Greensboro massacre

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The Greensboro massacre occurred on November 3, 1979, in Greensboro, North Carolina, United States. Five protest marchers were shot and killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party at a rally organized by communists intended to demonstrate radical, even violent, opposition to the Klan.[1] The "Death to the Klan March" and protest was the culmination of attempts by the Communist Workers' Party to organize mostly black industrial workers in the area.[2]

The marchers killed were: Sandi Smith,[3] a nurse and civil rights activist; Dr. James Waller,[4] president of a local textile workers union who ceased medical practice to organize workers; Bill Sampson,[5] a graduate of the Harvard Divinity School; Cesar Cauce,[6] a Cuban immigrant who graduated magna cum laude from Duke University; and Dr. Michael Nathan,[7] chief of pediatrics at Lincoln Community Health Center in Durham, North Carolina, a clinic that helped children from low-income families.

The two criminal trials against the Klansmen and the Nazi Party members led to all defendants being acquitted by all-white juries. However, a 1985 civil rights suit led by the Christic Institute and their lead attorneys, Lewis Pitts and Daniel Sheehan, together with People's Law Office attorney G. Flint Taylor and Durham, North Carolina, attorney Carolyn MacAllister, resulted in one of the few decisions in a Southern court to date against law enforcement officials accused of collusion with Klan violence.[citation needed] In addition, the survivors won a $350,000 judgment against the city, the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party for violating the civil rights of the demonstrators. However, only one plaintiff, Marty Nathan, received her payment.[8]


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 cinematographic portrayal of the formation of the Ku Klux Klan. Taunts and inflammatory rhetoric were exchanged during the ensuing months. On November 3, 1979, a rally and march of industrial workers and Communists was planned in Greensboro against the Ku Klux Klan. The "Death to the Klan March" was to begin in a predominantly black housing project called Morningside Homes. Flyers distributed by the Communist Workers' Party for the event "called for radical, even violent opposition to the Klan".[1] One flier stated 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."[1] Communist organizers publicly challenged the Klan to present themselves and "face the wrath of the people".[9] During the rally, a caravan of cars containing Klansmen and members of the American Nazi Party drove by the housing projects where the Communists and other anti-Klan activists were congregating. Several marchers began to attack the Klansmen's cars with picket sticks or by throwing rocks. They were also armed with handguns, which they fired during the conflict.[1] According to white supremacist Frazier Glenn Miller, the first shots were fired from a handgun by an anti-Klan demonstrator.[10] It is not entirely clear who fired the first shot,[1] although witnesses reported Klansman Mark Sherer did so, into the air.[11] Klansmen and Nazis fired with shotguns, rifles and pistols. Cauce, Waller and Sampson were killed at the scene, Smith was shot in the forehead when she peeked from her hiding place, and eleven others were wounded. One of them, Dr. Michael Nathan, later died from his wounds at a hospital.[12] Most of the confrontation was filmed by four local news camera crews.

Role of the police[edit]

Police would normally have been present at such a rally to prevent outbreaks of violence, but few officers were present; the assailants were therefore able to escape with relative ease. A police photographer and a detective did follow the Klan and neo-Nazi caravan to the site, but did not attempt to intervene. Edward Dawson, a Klansman-turned police informant,[2] was in the lead car of the caravan.[12] Two days prior to the march, one of the Klansmen went to the police station and obtained a map of the march and the rally.[9] Bernard Butkovich, an undercover agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), later testified that he was aware that Klansmen and members of the American Nazi Party unit he had infiltrated would confront the demonstrators. In an earlier testimony, the neo-Nazis claimed Butkovich encouraged them to carry firearms to the demonstration.[13]


Legal proceedings[edit]

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

Forty Klansmen and neo-Nazis, and several Communist marchers were involved in the shootings; sixteen Klansmen and Nazis were arrested and the six best cases were brought to trial first.[2] Five Klansmen were charged with murder: David Wayne Matthews,[14] Jerry Paul Smith,[15] Jack Wilson Fowler,[16] Harold Dean Flowers,[17] and Billy Joe Franklin.[18] During the second trial nine men were charged; in addition to David Wayne Matthews, Jerry Paul Smith, Jack Wilson Fowler, six other men, Virgil Lee Griffin,[19] Eddie Dawson,[20] Roland Wayne Wood,[21] Roy Clinton Toney,[22] Coleman Blair Pridmore,[23] and Rayford Milano Caudle[24] were charged with other crimes associated with the event. The two criminal trials resulted in the acquittal of the defendants by all-white juries.[25]

