Greensboro massacre

Deaths 5
Location Greensboro, North Carolina, US
Injured 12+
Date November 3, 1979
Criminal penalty Unknown


The Greensboro massacre was a deadly confrontation which occurred on November 3, 1979, in Greensboro, North Carolina, US, when members of the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party (ANP) shot and killed five participants of a "Death to the Klan" march organized by the Communist Workers Party (CWP). The killed included four members of the CWP, who had originally come to Greensboro to support workers' rights activism among mostly black textile industry workers in the area. The Greensboro city police department had an informant within the KKK and ANP group who notified them that the Klan was prepared for armed violence.

The event had been preceded by inflammatory rhetoric from both sides. As the two opposing groups came in contact at the onset of the march, both sides exchanged gunfire. The CWP and supporters had one or more handguns, while members of the KKK and the ANP were shown in a video taking rifles from their cars. In addition to the five deaths, ten demonstrators and a Klansman were wounded.

Two criminal trials of several Klan and ANP members were conducted by state and federal prosecutors. In the first trial, conducted by the state, five were charged with first-degree murder and felony riot. All were acquitted by a jury that concluded that the defendants acted in self-defense. A second, federal criminal civil rights trial in 1984, was brought against nine defendants. The trial resulted in an acquittal of all defendants, when the jury concluded that the men had acted based on political, rather than racial, motivations.

In 1980, surviving protesters filed a separate civil suit, led by the Christic Institute, against 87 defendants, seeking damages of $48 million. Defendants included the city of Greensboro, state of North Carolina, the Justice Department and the FBI. The suit alleged civil rights violations, failure to protect demonstrators, and wrongful death. Eight defendants were found liable for the wrongful death of the one protester who was not a member of the CWP. The city settled with the plaintiffs for $351,000.

In 2004, 25 years after the event, a private organization formed the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission, modeled after commissions in South Africa, Canada and elsewhere with the intention to investigate the events of 1979. The private organization failed to secure authority or local sanction, when the mayor and most of the City Council voted against endorsing the undertaking. The commission lacked both subpoena power to compel testimony, and the ability to invoke perjury for false testimony. When it issued its Final Report, the commission concluded that both sides had engaged in inflammatory rhetoric, but the Klan and ANP members had intended to inflict injury on protesters, and the police department had colluded with the Klan by allowing anticipated violence to take place.

In 2009, the Greensboro City Council passed a resolution expressing regret for the deaths in the march. In 2015 the city unveiled a marker to memorialize the Greensboro Massacre. Three hundred people attended the ceremony.

On August 15, 2017 and on October 6, 2020, the Greensboro City Council formally apologized for the massacre.


The Communist Workers' Party (CWP) had its origin in 1973 in New York as a splinter group of the Communist Party USA. "The CWP was one of several groups established as part of a Maoist revival within the radical community. To the Maoists, the pro-Soviet Communist Party USA was deemed to be soft on capitalism and lacking in militancy." Its leaders intended to increase activism in what they called the Workers Viewpoint Organization (WVO), along the Maoist model. In 1979, members of the CWP came to North Carolina in an attempt to organize textile workers. In the South, the communists had achieved little success with white workers, so they shifted much of their attention to black textile workers, who had long been excluded from these jobs in previous decades. As a result of these efforts, the CWP came into conflict with a local Ku Klux Klan chapter and the American Nazi Party. Some CWP members also worked in the textile mills, including James Waller, who left his medical practice to do so. He became president of the local textile workers union. WVO members were active in Durham and Greensboro.

The WVO resisted continuing racial discrimination in North Carolina by confronting a local KKK chapter. Hostility between the groups flared in July 1979, when protesters in China Grove, North Carolina, disrupted a screening of The Birth of a Nation, a 1915 silent film by D. W. Griffith which portrayed the era of Reconstruction and the formation of the KKK in heroic terms, and portrayed blacks in a demeaning, racist way. Taunts and inflammatory rhetoric were exchanged between members of the groups during the ensuing months.

