GREENSBORO, N.C. (WGHP) — A historical marker sits on the corner of McConnell Road and East Dunbar Street in Greensboro, not too far from Downtown Greensboro, memorializing a deadly clash that occurred just a few hundred feet away.
Inscribed on this marker are the words “Ku Klux Klan members and American Nazis, on Nov. 3. 1979, shot and killed five Communist Workers Party members one-tenth mile north.”
That place was Morningside Homes, a Greensboro public housing development for Black residents that was built in 1951 and demolished in 2002. That deadly Nov. 3 shootout came to be called the Greensboro Massacre, a piece of the city’s history that has left a legacy that they still wrestle with in recent memory.
‘Death to the Klan’
UNCG’s Gateway Digital History Archive writes that the Communist Workers Party organized the Nov. 3 march as a vocal show of opposition to the Ku Klux Klan, choosing the location of Morningside Homes as their starting place. Activist Nelson Johnson applied for a parade permit, which he was granted, but the Greensboro Police Department said that the CWP could not carry firearms and had to limit the size of the sticks on their protest signs. On the day of, however, some CWP members were still armed.
The CWP, which had recently renamed itself from the “Workers Viewpoint Organization,” had been participating in anti-Klan protests and demonstrations across North Carolina and the broader south in the months leading up to the Greensboro march.
They called the march the “Death to the Klan” march, distributing information and releasing statements that made their position against the racist organization strikingly clear.
One flier distributed asserted that the KKK “should be physically beaten and chased out of town. This is the only language they understand. Armed self-defense is the only defense.”
The KKK was aware of the march because of the involvement of Eddie Dawson, a member of the Klan who worked as a police and FBI informant, who shared a copy of the parade permit with the Klan and Nazi Party members two days before the event and participated in covering CWP fliers with KKK fliers that ramped up the calls for violence: “Traitors beware. Even now the cross-hairs are on the back of YOUR necks. It’s time for old-fashioned American Justice.”
The City of Greensboro has since acknowledged, 41 years later, that, while law enforcement was aware of the Klan and the Nazi Party’s intent of armed confrontation with the communists, they did not warn the CWP ahead of time.
Police were not visible at the beginning point of the parade route, though they were at the Windsor Community Center, where participants from out of town were asked to gather due to its easier access to the interstate. A report from the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission, an independent body of citizens formed to examine “context, causes, sequence and consequences,” that led to the massacre and to make recommendations for community healing around the tragedy.
CWP and Klansmen had clashed in North Carolina before, such as at a screening of the racist “Birth of a Nation” film in China Grove months prior to the “Death to the Klan” march. The two groups had heckled each other, but, despite both sides being visibly armed, the confrontation did not erupt into violence. Police officers were visibly present at the incident and made no arrests and did not pull out their guns, but their presence, the report states, kept the conflict in check.
The Greensboro Massacre stands as a contrast to that prior conflict. The report laid it out rather bluntly: the behavior of the police was influenced by “strong negative feelings toward Communists in general” as well as the department’s specific dislike of Johnson, who had been involved in the Dudley/A&T Protests a decade earlier. Those protests resulted in the death of A&T student Willie Grimes, who was not participating in the protest and whose death remains unsolved.
The report described the sentiment against the communists as “out of proportion to the threat the Communists posed,” stating the belief that they overinflated the threat of the communists due to the group’s reliance on hyperbolic rhetoric and their unpopular political beliefs. Police surveilled the CWP’s unionizing efforts at Cone Mills and their members.
Conversely, the report states that police underestimated the danger of the KKK to the point of “reckless disregard for the safety of marchers and residents.”
“This fear of vocal black activists who advocated armed self-defense but who had no criminal record other than disorderly conduct, stands in stark contrast to the dismissal of the threat posed by Klansmen and Nazis who openly advocated and had a criminal record of committing racist violence,” the report said.
Marchers began to gather around 10:30 that morning. A caravan of nine or 10 cars containing Nazis and Klansmen left a member’s home on Randlemen Road heading towards Morningside Homes, arriving around 11:20 a.m., according to officers following the caravan.
