October 2017

White Supremacist Violence from Greensboro to Charlottesville

The comparison of Greensboro and Charlottesville makes it clear that white supremacy never left and white backlash continues to challenge equality as the country grasps for human rights.

by Tiffany G.B. Packer, Ph.D.

On August 12, 2017, white supremacist James Fields, Jr. killed Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old white woman in Charlottesville, Virginia, when he plowed his car into demonstrators protesting at an Alt-Right rally. While the world watched the footage in horror, communities in Greensboro, North Carolina were reminded of an eerily similar tragedy that occurred nearly 38 years prior: The 1979 Greensboro Massacre.

One of the groups who were present in Greensboro that year was the Communist Workers Party (CWP), a political party who stood for the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of socialism. On November 3, 1979, members of the CWP attended a “Death to Klan” demonstration they had planned. The march-site chosen by the CWP was a primarily African American, working class, public housing community known as Morningside Homes. As the protesters gathered, a group of Nazis and Klansmen drove through the protest site in a nine-car caravan. A confrontation ensued and eighty-eight seconds of gunfire were shot into the crowd. [1] Five members of the multi-racial CWP were killed. The shooting was caught on film by local news crews who were present to cover what they believed would be a demonstration. Instead, they captured a bloody massacre.

In an instant following Heather Heyer’s murder, Charlottesville became reminiscent of Greensboro; 2017 began to mirror the dawn of the 1980s, a troubling period of racial conflict and frayed politics. The history of extremism in the United States is a continued phenomenon that, contrary to popular belief, was not silenced by the progress of the Civil Rights Movement. Comparing Greensboro and Charlottesville makes it clear that white supremacy never left and white backlash continues to challenge equality as the country grasps for human rights.

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“Death to the Klan” poster advertising the Greensboro anti-Klan rally. Courtesy BlackPast.org.

Surviving protesters in Greensboro recall November 3, 1979 as a beautiful day for leading a march and rally of such magnitude. The hope was that the seemingly “perfect” nature of the morning would encourage large and curious crowds to come and join in the fight against white supremacy. Dale Sampson and other members of the CWP were not necessarily concerned or fearful that their rally would be disrupted by the KKK, or Nazis. Rather, they were more concerned about harassment by the police based on their past experiences with local authorities. To their surprise, however, the police were noticeably absent. Several members of the CWP had been internally selected to be marshals to help with the security as well, so even with the absence of authorities, organizers still felt a sense of protection. Each of the marshals wore blue or white construction-type helmets so that they could be easily identified. [2]

As demonstrators arrived on the scene, they were busy unloading their placards and demonstration signs, which bore the slogan “Death to the Klan.” Children were dressed in uniforms with red beret hats chanting and singing songs. Tom Clark strummed his guitar as the people sang, “We shall not, we shall not be moved!” Shortly after, some Morningside residents wandered over to join in the singing and the festivities. Participants also came from all over North Carolina, including Durham, Raleigh, and Charlotte, to participate in what many of them saw and still see as a powerful movement towards ending racial hatred and discrimination. [3]

Communication between the police and Klansmen had been ongoing prior to the march.

In a matter of minutes, several Klan vehicles arrived at the march meeting site. What was not known at the time, but was later revealed, was the KKK and the police were radioing back and forth about the location of the march and the specific route the caravan of Klansmen should take to get there.[4] Communication between the police and Klansmen had been ongoing prior to the march. During the federal trial it was revealed that when CWP leader, Nelson Johnson, was picking the parade permit up from Captain Gibson, KKK member and FBI informant Eddie Dawson was upstairs in the police station being briefed about the starting location of the march by Detective J.H. Cooper. Dawson was also given a copy of the parade permit at this time. He used the information to plan the attack with his fellow Klansmen. Evidence showed that police informant Dawson had also been a longtime FBI agent provocateur in the Klan and had encouraged other acts of violence by his longtime trusted associate, Grand Dragon Virgin Griffin, with whom he planned the November 3rd attack.[5]

Once the KKK and Nazis arrived at the location of the demonstration, protesters met them by throwing rocks and bottles at their cars. The demonstrators carried anti-Klan signs attached to baseball bats that were used to strike vehicles in the caravan. Grand Dragon Virgil Griffin, who was in one of the vehicles, explained, “They started trying to turn ‘em (the cars) over. Taxpayers paid for that street so we have every right to drive down that street without anybody touchin’ the car, period. You do, I do, anybody. We were just drivin’ through there, didn’t say nothin’ to nobody, didn’t do nothing, and they started to attack the cars and beat them.” Had not they been attacked, the KKK members and Nazis argued, the caravan would have driven right on through the crowd without incident.[6] Members of the Klan claimed to have been attacked and felt the need to protect themselves. At that moment, the scene escalated.

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Klansmen unloading weapons from the trunk of a car prior to shooting members of the anti-Klan rally. Courtesy News & Record.

One signal gunshot was fired in the air by the Klan and Nazis. Very calmly and with no emotion, other members of the white supremacist group(s) popped their trunks, took out their weapons, and began strategically gunning down, one by one, the leaders of the CWP. The women protesters began to make sure the children were out of harm’s way, which was exactly how Sandra Neely Smith was murdered. She was looking around the building to ensure that all the youth were out of the open when she was shot directly between the eyes. Local residents began to give the women and children shelter by allowing them to come into their homes.[7]

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A Communist Workers Party member kneeling next to a fallen friend in the moments after the massacre. Courtesy News & Record.