In October 1979 the WVO renamed itself as the Communist Workers Organization. It planned to stage a rally and a march against the Klan on November 3, 1979, in Greensboro. The county seat of Guilford County, this city had been a site of major civil rights actions in the 1960s. Sit-ins resulted in the desegregation of lunch counters. The CWP entitled their protest as the "Death to the Klan March"; the event was scheduled to start in a predominantly black housing project called Morningside Homes on the black side of town, and to proceed to the Greensboro City Hall. The CWP distributed flyers that "called for radical, even violent opposition to the Klan". One flier said that the Klan "should be physically beaten and chased out of town. This is the only language they understand. Armed self-defense is the only defense." Communist organizers publicly challenged the Klan to attend the march.


Four local TV news camera teams arrived at the Morningside Homes at the corner of Carver and Everitt streets to cover the protest march. Members of the CWP and other anti-Klan supporters gathered to rally the march, which was planned to proceed through the city to the Greensboro City Hall.

As the marchers collected, a caravan of ten cars (and a van) filled with an estimated 40 KKK and American Nazi Party members drove back and forth in front of the housing project. Several marchers beat the cars with picket sticks or threw rocks at them. In response, the KKK and ANP members got out of their cars, took shotguns, rifles and pistols from the trunks, and fired into the crowd of protesters. Some of the latter were armed with handguns, which they fired during the brief conflict. It is not entirely clear who fired the first shot. Witnesses reported that KKK member Mark Sherer fired first, into the air.

The KKK and ANP members quickly killed Cesar Cauce, James Waller, and Bill Sampson at the scene. Sandra Smith was shot between the eyes as she looked out from a place where she had taken shelter. Eleven others were wounded. Michael Nathan died of his wounds at the hospital two days later. The filmed coverage of the shootings was carried on national and international news, and the event became known as the "Greensboro Massacre." Smith was black, Cauce was Hispanic, and the other three men killed were white. Both blacks and whites were among the wounded, including one KKK member.


Died: All but Michael Nathan were CWP members and rank-and-file union leaders and organizers.

  • Cesar Cauce, whose family immigrated as refugees from Cuba when he was a child, grew up in Miami, Florida and graduated magna cum laude from Duke University; he worked in the anti-war movement, and as a union organizer at textile mills in North Carolina. He was the brother of Ana Mari Cauce, president of the University of Washington since 2015;
  • James Waller, elected as president of a local textile workers union; originally taught at Duke University and was a co-founder of the Carolina Brown Lung Association (for textile workers); he had left his medical practice in North Carolina to organize textile workers;
  • William Evan Sampson, a graduate of the Harvard Divinity School and medical student who became active in civil rights; he worked to organize the union at one of Cone Mills' Greensboro textile plants;
  • Sandra Neely Smith, a civil rights activist and president of the student body at Greensboro's Bennett College; became a nurse and worked to organize textile workers and improve health conditions at the plant; and
  • Michael Nathan, chief of pediatrics at Lincoln Community Health Center, a clinic for children from low-income families in Durham, North Carolina. Wounded in the shooting, he died two days later at the hospital. He was not a member of the CWP but was supporting his wife, Marty Nathan, who was.

Wounded survivors:

  • Paul Bermanzohn, CWP organizer and physician, required brain surgery, suffered paralyzed left hand;
  • Tom Clark;
  • Martha "Marty" Nathan, CWP member and physician, widow of Michael Nathan;
  • Nelson Johnson, organizer and CWP member
  • Jim Wrenn, critically wounded, required brain surgery;
  • Harold Flowers, KKK member, shot in the arm and left leg.

Role of the police

By the late 1970s, most police departments had become familiar with handling demonstrations, especially in cities such as Greensboro where numerous civil rights events had taken place since 1960. CWP march organizers had filed their plans for this march with the police and gained permission to hold it. Police generally covered such formal events in order to prevent outbreaks of violence; few officers were present during this march. A police photographer and a detective followed the Klan and neo-Nazi caravan to the site, but they did not attempt to intervene in events.

Edward Dawson, a Klansman-turned FBI/police informant was riding in the lead car of the caravan. He had been an FBI informant since 1969 as part of the agency's COINTELPRO program. He was among the founders of the North Carolina Knights of the Ku Klux Klan when the North Carolina chapter of the United Klans of America split. By 1979 he was working as an informant for the Greensboro Police Department. He was given a copy of the march route by the police and informed them of the potential for violence. Because the police were absent, the attackers escaped with relative ease.