The groups heckled each other as the caravan drove past the marchers. The marchers kicked the vehicles and hit them with signs.
It’s unknown who fired the first shot. The dust settled 88 seconds later.
Four communists were dead: Sandi Smith, Jim Waller, Cesar Cauce and Bill Sampson. Two days later, Michael Nathan died from his injuries. Numerous other CWP members were seriously injured in the shootout.
Other CWP members were arrested, and Johnson was taken to jail after refusing to stop speaking, accusing the police and government of colluding with the Klansmen.
A week later, the CWP held a funeral march for their slain members. The city called a state of emergency, activating hundreds of National Guard members and police officers.
Hundreds gathered on the cold and rainy day for the march along a route lined with heavily armed National Guardsmen. The march ended at Maplewood Cemetery. While traditionally an all-Black cemetery, the four white victims of the massacre were buried there, while Sandi Smith, the sole Black victim, was buried in her South Carolina hometown.
Criminal trials for the Klansmen and Nazis accused of the shooting began in August 1980. CWP members didn’t participate in the trial and Dawson, the KKK informant, was not called to testify. The ambiguity over who fired the first shot seemed to confuse jurors.
The jury was nearly all-white, with many potential Black jurors dismissed over negative feelings towards the Klan. At least one juror was noted to have strong anti-Communist sentiments as a Cuban national.
Just over a year after the tragedy, a dead-locked jury returned a not-guilty verdict for David Matthews, Jerry Smith, Jack Fowler, Harold Flowers, and Billy Joe Franklin, the men who had been charged in the murders.
The Greensboro community was shocked, and some outraged, at the verdict, but Burlington-born Nazi Party Leader Harold Covington celebrated it and said he wanted to “create a ‘Carolina Free State’ in the Carolinas, free of non-white people, a home for racists.”
In 1983, Virgil Griffin, Eddie Dawson, David Matthews, Wayne Wood, Jerry Smith, Jack Fowler, Roy Toney, John Pridmore, and Milano Caudle were federally indicted on charges of conspiracy to violate federal law, conspiracy to violate the civil rights of a person because of their race or religion, and conspiracy to violate the civil rights of a person participating in an integrated activity. Wood, Smith, Fowler, and Toney were also charged with violation of civil rights that resulted in the injury or death of persons. There were other charges involving the assault of a member of the media and interfering with a federal investigation. Once again, the jury was all white.
In April 1984, they were found not guilty on all 48 charges.
In a civil suit filed against the city, $351,500 was awarded to Nathan’s estate for his wrongful death and smaller amounts to survivors Tom Clark and Paul Bermanzohnm. No money was awarded to the estates of Waller, Cauce, Sampson, and Smith. No money has ever been paid to Bermanzohn or Clark, according to the GTRC report.
Forty years after the massacre, survivors and witnesses reflected on the tragedy.
Michael Nathan’s widow, Marty, said in 2019, “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. Forty years later, there needs to be reckoning with this terrible, extra-judicial killing.”
In 2020, the Greensboro City Council issued a formal apology, passing a resolution that acknowledged a “failure of any government action to effectively overcome the hate that precipitated the violence, to embrace the sorrow that resulted from the violence, and to reconcile all the vestiges of those heinous events in the years subsequent to 1979” and creating a scholarship fund in honor of the victims.
In the modern political landscape, the FBI has issued warnings about escalations in political violence, particularly from right-wing extremist groups like the Klan and Nazis.
These groups are still active within North Carolina itself. A report from the ADL noted that in 2022, Nazi groups such as the Goyim Defense League, National Socialist Action and National Socialist Legion and Klan groups like the East Coast Knights, Knights Party and Loyal White Knights still had a presence within the state. Liberal publication RawStory broke a story of a former Guilford County Sheriff’s Office deputy advertising Klan and Nazi ties while attempting to form “white nationalist training groups.”
“There’s nothing you can do about it. People still feel the loss,” Andrea Smith, a Greensboro resident who lives in the area, said in 2020.