Greensboro massacre

Greensboro massacre
LocationGreensboro, North Carolina
DateNovember 3, 1979
Target"Death to the Klan" march
Attack type
Shootout, mass shooting, Political violence, domestic terrorism
AssailantsCommunist Workers Party protesters
American Nazi Party
Ku Klux Klan

The Greensboro massacre is the term for an event which took place on November 3, 1979, when members of the Communist Workers' Party and others demonstrated in a "Death to the Klan" march in Greensboro, North Carolina, United States. The CWP, which advocated that Klan members should be "physically beaten and chased out of town", exchanged gunfire with members of the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party.[1] The CWP and supporters had handguns (unknown how many--estimates range from one to three) while KKK and Nazi Party members are visible on news footage from the event getting rifles from a car trunk and opening fire on CWP members.[2] Four members of the Communist Workers' Party and one other individual were killed, and eleven other demonstrators and a Klansman were wounded. The CWP supported workers' rights activism among mostly black textile industrial workers in the area.[3][4]

Two criminal trials of several Klan and ANP members were conducted: six men were prosecuted in a state criminal trial in 1980; five were charged with murder. All were acquitted by an all-white jury. A second, federal criminal civil rights trial in 1984 concluded with the acquittal of the nine defendants. In the first trial, the jury concluded that the defendants acted in self-defense. In the second trial, the jury concluded that the defendant's actions were based on political, rather than racial, motivations.

Survivors filed a civil suit in 1980, led by the Christic Institute. The case in federal district court accused numerous police officers and four federal agents, as well as Klansmen and ANP members, of violating the civil rights of those killed, and it also charged the city with failure to protect the legal demonstration. The jury found the Klan/Nazi shooters liable for the death of Michael Nathan, the only non-CWP victim.[5] The jury also held the Greensboro Police Department responsible for failing to do more to prevent the shootings, because it was told by an informant that the KKK planned violence. These groups were ordered to pay a total of $350,000 in damages. This is one of the few times in US history when "a jury held local police liable for cooperating with the Ku Klux Klan in a wrongful death."[6]

On November 3, 2004, marking the 25th anniversary of the killings, about 700 people marched through Greensboro to city hall, on the original route.[7] That year, private citizens organized a Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission, modeled after commissions in South Africa and elsewhere. The intention was to investigate and hear testimony concerning the events of 1979. The organization failed to secure authority or local sanction when the mayor and most of the City Council voted against endorsing the undertaking. It lacked both subpoena power to compel testimony, and the ability to invoke the punishment of perjury for false testimony. The commission issued a Final Report concluding that, while both sides had contributed to the massacre by engaging in inflammatory rhetoric, the Klan and ANP members intended to inflict injury on protesters, and the police department had colluded with the Klan by allowing anticipated violence to take place. In 2009 the Greensboro City Council passed a resolution expressing regret for the deaths. In 2015 the city unveiled a historical marker to acknowledge the Greensboro Massacre. Three hundred people attended the ceremony. On August 15, 2017, the Greensboro City Council apologized for the massacre.[8]


The Communist Workers' Party (CWP), which followed the policies of Mao Zedong, had its origin in 1973 in New York as a splinter group of the Communist Party USA. "The CWP was one of several groups established as part of a Maoist revival within the radical community. To the Maoists, the pro-Soviet Communist Party USA was deemed to be soft on capitalism and lacking in militancy."[5] Its leaders intended to increase activism in what they called the Workers Viewpoint Organization (WVO), along the Maoist model. In 1979, members of the CWP came to North Carolina in an attempt to organize textile workers. In the South, the communists had achieved little success with white workers, so they shifted much of their attention to black textile workers. These efforts brought the CWP into conflict with a local Ku Klux Klan chapter, and the American Nazi Party. Some CWP members worked personally in the textile mills, including James Waller, who left his medical practice to do so. He became president of the local textile workers union. WVO members were active in Durham and Greensboro.

The WVO pushed back against racial discrimination in North Carolina by confronting a local Ku Klux Klan chapter. Hostility between the groups flared in July 1979, when protesters in China Grove, North Carolina, disrupted a screening of The Birth of a Nation, a 1915 silent film by D. W. Griffith which portrayed the era of Reconstruction and the formation of the Ku Klux Klan in heroic terms, and portrayed blacks in a demeaning, racist way. Taunts and inflammatory rhetoric were exchanged between members of the groups during the ensuing months.

