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'We knew people were dead'

Forty years later, the tragedy of the Greensboro Massacre still hurts for some

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2005 HEARINGS (copy)

Each of the five people who were killed in the Nov. 3, 1979, shootout is represented by their photograph and a white rose during the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation hearings at N.C. A&T on Aug. 5, 2005.

GREENSBORO — In one of those Morningside Homes apartments near Everett and Jennifer streets, the Saturday morning ritual of cereal and cartoons was well underway for 15-year-old Candy Clapp and her siblings.

And then they heard gunshots outside, where people had gathered for a protest that was to start at noon.

When the shooting stopped, Clapp got the nerve to go outside.

“After the smoke cleared, it was silence,” Clapp would later tell the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which would examine what happened that day and issue a report. “There was a stillness in the air. We knew people were dead.”

• • •

Four decades later, many of the wounds from that infamous day — later designated the “Greensboro Massacre” by the North Carolina Historical Society — haven’t healed for those involved and may not in the aftermath of a tragedy that made headlines around the world.

Some people continue to blame the victims. Some continue to blame the police.

The shootings, in broad daylight between weapon-carrying white supremacists and a protest group that had dared them to show up, left bodies riddled with bullets with children at play nearby and police nowhere in sight.

The Communist Workers Party planned the protest march like they had done many times before, gathering people along the route. This one was to end with a conference to organize textile workers at local mills.

The heavily-armed Klan, responding to flyers challenging them to “to come out from under their rocks” also came with a personal vendetta after a confrontation with the Communist Workers Party in another city. They showed up with neo-Nazis in tow.

The “Death to the Klan” march ended with acquittals of the defendants by an all-white jury and led to finger pointing over fault that still hasn’t stopped today.

During the ensuing gunfire that lasted 88 seconds and was partly captured on videotape by four TV crews, five anti-Klan marchers were killed and 10 others wounded.

Sandra Neely Smith, a 28-year-old nurse and former Bennett College study body president, was among the dead. The youngest, Cesar Vicente Cauce, was a 25-year-old Cuban immigrant who had graduated magna cum laude from Duke University. Their friend, William Evan Sampson, 31, was a graduate of the Harvard Divinity School.

Also dead were physicians Dr. Michael Ronald Nathan, 32, and Dr. James Michael Waller, 36. Nathan was the chief of pediatrics at Durham’s Lincoln Community Health Center. Waller had given up his medical practice to organize workers and later served as president of a local textile workers’ union.

Neo-Nazis and Klansmen claimed self-defense after Communist Workers Party saw the arriving caravan and began banging on the cars with sticks.

Established in 2004, the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission was created to objectively review what transpired that Nov. 3 day.

The group’s report said there was shared blame for the violence, including the Communist Workers Party’s goading of the Klan, but that the single pivotal piece was the absence of police.

“They deliberately let them get face to face in the absence of police,” said former civil rights attorney Lewis Pitts, who later won a civil judgment after a jury found members of the Greensboro Police Department, KKK and the neo-Nazi group jointly liable for the wrongful death of one of the people killed.

It is a charge former Mayor Jim Melvin adamantly denies. He blames the Rev. Nelson Johnson — who wasn’t a preacher at the time — for taunting the Klan.

In the years since the report was issued, the city has taken no official action on the 600-page document.

And Melvin says there’s no need for the city to apologize for the police.

“We were prepared to give them all the police protection we had,” Melvin said.

• • •

One of the city’s more polarizing symbols is the “Greensboro Massacre” historical marker planted near the site of what some contend was an ambush. Others call it a shootout between the groups because both sides had weapons.

Nelson Johnson, one of the protest organizers and a former U.S. Air Force military policeman, can’t move one of his fingers because of a knife wound he suffered during the fighting.

At the Beloved Community Center, where he is a founder, Johnson is surrounded by vivid paintings of some of the pivotal moments of the confrontation, including his kneeling by the lifeless body of Waller.

It’s one moment of a day that forever changed lives.

Johnson says you have to go back to the 1960s to understand what happened on Nov. 3, 1979.

“We were successful organizers,” Johnson said.

shooting 7.jpg (copy)

Five anti-Klan marchers were killed and 10 others wounded during the Greensboro Massacre on Nov. 3, 1979. All criminal defendants were acquitted in state and federal trials.

