On November 3, 1979, a planned march in Greensboro, North Carolina took a deadly turn when members of the Communist Workers’ Party (CWP) clashed with individuals from the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party. The melee, which left 5 people dead and several others injured, occurred in broad daylight and was filmed by on-scene news cameras. It became known as the Greensboro Massacre.
The events of the Greensboro Massacre were the culmination of tensions that had been building throughout 1979. CWP members had descended on North Carolina earlier in the year to try to organize textile workers into unions. The CWP had not had much success organizing white workers in North Carolina, so they instead turned their focus to black textile workers throughout the state. This brought the group into direct confrontation with the Ku Klux Klan.
The two groups engaged in several confrontations throughout 1979. In July, a screening of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation in China Grove, North Carolina was disrupted by CWP protesters. The 1915 film portrays the Ku Klux Klan in a heroic light, as the saviors of Southern life and respectability. After the incident in China Grove, the CWP and the KKK engaged in a war of words leading up to November 3.
When the CWP and others demonstrated on November 3, the theme of their march was “Death to the Klan.” Though the protesters that day probably did not think that they would be caught in the middle of a deadly showdown, the protests were not peaceful-minded. The CWP 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.”
Local TV news crews gathered to film the march. As demonstrators congregated, ten cars and vans with approximately 40 KKK and American Nazi Party members drove back and forth in front of the protestors. Some protestors threw rocks and hit the vehicles with sticks as they drove by. Suddenly, the vehicles stopped. 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. That was not the end of the violence the day engendered, however: A man named Frazier Glenn Miller was with the KKK. He would later gain notoriety when he shot and killed three people at a Jewish community center in suburban Kansas City in 2014.
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.
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