The Greensboro Massacre – 31 Years Later and Still No Justice
November 3, 2010 marks the 31st anniversary of a tragic event in the history of Greensboro, North Carolina, and perhaps one of the single most disgraceful incidents in modern US history.
On the morning of November 3, 1979, protesters from the Communist Workers Party began to assemble in the Morningside Homes community of Greensboro. The group gathered for an anti-Ku Klux Klan march, billed as the “Blacks and Whites Unite, Death to the Klan” rally. The marchers never left the corner of at which they had gathered.
A local television news camera was rolling as protesters chanted, "Death to the Klan!" (It later came to light that at least four different film crews were covering the proceedings.)
A caravan of vehicles, which included members of the Ku Klux Klan and Nazi Party, travelled toward the protesters. Shortly after 11 a.m., it reached the march and a clash ensued. Bricks and stones were hurled at the Klansmen and Nazi Party members from the group.
Several marchers began to attack the Klansmens’ cars with small wooden sticks or by throwing rocks. Soon thereafter gunfire erupted when members of the Klan and Nazi Party grabbed guns from two vehicles.
According to one witness, the first shots were fired from a handgun by an anti-Klan demonstrator. Klansmen and Nazis returned fire with shotguns, rifles and pistols. Cesar Cauce was hit with a club before being shot and killed. James Waller, Michael Nathan, Sandi Smith and William Sampson were shot at the scene. Smith was shot in the forehead when she peeked from her hiding place. Eleven others were wounded. One of them, Dr. Michael Nathan, later died from his wounds at a hospital.
Perhaps one of the most questionable aspects of the shoot-out is the role of the police. Police would normally have been present at such a rally. However, no police were present, which allowed the assailants to escape. A police detective and a police photographer did follow the Klan and neo-Nazi caravan to the site, but did not attempt to intervene. At the time, a commission report said police were at least five blocks away.
In the aftermath, the shooters were acquitted of all criminal charges by all-white juries in 1980 and again in 1984. In amongst the irony of these decisions was the fact that four of the five dead were white males.
In 1985, a civil trial found members of the Greensboro Police Department were jointly liable with the Klan and Nazi members for the death of one victim.
In the end, 30 years after five people were killed, no one served a single day in prison for the crimes. The only amount of justice paid was $350,000 in the civil suit.
The Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission
In 2005, Greensboro residents, inspired by post-apartheid South Africa, initiated a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to take public testimony and examine the causes and consequences of the massacre; the efforts of the Commission were officially opposed by the Greensboro City Council.
The Commission determined that Klan members went to the rally intending to provoke a violent confrontation, and that they fired on demonstrators. In addition, the Commission found 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.
The Commission also found 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. 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.
The Commission further established that some activists in the crowd fired back after they were attacked.