As far back as his days at N.C. A&T, where he had been a student leader, he had built a reputation fighting for the underdog.

Although no longer a student there in the 1970s, he had been asked by A&T cafeteria workers for assistance. He helped organize a boycott of the student cafeteria to demand higher wages for the cafeteria staff.

Students, and there were thousands there at the time, he said, would not eat there until workers were paid fairly.

“Only four people actually broke the line to go in and eat,” Johnson recalled.

Johnson and his supporters collected food from area grocery stores willing to help them, and turned the student union into a dining hall until the administration sat down with them.

“We had a reputation of not just making noise, but winning,” Johnson said.

In 1966, the group had begun organizing individual neighborhood groups in the city starting with the Ray Warren public housing community. That would eventually lead to the formation of the Greensboro Association of Poor People, an alliance that would grow to include local pastors and the NAACP.

“It was the strongest connected group of black people in the history of Greensboro,” Johnson said.

Among their efforts, they worked with the NAACP to register people to vote and to get then-attorney Henry Frye into the legislature. He later became the first black chief justice of the N.C. Supreme Court.

The group led a boycott of downtown in the early 1970s for better working conditions in the factory for blind workers at what would become the Industries of the Blind on Gate City Boulevard.

A rent strike they led against one of the city’s largest rental property companies, in which they held $18,000 in rent until demands for better living conditions were met, was brokered by Melvin, the mayor at the time, at the Hayes-Taylor YMCA with the company getting all the money due to them.

“During that period, we won major victories,” Johnson said. “I became the person that people who bent toward white supremacy didn’t like, and I became a target. Not because of failure, but because of the work.”

He was arrested after standing up for Claude Barnes, a Dudley student who won the write-in vote for president at the high school but wasn’t allowed to take office, leading to a clash that saw the National Guard come to Greensboro.

“This is the person that the white supremacist set out to destroy,” Johnson said. “Our work was good work. It was quality work and it was in alliance with different pieces of the black community.”

In the aftermath of the Dudley-A&T revolt, we started to studying Marxism, Johnson said. “I think of Marx more as an Old Testament prophet almost, who pounded and thundered for justice.”

Marx showed that there was a pattern of the accumulation of wealth, and that it was concentrated on a few people and used to dominate others.

“That made sense to me,” Johnson said.

“I used to think that white people were our fundamental problem — that they opposed the progress of black people, which was Jim Crow,” Johnson said.

He and others came to the conclusion that their effort needed to work with white people, who, like themselves, were also fighting for workers rights.

The group’s name became the Workers Viewpoint Organization and later the Communist Workers Party, marching through communities with residents joining along the way.

• • •

The days leading up to Nov. 3 had been contentious, Johnson admits.

A month before the rally, the Communist Workers Party had disrupted a rally in China Grove, a small town where the Klan was showing “The Birth of a Nation,” a 1915 film often used as a KKK recruiting tool.

After a verbal confrontation, Klan members eventually retreated inside a community center. Outside, one of the bystanders who had gathered with the Communist Workers Party and others burned the Confederate flag.

In flyers promoting the Nov. 3 rally, Communist Workers Party members boasted of having “chased these same scum Klansmen off the lawn.”

shooting 13.jpg (copy)

A funeral procession of slain Communist Workers Party members makes its way to Maplewood Cemetery on Nov. 11, 1979.

Johnson had also grown increasingly frustrated by not getting a response from the city about his application for the march permit.

People from across the state and elsewhere were coming to town — but he couldn’t tell them were to go.

Two days before the planned march and without a permit, he infamously held a press conference on the steps of the Greensboro Police Department, in which he railed against the police.

“He didn’t say, ‘Go away,’” said Dr. Marty Nathan, the widow of Michael Nathan, one of the five anti-Klan marchers were killed. “He said, ‘Stay out of our way. Don’t block us from doing this.’”

Johnson got the permit later that day.

Johnson maintains the group had gathered at Everett and Carver streets just as it said on the permit.

However, people coming from out of town were told to gather at the Windsor Center two blocks away because of parking.

The parade would start at Morningside Homes and as their protests had always done, gather people along the way.

Police were closer to Windsor and Lee streets (now Gate City Boulevard) and arrived on the scene only after the shootings, even though they were aware of the march and the recent history between the Communist Workers Party and KKK.