In October 1979 the WVO renamed itself the Communist Workers Organization. It planned to stage a rally and a march against the Klan on November 3, 1979, in Greensboro. This was the county seat of Guilford County and it had been a site of major civil rights actions in the 1960s, starting with sit-ins that resulted in the desegregation of lunch counters. Called the "Death to the Klan March" by the CWP, the event was scheduled to start in a predominantly black housing project called Morningside Homes on the black side of town and from there it would proceed to the Greensboro City Hall.[9] The Communist Workers' Party distributed flyers that "called for radical, even violent opposition to the Klan".[3] One flier said that the Klan "should be physically beaten and chased out of town. This is the only language they understand. Armed self-defense is the only defense."[3] Communist organizers publicly challenged the Klan to present themselves and "face the wrath of the people".[10]


Four local TV news camera teams arrived at the Morningside Homes at the corner of Carver and Everitt streets to cover the protest march. Members of the CWP and other anti-Klan supporters gathered to rally the march, which was planned to proceed through the city to the Greensboro City Hall.

As the marchers collected, a caravan of ten cars (and a van) filled with an estimated 40 KKK and American Nazi Party members drove back and forth in front of the housing project. Several marchers beat the cars with picket sticks or threw rocks at them. In response, the KKK and ANP members got out of their cars, took shotguns, rifles and pistols from the trunks, and fired into the crowd of protesters. Some of the latter were armed with handguns, which they fired during the brief conflict.[3] It is not entirely clear who fired the first shot.[3] Witnesses reported that KKK member Mark Sherer fired first, into the air.[11] According to NSPA member Frazier Glenn Miller, the first shots were fired from a handgun by an anti-Klan demonstrator.[12]

The KKK and American Nazi Party members quickly killed Cesar Cauce, James Waller, and Bill Sampson at the scene. Sandi Smith was shot between the eyes when she looked out from a place where she had taken shelter, and eleven others were wounded. Michael Nathan died of his wounds at the hospital.[13] The filmed coverage of the shootings was carried on national and international news. It became known as the "Greensboro Massacre." Smith was black, Cauce was Hispanic, and the other three men who were killed were white. Both blacks and whites were wounded.


Died: All but Michael Nathan were CWP members and rank-and-file union leaders and organizers.[14]

Wounded survivors:

Role of the police[]

By the late 1970s, most police departments had become familiar with handling demonstrations, especially in cities such as Greensboro where numerous civil rights events had taken place since 1960. CWP march organizers had filed their plans for this march with the police and gained permission to hold it. Police generally covered such formal events in order to prevent outbreaks of violence; few officers were present during this march. A police photographer and a detective followed the Klan and neo-Nazi caravan to the site, but they did not attempt to intervene in events.

Edward Dawson, a Klansman-turned police informant,[4] was riding in the lead car of the caravan.[13] He had been an FBI informant beginning in 1969 as part of the agency's COINTELPRO program and was among the founders of the North Carolina Knights of the Ku Klux Klan when the North Carolina chapter of the United Klans of America split.[17] By 1979 he was working as an informant for the Greensboro Police Department. He was given a copy of the march route by the police and informed them of the potential for violence.[10] Because the police were absent, the attackers escaped with relative ease.

Bernard Butkovich, an undercover agent for the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), had infiltrated a unit of the American Nazi Party (ANP) during this period. This group had been formed by Frank Collin, who had been ousted from the National Socialist White People's Party. The ANP members joined with the KKK chapter to disrupt the November 1979 protest march. At the 1980 criminal trial, the neo-Nazis claimed that Butkovich encouraged them to carry firearms to the demonstration. At the 1985 civil trial, Butkovich testified that he was aware that the Klansmen and the ANP members intended to confront the demonstrators; he did not tell the police or any other law enforcement agency.[18]


A funeral was held on November 11, 1979, followed by a procession in which 200–400 people marched through the city to Maplewood Cemetery. There was controversy over whether or not the funeral should be held, but the city had arranged for full coverage by the police force and hundreds of armed National Guard troops.[19]


The four white men were buried in the traditionally all-black cemetery near Morningside. The inscription intended for their memorial was initially opposed by the city council, citing new ordinances banning political speech in that context. With support from the North Carolina ACLU they were able to move forward one year later, commemorating the fallen with the following message:

On November 3, 1979 the criminal monopoly capitalist class murdered Jim Waller, César Cauce, Mike Nathan, Bill Sampson, and Sandi Smith with government agents, Klan, and Nazis. Heroically defending the people, the 5 charged gunfire with bare fists and sticks. We vow this assassination will be the costliest mistake the capitalists have ever made, and the turning point of class struggle in the U.S.