In the interim, the male leaders of the CWP, including Nelson Johnson, Jim Waller, Michael Nathan, César Cauce, Paul Bermanzohn, and Bill Sampson, remained on the front lines. The traditional narrative offered by the CWP usually speaks of how they were left defenseless against that Klan due to the restrictions that had been placed on them by the local police department to not carry weapons either openly or concealed. [8] However, the CWP did, in fact, have guns. There were at least a couple of members who had been designated to protect marchers in the event of any violence. They reasoned that it was the KKK who had a historical record of not only carrying guns of their own, but using them. Therefore, they thought it wise to be prepared. CWP member Dorie Blitz admitted firing her weapon only after the Klan and Nazis had been shooting into the crowd. Dorie’s husband, Alan Blitz, acknowledged that he had also shot once toward the KKK and Nazis. He fired only one shot because his weapon jammed.[9]

At the end of the eighty-eight seconds, Jim Waller, César Cauce, Bill Sampson, and Sandy Smith laid dead. Two days later, Michael Nathan also died as a result of the ambush. These targeted killings signaled to blacks, whites, believers in leftist politics, and anyone else that challenged white supremacy that if they fought against racism, death was a real possibility.

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Poster demanding justice for victims of the Greensboro Massacre. Courtesy Oakland Museum Collections.

The tragedy of the 1979 Greensboro Massacre became even more devastating when the state attorney took the case to trial charging the Nazi and Klansmen shooters with murder. On November 17, 1980, the all-white jury acquitted the men on the grounds that the Klan and Nazis acted in “self-defense.” The fact of the CWP having had weapons and using them not only helped to lead to an acquittal of the KKK and Nazis, but it also caused many locals, especially in the media, to continue to dismiss this event as a “shootout,” instead of cold-blooded murder.[10] The CWP stood by their decision to have weapons of their own. They argued that had they not defended themselves, the death count of the protesters may have been much higher.[11] In 1984, the Klan and Nazis were charged again. This time they were charged by the U.S. Attorney with violating the civil rights of the five murdered victims. On April 15 of the same year, they were acquitted. The CWP believed because the indictment was drawn so narrowly that the defense was able to make an argument that the shooting was motivated by an opposition to Communism rather than motivated by race.[12]

That no one was convicted for these killings clearly indicated that white supremacy had triumphed once again as the country entered the 1980s.

Nonetheless, that no one was convicted for these killings clearly indicated that white supremacy had triumphed once again as the country entered the 1980s. Racists made a clear attempt to silence any movement brave enough to openly challenge notions of hatred and inequality. They were not successful in quieting freedom fighters, but were successful in sending a pertinent message that racism and hate was still alive and strong in the post-Civil Rights Era. Unfortunately, such remains the case well into the 21st century.

White supremacists at Charlottesville spewed the same kind of venom towards anti-racist protesters regardless of the demonstrators’ race, class, or political affiliation. Hate groups targeted, intimidated, and murdered while upholding the ideals of the oppressive American Confederacy. As a result, the Klan and Nazi’s unwavering disdain for demands of equality in 2017 is a clear indication that the extremist road to Charlottesville is not a new highway. Rather, it is a familiar, beaten path that has been and remains constantly traveled.

Tiffany Professional ShotDr. Tiffany Packer currently serves as Lecturer of History at Towson University. Dr. Packer has done extensive research on the 1979 Greensboro Massacre and has a particular focus on Post-Civil Rights activism in black working class communities. Some of her most recent work has included the problems of policing in communities of color. She, along with her Public History class, recently co-curated the ground-breaking exhibition, “K(no)w Justice, K(no)w Peace,” at the Levine Museum of the New South located in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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[1] Institute for Southern Studies, “The Third of November,” Southern Exposure 9 (1981): 62.

[2] “FBI Interview with Marty Nathan,” Police Documents, Truth and Reconciliation Collection, 5-6.

[3] Joyce Johnson, conversation with author.

[4] “Supplemental information to incident occurring on November 3, 1979, at Everitt Street and Carver Drive: Interview of Detective J.H. Cooper by Captain D.C. Williams,” November 20, 1979, Box 8, Folder 6.b, Emily Mann Documents, Truth and Reconciliation Collection, Bennett College Archives, Greensboro, North Carolina.

[5] “Testimony of Edward Dawson During the 1982 Federal Trial,” United States v. Virgil Griffin et al., June 22, 1982, Box 7, Folder 7.f, Emily Mann Documents, Truth and Reconciliation Collection at Bennett College Archives, Greensboro, North Carolina.

[6] “Statement of Virgil Griffin to the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Committee,” July 16, 2005, GTRC Documents, Truth and Reconciliation Collection.

[7] Signe Waller, conversation with author.

[8] “Official Parade Permit,” October 19, 1979, Box 1, Folder 1.a, Greensboro Police Department Files, Truth and Reconciliation Collection, Bennett College Archives, Greensboro, North Carolina.

[9] “FBI Interview with Marty Nathan,” Police Documents, Truth and Reconciliation Collection, 9.

[10] Jack Scism, “Four Die in Klan-Leftist Shootout,” Greensboro Daily News, November 4, 1979, Front page.

[11] “Summary of Planning Activities for Anti-Klan March Scheduled November 3, 1979,” December 7, 1979, Box 8, Folder 1.d-1, Greensboro Police Department Files, Truth and Reconciliation Collection, Bennett College Archives, Greensboro, North Carolina.

[12] “Opinion: Acquittal in Greensboro.”  New York Times. April 18, 1984.

3 comments on “White Supremacist Violence from Greensboro to Charlottesville

  1. Pingback: Mapping White Supremacy – The Activist History Review

  2. Pingback: Editors’ Pick: Our Favorites from a Year of #ActivistHistory – The Activist History Review

  3. Pingback: The Partisan Solution: Du Bois on “The Crisis” of Racist Misinformation – The Activist History Review

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