“All of this,” Johnson said. “They knew all of this.”

It was later revealed that a police informant, Eddie Dawson, had warned officers that the Klan had planned to show up at the march.

As Johnson and the others were singing and putting together signs for the march near Everett and Carver streets, police were taking pictures of a cache of guns being loaded into the trunks of a caravan of cars at a small house off Randleman Road.

“They followed them,” said Pitts, the civil rights attorney. “They could have arrested them all right there. They could have arrested them the first mile. They could have arrested them the second mile.”

Decades later, there is still a belief that authorities colluded with the hate groups.

“If you take this mountain of evidence, all the things the police knew beforehand, it’s not just, ‘Oh, they only had an inkling,’” Nathan said. “They knew. They watched. They reported over time the Klan preparing and then going for the attack. It wasn’t a mystery to them. They hated the people in that march. They made the decision to allow the Klan to attack.”

• • •

Witnesses said the shooting started after several members of the Communist Workers Party saw the arriving caravan of KKK and Neo-Nazi members — no one is sure what brought the two groups together — and began banging on the cars with sticks.

At that point, according to cameras trained on the caravan, the occupants rushed to their trunks and grabbed weapons. The first two shots came from the Klan-Nazi caravan.

A few of the Communist Workers Party members were also armed.

One of the men charged at Johnson with a knife, which he blocked with his arm to prevent it from going into his stomach and resulted in permanent damage.

The FBI used the television footage to say that 16 of the 39 shots fired came from the Communist Workers Party.

Johnson and others disagree.

An officer who had been one of the first to arrive on the scene told the commission that officers were supposed to keep a “low profile” and not be visible for much of the route so their presence wouldn’t incite violence.

Then a police sergeant, Ramon Bell told the commission that he saw the coverage plan and read it twice to make sense of it.

“A lot of us read the operational plans and just shook our heads,” Bell said. “You don’t let two groups with extreme political views from each other come together without a buffer — and the buffer would have been the police.

“Mistakes were made. That was a big mistake in my opinion.”

• • •

Former District Attorney Mike Schlosser still recalls those days.

“The three most hate-ridden groups in North America congregated in an area the size of a basketball court, all heavily armed,” Schlosser said. “Bloodshed ... was inevitable.”

Schlosser says the “brazen, shameless behavior” of the Communist Workers Party members was a significant factor in the acquittals.

Schlosser, who prosecuted the case with assistant district attorneys Rick Greeson and Jim Coman, doesn’t talk much about the trial these days.


Signe Waller stops to smell a white rose that had been placed in an empty seat to honor her husband, James, after the second day of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in July 2005.

“I think about it often,” the former Vietnam veteran and recently retired attorney said. “Nelson Johnson and Virgil Griffin, the Grand Dragon of the KKK, led their respective forces to Greensboro itching for a fight. They got it and it forever soiled the name of Greensboro.”

While Schlosser had convinced one Klansmen, Brent Fletcher, a Vietnam veteran who had lost his leg after stepping on a land mine, to testify for the state, he could not get a single Communist Workers Party member to voluntarily testify.

One of those members, Tom Clark, did not respond to a subpoena and was taken into custody to ensure he would be available for court, Schlosser said. Though Clark vowed he would not testify for the state, Schlosser thought that if he saw the photographs of his bullet-ridden comrades, it would calm his inflammatory rhetoric and he would at least be willing to identify them.

Instead, when Clark took the stand and was asked by Greeson to identify photographs of the deceased members, he looked at the jury and declared that he would not participate in a “sham trial.”

“He then continued on and ranted about the system,” Schlosser said. “He left on the table five unclaimed bodies.”

Schlosser says that it was the most “riveting moment” he had ever witnessed in a courtroom.

Clark and other members of the Communist Workers Party saw conspiracies in their efforts to unionize local textile mills — an increasingly successful effort, survivors said — that sent alarms through Greensboro’s power structure.

The five killed were all leaders of community organizing efforts.

But there was little hard evidence linking law enforcement or city leaders to the deaths.

The presiding judge charged Clark with contempt of court and ordered him into custody.

Of the 94 black people in the jury pool, none were excused by the state. Sixty-three were dismissed for cause — because they said they were unable to judge a Klan member objectively, Schlosser said.