The CWP 5 were among the strongest leaders of their times. Their deaths marked an end to capitalist stabilization (1950s–1970s) when American workers suffered untold misery, yet as a whole remained dormant for lack of its own leaders. In 1980 the deepest capitalist crisis began. The working class was awakening. The CWP 5 lived and died for all workers, minorities, and poor; for a world where exploitation and oppression will be eliminated, and all mankind freed; for the noble goal of communism. Their deaths, a tremendous loss to the CWP and to their families, are a clarion call to the U.S. people to fight for the workers' rule. In their footsteps waves of revolutionaries will rise and join our ranks.

We will overthrow the rule of the monopoly capitalist class! Victory will be ours!

November 3, 1980 Central Committee, CWP, USA


The body of Sandi Smith, the only black victim, was returned to her hometown in South Carolina at her family's request.

March of concerned citizens after the Greensboro Massacre. Photo from the Christic Institute archives.

State prosecution[]

Forty Klansmen and neo-Nazis, and several CWP marchers were said to have taken part in the shootings. The police arrested 16 Klansmen and Nazis, and several CWP members. The FBI started an investigation which it called GREENKIL (Greensboro Killings), turning over evidence it gathered to the state of North Carolina for its murder trial.[21] The state attorney prosecuted the six strongest criminal cases first, charging five Klansmen with murder: David Wayne Matthews, Jerry Paul Smith, Jack Wilson Fowler, Harold Dean Flowers, and Billy Joe Franklin. One was charged with a lesser crime.[4][22] In November 1980 the all-white jury acquitted all the defendants, based on their pleas of self-defense.[23] Residents of Morningside Homes — the housing development where the violence occurred, and students at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (A&T), expressed shock and anger over the verdict and a feeling of hopelessness regarding the judicial system and the Ku Klux Klan.[24]

Federal criminal trial[]

The Department of Justice through the FBI had an extensive criminal investigation underway.[21] After the acquittals in 1980, the FBI re-opened its investigation in preparation for a federal prosecution. Based on additional evidence, a federal grand jury indicted nine men on civil rights charges in 1983 .[21]

During this second criminal trial, the US attorney prosecuted nine men.[25] Under civil rights laws, "It charged the Klansmen and Nazis with racially motivated violence and with interference in a racially integrated event."[23] Three men were charged with violating the civil rights of the five victims: the defendants were David Wayne Matthews, Jerry Paul Smith and Jack Wilson Fowler, who had been prosecuted and acquitted in the state criminal trial.

Six other men were charged with "conspiracy to violate the demonstrators' civil rights::"[23] Virgil Lee Griffin, Sr.; Eddie Dawson (also a police informant), Roland Wayne Wood, Roy Clinton Toney, Coleman Blair Pridmore,[26] and Rayford Milano Caudle[27]

On April 15, 1984, all nine defendants were acquitted. The jury rejected the government's argument that the defendants were motivated in the shootings by racial hatred.[28] The CWP believed that the indictment was drawn too narrowly, giving the defense an opportunity to argue that political opposition to Communism and patriotic fervor, rather than racial motivations, prompted the confrontation.[23][28] Neither trial "investigated the actions of Federal agents or the Greensboro police."

Waller v. Butkovich[]

In 1980, survivors filed a civil suit in Federal District Court seeking $48 million in damages.[9] The Christic Institute led the legal effort.[29] The complaint alleged that law-enforcement officials knew "that Klansmen and Nazis would use violence to disrupt the demonstration by Communist labor organizers and black residents of Greensboro but deliberately failed to protect them."[25] Four federal agents were named as defendants in the suit, in addition to 36 Greensboro police and municipal officials, and 20 Klansmen and members of the American Nazi Party.[25] Among the federal defendants was Bernard Butkovich of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, who had worked as an undercover agent in 1979 and infiltrated one of the American Nazi Party chapters about three months before the protest. He testified that a Klansmen had referred in a planning meeting to using pipe bombs for possible assaults at the rally, and that he took no further action.[25]

The Christic legal team was led by attorneys Lewis Pitts and Daniel Sheehan, together with People's Law Office attorney G. Flint Taylor and attorney Carolyn McAllaster of Durham, North Carolina.[30] A Federal jury in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, found two Klansmen, three Nazis, two Greensboro police officers, and a police informant liable for the wrongful death of Dr. Michael Nathan, a non-CWP demonstrator, and for injuries to survivors Paul Bermanzohn and Tom Clark, who had been wounded.[25] It awarded two survivors with a $350,000 judgment against the city, the Ku Klux Klan, and the American Nazi Party for violating the civil rights of the demonstrators.[31] The widow Dr. Martha "Marty" Nathan, was paid by the City in order to cover damages caused by the KKK and ANP as well. She chose to donate some money to grassroots efforts for social justice and education.[30]