Bernard Butkovich, an undercover agent for the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), had infiltrated a unit of the American Nazi Party (ANP) during this period. This group had been formed by Frank Collin, who had been ousted from the National Socialist White People's Party. The ANP members joined with the KKK chapter to disrupt the November 1979 protest march. At the 1980 criminal trial, the neo-Nazis claimed that Butkovich encouraged them to carry firearms to the demonstration. At the 1985 civil trial, Butkovich testified that he was aware that the KKK and ANP members intended to confront the demonstrators, but he did not tell the police or any other law enforcement agency.



A funeral for the five victims was held on November 11, 1979, followed by a procession in which 200–400 people marched through the city to Maplewood Cemetery. There was controversy over whether or not the funeral should be held, but the city had arranged for full coverage by the police force and hundreds of armed National Guard troops to protect marchers.


The four white men were buried in the traditionally all-black cemetery near Morningside. The inscription intended for their memorial was initially opposed by the city council, citing new ordinances banning political speech in that context. With support from the North Carolina ACLU, the CWP proceeded to commemorate these four with the following inscription:

On November 3, 1979 the criminal monopoly capitalist class murdered Jim Waller, César Cauce, Mike Nathan, Bill Sampson, and Sandi Smith with government agents, Klan, and Nazis. Heroically defending the people, the 5 charged gunfire with bare fists and sticks. We vow this assassination will be the costliest mistake the capitalists have ever made, and the turning point of class struggle in the U.S.

The CWP 5 were among the strongest leaders of their times. Their deaths marked an end to capitalist stabilization (1950s–1970s) when American workers suffered untold misery, yet as a whole remained dormant for lack of its own leaders. In 1980 the deepest capitalist crisis began. The working class was awakening. The CWP 5 lived and died for all workers, minorities, and poor; for a world where exploitation and oppression will be eliminated, and all mankind freed; for the noble goal of communism. Their deaths, a tremendous loss to the CWP and to their families, are a clarion call to the U.S. people to fight for the workers' rule. In their footsteps waves of revolutionaries will rise and join our ranks.

We will overthrow the rule of the monopoly capitalist class! Victory will be ours!

November 3, 1980 Central Committee, CWP, USA


The body of Sandi Smith, who was African American, was returned at her family's request to her hometown in South Carolina for burial.

March of concerned citizens after the Greensboro Massacre. Photo from the Christic Institute archives.

State prosecution

Forty Klansmen and neo-Nazis, and several CWP marchers were said to have taken part in the shootings. The police arrested 16 Klansmen and Nazis, and several CWP members. The FBI started an investigation which it called GREENKIL (Greensboro Killings), turning over evidence it gathered to the state of North Carolina for its murder trial.

The state attorney prosecuted the six strongest criminal cases first, charging five Klansmen with murder: David Wayne Matthews, Jerry Paul Smith, Jack Wilson Fowler, Harold Dean Flowers, and Billy Joe Franklin. One was charged with a lesser crime. In November 1980 the jury acquitted all the defendants, finding that they had acted in self-defense. Residents of Morningside Homes — the housing development where the violence occurred, and students at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (A&T), expressed shock and anger over the verdict and a feeling of hopelessness regarding the judicial system and the Ku Klux Klan.

Federal criminal trial

The Department of Justice through the FBI had an extensive criminal investigation underway. After the acquittals in 1980, the FBI re-opened its investigation in preparation for a federal prosecution. Based on additional evidence, a federal grand jury indicted nine men on civil rights charges in 1983.

The case brought by the US attorney "charged the Klansmen and Nazis with racially motivated violence and with interference in a racially integrated event.". Three men were charged with violating the civil rights of the five victims: the defendants were David Wayne Matthews, Jerry Paul Smith and Jack Wilson Fowler, who had been prosecuted and acquitted in the state criminal trial.

Six other men were charged with "conspiracy to violate the demonstrators' civil rights::" Virgil Lee Griffin, Sr.; Eddie Dawson (also a police informant), Roland Wayne Wood, Roy Clinton Toney, Coleman Blair Pridmore, and Rayford Milano Caudle

On April 15, 1984, all nine defendants were acquitted. The jury rejected the government's argument that the defendants were motivated in the shootings by racial hatred. The CWP believed that the indictment was drawn too narrowly, giving the defense an opportunity to argue that political opposition to Communism and patriotic fervor, rather than racial motivations, prompted the confrontation. Neither trial "investigated the actions of Federal agents or the Greensboro police."