Of the 31 black people passed to the defense, 15 more were successfully challenged.

It took only 16 of the defense’s peremptory challenges to assure an all-white jury.

The state law pertaining to jury selection changed in 1986. A party cannot summarily dismiss a juror, solely based on race, without a factual or legal reason.

Several days after the shooting, Schlosser met with Signe Waller, the widow of Jim Waller, at the underground parking lot of the courthouse, to return her husband’s wedding ring and glasses for his funeral. He called the meeting amiable under the circumstances.

A couple of weeks later, attorneys from out of state came to the DA’s office and declared that they represented the Communist Workers Party members who survived the shootout.

“We were never allowed to, again, meet with or interview their clients,” Schlosser said.

The attorneys had demanded immunity to all workers party members before they would cooperate.

“This was not going to happen to a group that had fired 16 of the 39 shots,” Schlosser said.

Schlosser said the irony is that while the Communist Workers Party were convinced he was part of the conspiracy, he got a call from the FBI informing him about a recorded conversation from an informant.

Nazis in the Asheville area were plotting to kill him.

• • •

Klan Nazi shootings in Greensboro in 1979 (copy) (copy)

In its report, the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission said there was shared blame for the violence, including the Communist Workers Party’s goading of the Klan, but that the single pivotal piece was the absence of police when the first shots rang out.

The commission was the only one of its kind in the country.

Some people, including Melvin, the city’s mayor at the time, were critical of the effort, saying many of the people who now live in Greensboro weren’t here when the shootings happened.

Some of the testimony was riveting.

Klan leader Virgil Griffin suggested the words hurled at them, more than anything, sparked the violence, according to News & Record coverage of the testimony.

“Said we was hiding under rocks,” he recalled, his voice quivering with anger. “We was scum. I’m not scum. I’m as good as any man that walks on this earth.”

The group’s report found that Klan members drove to the rally intending to provoke a violent clash, but that Communist Workers Party members also bore some responsibility for the violence as a result of their rhetoric.

Johnson has since apologized for the taunting of the Klan and words he used to describe city officials.

The commission also found that the single critical factor that led to violence was the absence of police.

In recent weeks, a ministerial group has asked city officials, who broadly apologized years ago, for another apology — specifically for the police’s action.

So far, it has gone unanswered.

In the meantime, observances for the 40th anniversary has brought survivors and those who simply wanted to pay tribute to the city this weekend.

That includes Dr. Marty Nathan, who became a young widow with an infant daughter.

Her husband, Dr. Michael Nathan, had left a six-figure career to work at a pediatrics hospital for poor children in Durham. He was not a member of the Communist Workers Party, but believed in the group’s work to organize workers for better wages and benefits.

After the two unsuccessful criminal trials, a jury found members of the Greensboro Police Department, Klan and neo-Nazis jointly liable for the wrongful death of her husband.

Nathan used the money to start the Greensboro Justice Fund, which awarded grants to small activist organizations.

“He could get very excited about things involving justice,” she said. “I think he would be proud of that.”

She says the travesty of that day lingers on.

“I wish that they had been put in prison because of all the young men that they have inspired over the years, and I would include in that the Charlottesville Klan and other white supremacists,” Nathan said.

Everybody has some regrets in their life, she said. “We did not do everything in exactly the way that I would do now at age 68, but we did it the best we could.”

History would recall Signe Waller, immediately after the shootings, standing over her husband’s lifeless body, uttering “Long live the Communist Workers Party!”

In shock and distraught at the time, she can only explain it as one of those “things you do because of everything you’ve done before” moments.

She also says that there was plenty else the cameras didn’t show. Like when she took flowers to the bed of Roland Wayne Woods, a self-confessed Nazi who fired some of the shots in 1979, although he always claimed he shot over people’s heads.

In 2006, the then-sickly and seemingly repentant Woods had called Waller repeatedly, asking for a chance to apologize in person. Waller, a former philosophy teacher, agreed.

She and son Alex Goldstein, who was 11 in 1979 and had been at the rally, met Johnson there.

Woods told her he had left the hate group.

“It was trying to give him the measure of forgiveness that he was begging for,” Waller said.

He told her he wished he could have done some things differently.

Contact Nancy McLaughlin at 336-373-7049 and follow @nmclaughlinNR on Twitter.

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