However, a 1985 civil lawsuit led by the Christic Institute and their lead attorney Daniel Sheehan won a verdict in federal civil court against five of the assailants and two police officers. The verdict is one of the few decisions in a Southern court to date against law enforcement officials accused of collusion with Klan violence.[citation needed] The survivors won a $350,000 judgment against the city, the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party for violating the civil rights of the demonstrators.[26] However, only one plaintiff, Marty Nathan, received payment.[8]

Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission[edit]

In 2004, a private organization, calling itself the "Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission", declared that it would take public testimony and examine the causes and consequences of the massacre. This private group was patterned after official Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, such as that of post-apartheid South Africa, but lacked official recognition and authority, the power of subpoena, or the ability to invoke the penalty of perjury for false testimony.[27][28] The group included members of the local community, as well as a commissioner from the New York-based Fellowship of Reconciliation, historically known for their early support of Martin Luther King Jr. during the Montgomery bus boycott. The group's efforts were not endorsed by local government officials. The Greensboro City Council, led by then-mayor Keith Holliday, voted 6 to 3 against endorsing the work of the group, with the three votes in favor of it cast by the City Council's African American members.[29] The mayor at the time of the massacre, Jim Melvin, also rejected the private commission.

The organization stated that they believed members of the KKK went to the rally intending to provoke a violent confrontation, and that they fired on demonstrators. In addition, the private commission stated that the violent rhetoric of the Communist Workers Party and the Klan contributed in varying degrees to the violence, and that the protesters had not fully secured the community support of the Morningside Homes residents, many of whom did not approve of the protest because of its potential for violent confrontation.[30]

The organization, in its final report, pointed out the importance of the Greensboro Police Department's absence from the scene. Previous confrontations between the same groups had resulted in no violence when police were present. The organization also heard reports 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.[31] The informant had formerly been on the Federal Bureau of Investigation's payroll but had maintained contact with his agent supervisor. Consequently, the FBI was also aware of the impending armed confrontation.[32]

The organization further reported that at least one activist in the crowd fired back after they were attacked.[33] Filmmaker Adam Zucker's 2007 documentary, Greensboro: Closer to the Truth, examines the work of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission.


On May 24, 2015, the City of Greensboro officially unveiled the Greensboro Massacre Historical Marker at a ceremony attended by over three hundred people. Speakers at the ceremony included Guilford County Commissioner Ray Trapp, former Greensboro Mayor Yvonne Johnson, Rep. Ralph Johnson, Senator Gladys Robinson, and U.S. Rep. Alma Adams.[34]