Waller v. Butkovich

In 1980, survivors filed a civil suit in Federal District Court seeking $48 million in damages. The Christic Institute led the legal effort. The complaint alleged that law-enforcement officials knew "that Klansmen and Nazis would use violence to disrupt the demonstration by Communist labor organizers and black residents of Greensboro but deliberately failed to protect them." Four federal agents were named as defendants in the suit, in addition to 36 Greensboro police and municipal officials, and 20 Klansmen and members of the American Nazi Party. Among the federal defendants was Bernard Butkovich of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, who had worked as an undercover agent in 1979 and infiltrated one of the American Nazi Party chapters about three months before the protest. He testified that a Klansman had referred in a planning meeting to using pipe bombs for possible assaults at the rally, and that he took no further action.

The Christic legal team was led by attorneys Lewis Pitts and Daniel Sheehan, together with People's Law Office attorney G. Flint Taylor and attorney Carolyn McAllaster of Durham, North Carolina. A Federal jury in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, found two Klansmen, three Nazis, two Greensboro police officers, and a police informant liable for the wrongful death of Dr. Michael Nathan, a non-CWP demonstrator, and for injuries to survivors Paul Bermanzohn and Tom Clark, who had been wounded. It awarded two survivors with a $350,000 judgment against the city, the Ku Klux Klan, and the American Nazi Party for violating the civil rights of the demonstrators. The widow Dr. Martha "Marty" Nathan, was paid by the City in order to cover damages caused by the KKK and ANP as well. She chose to donate some money to grassroots efforts for social justice and education.

25th anniversary events

The CWP gradually dissolved, and its members went on to other pursuits. In November 2004, nearly 700 people, including several survivors, marched in Greensboro along the original planned route from the housing project to Greensboro City Hall to mark the 25th anniversary of the event.

That year, a group of private citizens founded the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission. They appealed to the Mayor and the City Council for their endorsement, but failed to gain support. The Greensboro City Council, led by mayor Keith Holliday, voted 6 to 3 against endorsing the work of the group. The three African-American members of the Council voted in favor of the measure. The mayor at the time of the massacre, Jim Melvin, also rejected the private commission.

The private group announced that the Commission would take public testimony and conduct an investigation, in order to examine the causes and consequences of the massacre. It was patterned after official Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, generally organized by national governments, such as that notably conducted in post-apartheid South Africa. But, the Greensboro commission had no official recognition and authority. It lacked both the power of subpoena to compel testimony, and the ability to invoke the penalty of perjury for false testimony.

The Commission reported its findings and conclusions. It noted that both the Communist Workers Party and the Klan contributed in varying degrees to the violence, especially given the violent rhetoric which they had been espousing for months leading up to the confrontation at the march. It said that the protesters, most of whom did not live in Greensboro or the county, had not fully secured the community support of the Morningside Homes residents for holding the event there. Many of the residents did not approve of the protest because they feared it had the risk of catalyzing violence on their doorsteps. The Commission concluded that the KKK and ANP members went to the rally intending to provoke a violent confrontation, and that they fired on demonstrators with intent of injury.

In its Final Report, the Commission noted the importance of the Greensboro Police Department's absence from the scene. The presence of police at previous confrontations between the same groups had resulted in no violence. There had been testimony at the Commission that the Greensboro Police Department had infiltrated the Klan and, through a paid informant, knew of the white supremacists' plans and the strong potential for violence that day. The informant had formerly been on the Federal Bureau of Investigation's payroll and maintained contact with his agent's supervisor. Consequently, the FBI was also aware of the impending armed confrontation. The Commission reported that at least one activist in the crowd fired back after the attack started.

City recognition

  • On June 17, 2009 the City Council issued a "statement of regret" about the 1979 incident.
  • On May 24, 2015, the City of Greensboro officially unveiled a historical marker acknowledging the 1979 events, at a ceremony attended by more than 300 people. It reads: "Greensboro Massacre – Ku Klux Klansmen and American Nazi Party members, on Nov. 3, 1979, shot and killed five Communist Workers Party members one-tenth mile north." The city council had voted to approve the proposed state highway marker. Two city council members voted against the historical marker, explaining that they did not consider the event a "massacre".
  • On October 6, 2020, the city council approved a resolution apologizing for the incident.

In popular culture