feb. 2, 1980, by an ad hoc coalition calling itself the February 2nd Mobilization Committee. The CWP was reluctant to work with other leftists or broader forces in the aftermath of the murders. CWP leader Jerry Tung had predicted a five-year period of struggle leading to revolution. This perspective of revolution on the immediate horizon required sacrifice and confrontation with the agents of the state and the far right.

Strategy and tactics in the fight against fascism and the far right must be considered carefully. Activists should never underestimate the possibility of cooperation between rightists and the cops. The courts and capitalist politicians cannot be relied on to protect us. Revolutionaries doing anti-fascist work should avoid isolation from broader social forces by building united front counter-mobilizations.

The use of defensive slogans, rather than offensive slogans, is called for. James P. Cannon, a founder and early leader of the Socialist Workers Party, argued, “… defensive formulations are an indispensable medium for teaching the masses, who will not be convinced by theory but only by their own experience and propaganda related thereto. This experience of the masses proceeds in the main along the line of defensive actions. That is why defensive formulations are most easily comprehensible and represent the best approach of the revolutionary Marxists to the masses. Finally, it is a tactical and legal consideration of no small importance in a bourgeois-democratic country that defensive formulas partially disarm the class enemy; or in any case, make their attacks more difficult and costly. Why should such advantages be thrown away?” (7)

After Greensboro, the state and media tried to paint the CWP as the aggressor, using their rhetoric against them. The “violence on both sides” argument we have seen after the Charlottesville fascist mobilization was used decades ago against the CWP.

Immediately after the murder of Heather Heyer last month, the whole establishment, from Mitt Romney to Nancy Pelosi, became “anti-fascists.” Now, despite the evidence that rightists came to Charlottesville with violent intentions, the media and liberals seem intent to blame violence on anti-fascists or “antifa.”

It’s noteworthy that the cops in Charlottesville seemed oblivious to acts of violence that were committed by fascists. One example took place when a person, now identified as a KKK member, pulled a handgun and discharged it in the direction of counter-protesters right in front of a group of cops. The current witch hunt against “antifa” is designed to divert attention from the racist far right and to place an equal sign between the left and right.

1. Love and Revolution: a political memoir, Signe Waller, p 293

2. Through Survivors’ Eyes- From the Sixties to the Greensboro Massacre, by Sally Avery Bermanzohn, p. 194

3. Through Survivors’ Eyes- From the Sixties to the Greensboro Massacre, by Sally Avery Bermanzohn, p. 213

4. Through Survivors’ Eyes- From the Sixties to the Greensboro Massacre, by Sally Avery Bermanzohn, p. 214

5. Codename GREENKIL, Elizabeth Wheaton, p 194

6. Through Survivors’ Eyes- From the Sixties to the Greensboro Massacre, by Sally Avery Bermanzohn, p. 265

7. Socialism on Trial, by James P. Cannon

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