25th anniversary events[]

The CWP gradually dissolved, and its members went on to other pursuits. In November 2004, nearly 700 people, including several survivors, marched in Greensboro along the original planned route from the housing project to Greensboro City Hall to mark the 25th anniversary of the event.[7]

That year, a group of private citizens founded the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission. They appealed to the Mayor and the City Council for their endorsement, but failed to gain support. The Greensboro City Council, led by mayor Keith Holliday, voted 6 to 3 against endorsing the work of the group. The three African-American members of the Council voted in favor of the measure.[32] The mayor at the time of the massacre, Jim Melvin, also rejected the private commission.[32]

The private group announced that the Commission would take public testimony and conduct an investigation, in order to examine the causes and consequences of the massacre. It was patterned after official Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, generally organized by national governments, such as that notably conducted in post-apartheid South Africa. But, the Greensboro commission had no official recognition and authority. It lacked both the power of subpoena to compel testimony, and the ability to invoke the penalty of perjury for false testimony.[33][34]

The Commission reported its findings and conclusions. It noted that both the Communist Workers Party and the Klan contributed in varying degrees to the violence, especially given the violent rhetoric which they had been espousing for months leading up to the confrontation at the march. It said that the protesters, most of whom did not live in Greensboro or the county, had not fully secured the community support of the Morningside Homes residents for holding the event there. Many of the residents did not approve of the protest because they feared it had the risk of catalyzing violence on their doorsteps. The Commission concluded that the KKK and ANP members went to the rally intending to provoke a violent confrontation, and that they fired on demonstrators with intent of injury.[35]

In its Final Report, the Commission noted the importance of the Greensboro Police Department's absence from the scene. The presence of police at previous confrontations between the same groups had resulted in no violence. There had been testimony at the Commission that the Greensboro Police Department had infiltrated the Klan and, through a paid informant, knew of the white supremacists' plans and the strong potential for violence that day.[36] The informant had formerly been on the Federal Bureau of Investigation's payroll and maintained contact with his agent's supervisor. Consequently, the FBI was also aware of the impending armed confrontation.[37] The Commission reported that at least one activist in the crowd fired back after the attack started.[38]

City recognition[]

Representation in other media[]


