Thirty-eight years ago this month, on November 3, 1979, a march in Greensboro, NC turned into a massacre when members of the Communist Workers’ Party (CWP) clashed with members from the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party. In the aftermath 5 people would lay dead and many more injured. The terrible event happened in the middle of the day and was caught on film by news crews who had been on scene to report on the protest. This infamous day in North Carolina and American history would become known as the Greensboro Massacre.
The events that took place on this day were a result of tensions that had been brewing that year between the CWP and the KKK. Members of the CWP in the area had been trying to organize the textile workers into unions. Not having much success organizing white workers, they turned their attention to black textile workers throughout the state. This is what would start the tension between the CWP and the KKK, ultimately leading to the shootings on November 3.
The two groups had engaged in several confrontations throughout that year, and when the CWP and others demonstrated on November 3, the theme of their march was “Death to the Klan.” The CWP had distributed flyers before the march that said the KKK “should be physically beaten and chased out of town. This is the only language they understand.”
As the demonstrators gathered and shouted “Death to the Klan”, ten cars and vans with approximately 40 KKK and American Nazi Party members drove back and forth in front of the protestors. Some protestors hit the cars with sticks and rocks as they drove by. Suddenly, the vehicles stopped and gunshots rang out. Debate over who fired first continues to this day: Some claim a KKK member fired into the air, while others claim a demonstrator fired the first shot. What is indisputable is that KKK and American Nazi Party members emerged from the vans with guns and began shooting into the crowd of protestors.
A wild firefight ensued in front of TV cameras. When the shooting stopped, 5 people lay dead or dying on the street, all of them protestors. Several more suffered serious gunshot wounds but survived the ordeal.
Surviving demonstrators accused Greensboro police of colluding with the KKK and American Nazi Party. In fact, a man named Edward Dawson, a police informant who had infiltrated the KKK, was in the lead car of the caravan of vehicles. It came to light after the massacre that a Greensboro police officer had given Dawson a copy of the march route, and that Dawson and a KKK leader drove the route the night before to familiarize themselves with it.
The FBI’s investigation into the Greensboro Massacre resulted in the arrest of 5 Klansmen, all charged with murder. An all-white jury acquitted the Klan members, who claimed they had acted in self-defense, at their state trial in 1980. A federal trial a few years later also resulted in the acquittals of all the Klansmen charged in the crimes. Finally, in 1985, a civil jury found the city of Greensboro, the KKK, and the American Nazi Party liable for violating the protestors’ civil rights. The city of Greensboro paid $350,000 on behalf of people who were killed and injured that day in 1979, but the men who murdered 5 protestors in broad daylight – filmed by news cameras – continue to walk free, unpunished.