  1. ^ a b c d e "The Greensboro Massacre". University of North Carolina - Greensboro. Retrieved 2014-02-02. 
  2. ^ a b c Mark Hand (November 18, 2004). "The Greensboro Massacre". Press Action. Retrieved 2007-09-27. 
  3. ^ Civil Rights Greensboro: Sandra Neely Smith. Retrieved November 20, 2011.
  4. ^ Civil Rights Greensboro: James Michael Waller, Dr. Retrieved November 20, 2011.
  5. ^ Civil Rights Greensboro: William Evan Sampson. Retrieved November 20, 2011.
  6. ^ Civil Rights Greensboro: Cesar Cauce. Retrieved November 20, 2011.
  7. ^ Civil Rights Greensboro: Michael Ronald Nathan, Dr. Retrieved November 20, 2011.
  8. ^ a b Civil Rights Greensboro: Greensboro Massacre. Retrieved November 20, 2011.
  9. ^ a b "Chronology of the November 3, 1979 Greensboro Massacre and its Aftermath". The Prism. Retrieved 2007-09-27. 
  10. ^ F. Glenn Miller (March 6, 2005). "A White Man Speaks Out". Retrieved 2010-08-25. 
  11. ^ "Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission Final Report" (PDF). Retrieved 2011-04-02. 
  12. ^ a b Darryl Fears (March 6, 2005). "Seeking Closure on 'Greensboro Massacre'". Washington Post. Retrieved 2007-09-27. 
  13. ^ "Agent Tells of '79 Threats by Klan and Nazis". The New York Times. May 12, 1985. section 1, page 26, column 1. Retrieved 2007-09-27. 
  14. ^ Civil Rights Greensboro: David Wayne Matthews. (November 3, 1979). Retrieved November 20, 2011.
  15. ^ Civil Rights Greensboro: Jerry Paul Smith. (November 3, 1979). Retrieved November 20, 2011.
  16. ^ Civil Rights Greensboro: Jack Wilson Fowler. (November 3, 1979). Retrieved November 20, 2011.
  17. ^ Civil Rights Greensboro: Harold Dean Flowers. (November 3, 1979). Retrieved November 20, 2011.
  18. ^ Civil Rights Greensboro: Billy Joe Franklin. (November 3, 1979). Retrieved November 20, 2011.
  19. ^ Civil Rights Greensboro: Virgil Lee Griffin, Sr. (November 3, 1979). Retrieved November 20, 2011.
  20. ^ Civil Rights Greensboro: Edward Dawson. Retrieved November 20, 2011.
  21. ^ Civil Rights Greensboro: Roland Wayne Wood. (November 3, 1979). Retrieved November 20, 2011.
  22. ^ Civil Rights Greensboro: Roy Clinton Toney. (November 3, 1979). Retrieved November 20, 2011.
  23. ^ Civil Rights Greensboro: Coleman Blair Pridmore. (November 3, 1979). Retrieved November 20, 2011.
  24. ^ Civil Rights Greensboro: Rayford Milano Caudle. (November 3, 1979). Retrieved November 20, 2011.
  25. ^ "Acquittal in Greensboro". New York Times. April 18, 1984. Retrieved 2009-08-15. 
  26. ^ Wright, Michael (June 9, 1985). "Civil Convictions In Greensboro". New York Times. Retrieved 2009-08-15. 
  27. ^ 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 29 May 2015. 
  28. ^ The Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission. "What is Truth and Reconciliation?". Archived from the original on 11 Mar 2012. Retrieved 8 Dec 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 to advise other nations employing the process. 
  29. ^ 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. 
  30. ^ "Intelligence gathering and planning for the anti-Klan campaign" (PDF). 
  31. ^ "Police Internal Affairs investigation: Making the facts known?" (PDF). 
  32. ^ Bermanzohn, Sally Avery (Winter 2007). "A Massacre Survivor Reflects on the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission". Radical History Review (97): 103. Retrieved 2009-05-31. In sum, the GPD instigated and facilitated the attack with the knowledge of federal agents in the FBI and the ATF 
  33. ^ "Truth Commission Blames Cops in ‘Greensboro Massacre’". The New Standard. June 2, 2006. Retrieved 2007-09-27. 
  34. ^

Further reading[edit]

  • Bacigal, Ronald J., and Margaret Ivey Bacigal. "When Racists and Radicals Meet." Emory Law Journal 38 (Fall 1989).
  • Bryant, Pat. "Justice Vs. the Movement." Radical America 14, no. 6 (1980).
  • Civil Rights Greensboro: The articles of Charles Babington
  • Eastland, Terry. "The Communists and the Klan." Commentary 69, no. 5 (1980).
  • Institute for Southern Studies. "The Third of November." Southern Exposure 9, no. 3 (1981).
  • Parenti, Michael, and Carolyn Kazdin. "The Untold Story of the Greensboro Massacre." Monthly Review 33, no. 6 (1981).
  • Ray O. Light Group. "'Left' Opportunism and the Rise of Reaction: The Lessons of the Greensboro Massacre." Toward Victorious Afro-American National Liberation: A Collection of Pamphlets, Leaflets and Essays Which Dealt In a Timely Way With the Concrete Ongoing Struggle for Black Liberation Over the Past Decade and More pp. 249–260. Ray O. Light Publications: Bronx NY, 1982.
  • Bermanzohn, Sally Avery. Through Survivors' Eyes: From the Sixties to the Greensboro Massacre. 400 pages, 57 illustrations, index. Vanderbilt University Press; 1st edition (September 1, 2003). ISBN 0-8265-1439-1.
  • Waller, Signe. Love And Revolution: A Political Memoir: People’s History Of The Greensboro Massacre, Its Setting And Aftermath. London & New York: Rowman & Littlefield. 2002. ISBN 0-7425-1365-3.
  • Wheaton, Elizabeth. Codename GREENKIL: The 1979 Greensboro Killings. 328 pages. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987. ISBN 0-8203-0935-4.

External links[edit]

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