  1. ^ Workers Viewpoint Organization (November 1, 1979). "Smash the Klan with correct understanding and armed self-defense". The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, University Libraries. Retrieved February 4, 2017.
  2. ^ "1979 Greensboro Shooting, Jan 22 2015 | Video |". Retrieved February 17, 2019.
  3. ^ a b c d e "The Greensboro Massacre". University of North Carolina – Greensboro. Retrieved February 2, 2014.
  4. ^ a b c Mark Hand (November 18, 2004). "The Greensboro Massacre". Press Action. Archived from the original on October 6, 2008. Retrieved September 27, 2007.
  5. ^ a b Maximilian Longley, "Greensboro Shootings" Archived March 13, 2016, at the Wayback Machine, North Carolina History Project, John Locke Foundation
  6. ^ Bermanzohn, Sally. "Introduction", Through Survivors' Eyes: From the Sixties to the Greensboro Massacre. Vanderbilt University Press, 2003
  7. ^ a b "Remembering the 1979 Greensboro Massacre: 25 Years Later Survivors Form Country's First Truth and Reconciliation Commission", Democracy Now!, 18 November 2004, accessed 14 March 2016
  8. ^ "Greensboro City Council apologizes for 1979 Greensboro Massacre". Triad City Beat. August 15, 2017.
  9. ^ a b "'Death to the Klan' March". NCpedia. North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. Retrieved March 26, 2016.
  10. ^ a b "Chronology of the November 3, 1979 Greensboro Massacre and its Aftermath". The Prism. Retrieved September 27, 2007.
  11. ^ "Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission Final Report" (PDF). Retrieved April 2, 2011.
  12. ^ F. Glenn Miller (March 6, 2005). "A White Man Speaks Out". Archived from the original on April 16, 2013. Retrieved August 25, 2010.
  13. ^ a b Darryl Fears (March 6, 2005). "Seeking Closure on 'Greensboro Massacre'". The Washington Post. Retrieved September 27, 2007.
  14. ^ Civil Rights Greensboro: Biographies of victims
  15. ^ Barry, Dan (October 25, 2003). "Remembering When Maoists Met the Klan". The New York Times. Retrieved October 24, 2017.
  16. ^ "1979 Klan-Nazi attack survivor in North Carolina hopes for a 'justice river'". Fox News. August 20, 2017. Retrieved October 25, 2017.
  17. ^ Wheaton (1983), Codename GREENKIL, p. 12
  18. ^ "Agent Tells of '79 Threats by Klan and Nazis". The New York Times. May 12, 1985. section 1, page 26, column 1. Retrieved September 27, 2007.
  19. ^ "Greensboro Massacre", Civil Rights Greensboro, website and database, Library, University of North Carolina Greensboro
  20. ^ Jovanovic, Spoma (2012). Democracy, Dialogue, and Community Action: Truth and Reconciliation in Greensboro. United States: University of Arkansas Press. ISBN 9781610755092. Retrieved June 13, 2016.
  21. ^ a b c Elizabeth Wheaton, "Code Name GreenKil": The 1979 Greensboro Killings, University of Georgia Press, 2009, pp. 3–4
  22. ^ Civil Rights Greensboro: Biographies of Defendants, Library, University of North Carolina, (November 3, 1979). Retrieved November 20, 2011.
  23. ^ a b c d "Opinion: Acquittal in Greensboro". The New York Times. April 18, 1984. Retrieved August 15, 2009.
  24. ^ "Anger, Shock, Hopelessness, Fear Expressed; Some Distrust Justice", Greensboro Daily News, 19 November 1980, accessed 12 March 2016
  25. ^ a b c d e "Agent Tells of '79 Threats by Klan and Nazis", Special to the New York Times, The New York Times, 12 May 1985, accessed 12 March 2016
  26. ^ Civil Rights Greensboro: Coleman Blair Pridmore. (November 3, 1979). Retrieved November 20, 2011.
  27. ^ Civil Rights Greensboro: Rayford Milano Caudle. (November 3, 1979). Retrieved November 20, 2011
  28. ^ a b "9 Cleared Of Charges Linked To 5 Deaths At Anti-Klan Rally". The New York Times. April 16, 1984. Retrieved September 8, 2019.
  29. ^ Romero Institute. "Christic Institute Archives". Retrieved September 8, 2019.
  30. ^ a b "Civil Rights Greensboro: Greensboro Massacre. Retrieved November 20, 2011.
  31. ^ Wright, Michael (June 9, 1985). "Civil Convictions In Greensboro". The New York Times. Retrieved August 15, 2009.
  32. ^ a b Hansen, Toran (2007). "Can Truth Commissions be Effective in the United States? An Analysis of the Effectiveness of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Greensboro, North Carolina" (PDF). University of Minnesota School of Social Work. Retrieved November 9, 2012.
  33. ^ Jovanovic, Spoma. "Communication for Reconciliation: Grassroots Work for Community Change" (PDF). Society for the Study of Peace, Conflict, and Violence: Peace Psychology Division of the American Psychological Association. Retrieved May 29, 2015.
  34. ^ The Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission. "What is Truth and Reconciliation?". Archived from the original on March 11, 2012. Retrieved December 8, 2012. The most famous is the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission ... one of the chief architects of South Africa's truth commission founded the International Center for Transitional Justice in 2001 in order to advise the governments of other nations on how to best employ the process.
  35. ^ "Intelligence gathering and planning for the anti-Klan campaign" (PDF). Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission Final Report.
  36. ^ "Police Internal Affairs Investigation: Making the facts known?" (PDF).
  37. ^ Bermanzohn, Sally Avery (Winter 2007). "A Massacre Survivor Reflects on the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission". Radical History Review. 2007 (97): 103. doi:10.1215/01636545-2006-015. Retrieved May 31, 2009. In sum, the GPD instigated and facilitated the attack with the knowledge of federal agents in the FBI and the ATF
  38. ^ "Truth Commission Blames Cops in 'Greensboro Massacre'". The NewStandard. June 2, 2006. Retrieved September 27, 2007.
  39. ^ "City Council expresses regret over '79 shootings", Greensboro News & Record, 17 June 2009
  40. ^ Joe Dominguez, "Mixed emotions as council approves ‘Greensboro massacre’ marker" Archived October 21, 2016, at the Wayback Machine, Fox8News, 4 February 2015, accessed 12 March 2016
  41. ^ "Greensboro Massacre Historical Marker Unveiled"[permanent dead link], News-Record
  42. ^ Killian, Joe. "City Council torn on 'Massacre' marker". Greensboro News and Record. Retrieved June 20, 2019.

Further reading[]



External links[]

Articles and news reports
Anniversary news reports

Coordinates: 36°3′55.81″N 79°45′49.86″W / 36.0655028°N 79.7638500°W / 36.0655028; -79.7638500