Pain lingers from Greensboro massacre 40 years later

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GREENSBORO, N.C. -- It seems to be one of the most talked-about events of the last century in Greensboro.

Nov. 3 was a foggy Saturday that year. But as the fog burned away, the day only got murkier.

There had been tension in Greensboro for decades – racial tension from Jim Crow and then, as that began to melt away, from other tensions as whites and blacks competed for the same jobs, many of them in the textile mills.

“Jobs were short, pay was low,” said Nelson Johnson, who was a civil rights activist in the area at the time. “So employment was a real difficult issue and it always broke around race lines.”

Unions had tried to organize the labor in the mills but the mostly-white workforce was resistant. Johnson says that had a lot to do with what the white mill owners wanted – what he calls, “Racism by the dominant class, by Southern aristocracy, by the mill owners. That was our target but you couldn’t get to them without facing the Klan.”

Johnson and his compatriots in the Workers Viewpoint Organization faced the Ku Klux Klan as well as members of the American Nazi Party on that Saturday, as the Klan rolled in and, by most accounts, began shooting shortly thereafter. Five members of the Workers Viewpoint Organization – a group that espoused communist political goals – died in the shooting. It was something that caught many of the WVO demonstrators off guard.

“I thought they were going to heckle, maybe,” said Floris Cauce Weston, who had married Cesar Cauce not long before that day. Cesar was one of the five who were killed. “It never, in a thousand years, occurred to me that they would carry out the kind of violence that they did. I wasn't expecting it, I wasn't prepared for it.”

For years, there has been much discussion about whether the Greensboro Police Department deliberately stayed away from the event to allow the Klan to have its way with the demonstrators. Johnson has no doubt that the police played a knowing role in their lack of presence there and says his point of view has been ignored since that day.

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“I've never had a meaningful discussion with is the Greensboro Police Department and leadership of the city council,” he said.

By 1979, Jim Schlosser was already a veteran reporter at the Greensboro newspaper and knew the city as well as anyone at the time.

“We were sort of caught in the middle, why did the Klan come here?” Schlosser said. “There was no warning, I don't think, that this was happening. The Klan was not that active in Greensboro. Most of these Klansmen were down around the Charlotte area.”

For those who survived, like physician Marty Nathan whose husband, Mike, was killed in the shooting, it’s a pain that lingers.

“There needs to be an apology but the apology is not just superficial, 'Oh, we're sorry for your loss.' We all have gotten those apologies,” Nathan said. “Forty years later, there needs to be reckoning with this terrible, extra-judicial killing.”

See newsreel film from that shooting and hear from some who were there in this edition of the Buckley Report.

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