What happened in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1979 is a prime example of what can happen when civil-rights battles don’t just get heated, but boil over. Greensboro, and North Carolina in general, had always been at or near the center of the movement for racial equality. It was the city that saw the legendary sit-in of four local college students at a segregated lunch counter in the city’s F. W. Woolworth store in 1960. That store has since been converted into a civil-rights museum, with the lunch counter as a centerpiece.However, when the Communist Workers Party (CWP) decided to hold a “Death to the Klan” march on November 3, 1979, the Ku Klux Klan did not let such a march go by unnoticed. Other groups in the area had held sporadic rallies against the KKK that year. According to reports from the time, the CWP challenged the KKK to a confrontation. As the march was about to begin, ten vehicles full of Klansmen arrived without warning to answer that challenge, and the KKK members were armed with more than just the heavy steel of their automobiles. They reportedly drove their cars through the narrow streets of that area of the city, where around 100 people had gathered for the CWP’s march. Sensing the implied danger, the marchers grabbed heavy sticks and began to attack the cars. That only resulted in many of the Klansmen getting out of the vehicles, guns in hand, and firing into the crowd.
The local police had been keeping a distance from the marchers, not wanting to be perceived by anyone as trying to instigate violence. However, when the Klansmen arrived and began shooting, they quickly descended upon the scene. Unfortunately, they weren’t fast enough. Four were killed at the scene, and one victim died of his wounds two days afterward. The victims were a diverse group, and all worked in some way to help workers in the local textile mills.
- Cesar Vinson Cauce was reportedly a Cuban immigrant. After he and fellow CWP member Dr. James Waller engaged in a physical fight with a Klansman named Roy Toney, Cauce was killed by a gunshot wound to the back of the neck after he’d collapsed from being hit with a blunt object.
- Dr. James Waller also did not survive the fight with Toney. Waller was unarmed, and attempted to escape to some form of cover when he was shot in the back. The bullet sliced its way through his heart and lungs.
- Perhaps the most tragic of the deaths was Sandra Smith, the only African-American victim. Smith and another CWP member had been attempting to get the children that had been at the march to a position of safety on the porch of the community center. As she was looking out to make sure they had coralled all of the kids, Smith was shot in the area over her right eye. She died instantly.
- William Evan Sampson attempted to take cover behind some nearby vehicles. He reportedly had a small handgun against the shooters, but it wasn’t enough. Sampson was shot in the heart and died on the scene.
- Dr. Michael Nathan was not a member of the CWP at the time of the massacre, but the pediatrician was a sympathizer. As he stood in an intersection close to the melee, he was shot twice in the head. Nathan died two days later from his wounds. He was reportedly sworn in as a member of the CWP while on his deathbed.
The entire massacre only took 88 seconds. The wounded would include Dr. Michael Nathan’s wife, who was also a physician. Two of the wounded, Jim Wrenn and Paul Bermanzohn, required brain surgery to survive. Wrenn was shot nine times in the attack.Authorities issued warrants for 14 Klansmen and Nazis believed to have been involved in the attack. Each person faced four counts of first-degree murder, one count of conspiracy, and one count of felony riot. When Nathan died, another first-degree murder count was added for each person. In the first criminal trial to stem from the massacre, the defendants were five men who were been seen on tape shooting at the protesters.
Selecting a jury was a challenge for the courts. Since all of the African Americans in the jury pool had to be excused when they said they would be unable to be objective in judging a Klan member, the jury included no African Americans. At least one juror was reportedly an anti-Communist Cuban exile. Additionally, many members of the CWP who had been at the march did not want to testify or even participate in the judicial system that they believed was targeting them. Potentially because of all of these factors, the jury found the men not guilty on any of the five murder counts. The city of Greensboro was stunned at the ruling and very angry.
In 1982, a federal grand jury convened to see if federal criminal charges could be filed. They ended up bringing indictments against nine of the men a year later. Those nine faced charges of conspiracy to violate the civil rights of a person participating in an integrated activity, conspiracy to violate the civil rights of a person on the basis of race or religion, and conspiracy to violate federal law. Four of the nine also faced charges for their acts that violated civil rights and resulted in injury or death. In total, the nine men faced 48 charges stemming from the massacre. When the federal court tried to empanel the jury, they once again selected an all-white jury to hear the case. Greensboro had to face another bout of anger when that jury found the nine men not guilty on all charges.
The victims did have some success in civil courts. They sued the city of Greensboro, the members of the Klan and Nazi party involved in the massacre, and even law-enforcement agencies (both local and federal). They alleged that the parties were involved in the harassment and even assassination of members of the CWP. When the case was filed in 1980, the victims were seeking $48 million in damages. As part of this suit, Bernard Butkovich of the ATF — a federal agent who had been undercover with the Nazi group involved in the massacre — testified that he knew the Klan and the Nazi party had intended to use some form of violence to disrupt the CWP demonstration. Butkovich reportedly knew that they would become violent, and he did nothing to protect the marchers or the people of Greensboro. While Butkovich also testified that he did not join the Klan and Nazi members heading to disrupt the march, he was likely in the area when it happened.
It took five years for all of the civil-court filings to work through the system, but when the verdict came down on June 6, 1985, the largest monetary amount awarded was $351,500 for Michael Nathan’s wrongful death. Two of the survivors received smaller amounts for damages, but that was it. Waller, Smith, Samson, and Cauce? None of their estates received a cent. To make matters worse, the only party to ever actually receive their payment was Michael Nathan’s widow.
Footage from the rally, including the Klansmen rolling in and the melee beginning, can be seen below. We warn you, this video may be disturbing to some readers.
Main photo: Ku Klux Klan at a gathering near Kingston, Ontario, Canada in 1927 [John Boyd via Wikimedia Commons]