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Signe Waller Foxworth, who continued social justice work for decades after the Greensboro Massacre, has died
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Signe Waller Foxworth, who continued social justice work for decades after the Greensboro Massacre, has died

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For the second time in a week, Greensboro has lost a stalwart in the fight for social justice with the death Friday of Signe Waller Foxworth. She was 83.

Waller Foxworth continued social justice work for decades after the Nov. 3, 1979, Greensboro Massacre.

She was among the marchers who survived the Klan-Nazi shootings that left five dead and 10 wounded. Her husband at the time, Dr. Jim Waller, was among those who were killed at the former Morningside Homes community in what has become known as the Greensboro Massacre.

Dr. Marty Nathan, who was also widowed because of the shootings, died last Monday at age 70.

Both Nathan and Waller Foxworth continued to fight for social justice in the decades since, said Jeff Thigpen, Guilford County’s register of deeds, who came to know both families during the city’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission investigation into the shootings.

Both strived to make the community a better place for everyone, he said Saturday night.

“They did the work. Every. Single. Day,” Thigpen said.

He described Waller Foxworth as “always community-minded,” and someone who “sought to stand for meaningful things and on behalf of those who had little power.”

“She lived every day to try to create meaning,” Thigpen said.

Her work on social justice and equity for all inspired others, said Joyce Johnson, who is co-executive director of the Beloved Community Center with her husband, the Rev. Nelson Johnson.

They had long been friends with Waller Foxworth.

“She was a person of great purpose and commitment,” Joyce Johnson said.

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But she was more than just the persona portrayed in the media, the Johnsons said. Waller Foxworth was a loving wife and mother, a gracious host, an excellent teacher and an intellectual who loved to read and talk about books. She loved to cook and had a flair for the arts.

She also wrote a book, ”Love and Revolution,” about Nov. 3, 1979, and its aftermath.

She was a fighter up until the end, according to the Johnsons. Although she had been ill, Waller Foxworth stood through the annual memorial service on Nov. 3 instead of sitting. And she chose to have surgery, believing there was still work for her to do.

“She was tenacious in her commitment and beliefs of justice for all people,” Nelson Johnson said.

The Klan-Nazi shootings happened the morning of Nov. 3, 1979, just as the march was forming in what was then the Morningside Homes community. A heavily armed caravan of Klansmen and Nazis drove into the area and confronted anti-Klan marchers, many of whom were members of what became the Communist Workers Party.

During the ensuing gunfire that lasted 88 seconds, the scene was partly captured on videotape by four TV crews. It would bring international and unwanted attention to the city.

Those who died included Sandra Neely Smith, a 28-year-old nurse and former Bennett College student body president. 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. Dr. James Michael Waller, 36, had given up his medical practice to organize workers and later served as president of a local textile workers’ union. And Michael Nathan, 32, was the chief of pediatrics at Durham’s Lincoln Community Health Center.

The “Death to the Klan” march ended with acquittals of the defendants by an all-white jury and led to finger pointing over fault.

Last year, more than 40 years after the deadly clash, Greensboro’s City Council issued an apology that many felt was too late in coming.

WATCH: UNCG oral history interview with Signe Waller Foxworth

In an op-ed in the News & Record for the 20th anniversary in 1999, Waller wrote about meeting one of the people who had been in the caravan that day, someone she described as being stuck, unable to change.

“I was shaken afterward, but it was liberating. I realized I cannot revisit Nov. 3 in terms of changing what anyone did at that time.

“Meeting the ‘enemy’ was an exercise I went through solely for myself. I did not frame it that way beforehand, but I realized later I had done it out of feelings occasioned by past wounds, feelings that were leading me to a dead end. Reverend (Nelson) Johnson has taught me that hatred destroys the soul of the hater, not the hated. That is a liberating truth.

“Closure came in grasping that I can only chart my own path, not the path of others. If I affirm life, social justice and the building of loving human communities around the globe, then I must chart my path in that direction. Let others chart their own paths.”

Contact Jennifer Fernandez at 336-373-7064.

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Related to this story

In just 88 seconds, five people at the “Death to the Klan” rally were fatally shot and 10 others were injured on Nov. 3, 1979, at the former Morningside Homes in Greensboro.

"I was afraid that some of those children were really scarred for life," says Ossie Ruth Beasley, who was president of the residents' association during what is now known as the Greensboro Massacre. 

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