One of the bloodiest incidents of racist violence in the long civil rights era occurred on November 3, 1979. On that day, five organizers—Cesar Cauce, Michael Nathan, Bill Sampson, Sandy Smith, and James Waller—were brutally murdered in broad daylight by members of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and the American Nazi Party in Greensboro, North Carolina. The victims were all members of the Communist Workers Party (CWP), a multiracial group of socialist activists organizing against racism and militarism and for worker’s rights in the South, and their murders had a chilling effect on anti-racist and labor organizing, both regionally and nationally.
Rosalyn “Roz” Pelles, a black organizer and former member of the CWP, was present at the Greensboro Massacre and witnessed her comrades murdered in the street. She is currently vice president of Repairers of the Breach, as well as senior strategic advisor to the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. In this excerpted oral history from the forthcoming collaborative autobiography I am writing with her (As Goes the South: The Life and Lessons of Roz Pelles), Pelles describes her work as a CWP member and organizer in textile mills and the lead up to the Greensboro Massacre, and she offers lessons for movement building today.
—Jordan T. Camp
JORDAN CAMP: Before the Greensboro Massacre, you and your colleagues had been organizing within unions in North Carolina. What were some of the challenges you faced there?
‘We were organizing across racial lines. In many places this was unheard of. This separation of workers was the main way companies were able to control workers and keep them from making demands.’
ROSALYN PELLES: In North Carolina, the Communist Workers Party (CWP) was organizing primarily in textile mills and hospitals. After several years of organizing in places such as Cone Mills, Burlington Industries, and Duke Hospital, the party was seeing significant success in our efforts. Many of our comrades were becoming leaders in their unions, changing the direction of company-dominated unions, and leading important struggles in their workplaces, including strikes.
We faced many challenges when we started this work. In many instances, we were going against tradition and accepted practices. We were organizing across racial lines, bringing black and white workers together. In many places this was unheard of. This separation of workers for the companies was the main way they were able to control the workers and keep both black workers and white workers from making demands on the companies for safe working conditions, better pay, and adequate health care.
We were open in our analysis of why workers were poor and had to work in plants and also farm once they got home or work two or more jobs to support their families to make ends meet. We made it clear the it was not them but the system of capitalism that was the problem. This understanding ran counter to what they had been told for years. And, in fact, spreading fear about communists and outside agitators was another way workers were frightened and separated. Every day in plants, hospitals, and communities, we learned that these challenges could be overcome as long as we continued to do our organizing work, told the truth, listened to and learned from folks as they shared their own experiences, and trained and promoted the leadership of the folks we were organizing with.
JC: What kind of organizing were you doing to confront the KKK before the march on November 3, 1979, and what motivated you to engage in these struggles?
RP: We were not organizing to confront the KKK. We were organizing against racism, racist violence, and the work of the KKK that caused divisions among the working class. In 1978 and 1979, the KKK and white supremacy were on the rise in North Carolina. The KKK and racists were bold and visible trying to organize white folks using hatred and fear. In some places, this was working. We saw organizing against the Klan as critical to our work to bring together folks across lines of racial division.
‘In the late 1970s, the country politically was very similar to what we are experiencing today and racism was being promoted by people seeking political office.’
In the late 1970s, the country politically was very similar to what we are experiencing today. White supremacy, hatred, and “othering” were being promoted. Racist violence was on the rise. Scapegoating was being used to provide false answers to the problems people were facing. The country was hearing rumors of the coming of an economic downturn. And racism was being promoted by people holding and seeking political office—Ronald Reagan was running for president at the time, and a central part of his campaign was upholding “states’ rights” and the use of other code words meant to separate folks along racial lines. In fact, in 1980, Reagan would do a campaign event in Nashoba County, less than ten miles from where civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were murdered by the KKK in 1964.
During the summer of 1979, North Carolina’s KKK had a huge organizing and recruitment event in China Grove where they showed The Birth of a Nation. We were organizing in that community and joined with local activists in a protest against the event. Our protest was met by armed KKK members and KKK-sympathetic local law enforcement. This display of weapons and collusion with law enforcement should have been a lesson for us for our future work.
In response, November 3 was planned as a protest march and education conference against the rise of the KKK in Greensboro. We applied for and finally received a march permit that had severe restrictions: no sticks for signs over a certain size, no weapons (though North Carolina was and remains an open carry state), specifics about location, etc.
JC: And what happened on November 3?
RP: We arrived at the staging area for the march and there were no policemen on the scene. I arrived with Sandi Smith (who was later murdered) and another comrade. We commented on the lack of police presence—that it was strange. However, we continued to get ready for the march. The staging area was Morningside Homes, a public housing project in a black community, where many of our leaders had been community organizers for over a decade. People from the community, including children, were out in the streets helping us prepare. As we worked, we were all singing freedom songs.
‘We thought the police might try to disrupt the march in some way. But having the KKK come out in broad daylight and kill demonstrators was not anticipated.’
A few minutes later a nine-car caravan of KKK and American Nazi Party members drove into Morningside Homes. No police were on the scene. The last car in the caravan stopped and several Klansmen got out of their car, unlocked the trunk, pulled out guns, and opened fire on demonstrators. Eighty-eight seconds later, four demonstrators were dead and eleven others wounded. Later a fifth demonstrator died in the hospital. These murders were filmed by four TV stations.
The five people who died were all CWP leaders. Cesar Cauce organized and led workers struggles at Duke Medical and was a respected labor leader in Durham. Bill Sampson worked at Cone Mills, where he was shop steward and led efforts to reform and expand the union. Jim Waller was the president of the union at the Cone Mills Haw River Plant, where he had previously led a successful workers strike. Jim was also a member of the CWP Central Committee, the party’s national leadership body. Mike Nathan was the chief pediatrician at a clinic in Durham, proving health care to Durham’s black community. He was also a leader in the Medical Committee for Human Rights. He organized supplying a lot of medical supplies to Zimbabwe during the country’s liberation struggles. Sandi Smith organized workers at the non-union Cone Mills Revolution Plant, where she formed the Revolution Organizing Committee. Sandi was also a leader in the African Liberation Support Committee.
JC: Had you anticipated violence from the Klan that day?
RP: No, we had not. People brought their children to the march, just as they did at many other demonstrations. Folks in the Morning Side Community were out with their families. There was some thinking that the police might try to disrupt the march in some way. But having the KKK come out in broad daylight and kill demonstrators was not anticipated.
JC: Did it seem that the Klan and the Nazis were there to just shoot as many people as possible, or was it more focused than that?
RP: We believe that CWP leaders were targeted. Someone who was with Sandi at the time of the shooting reported that after trying to get people to safety, they themselves took shelter against the side of a building. The person with Sandi reported that she had stuck her head out to see what was happening and saw a Klansman looking directly at her with a gun pointed at her, but did not shoot at her. She told this to Sandi. When Sandi looked out to assess the situation, she was shot right between the eyes. This report suggests selective assassination.
‘The KKK and Nazis were aided by an agent of the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, and Tobacco, and the police commanding officer ordered all officers out of the area and told them to take an early lunch.’
In the aftermath, two trials with all-white juries found the Klansmen and Nazis not guilty. The widows and survivors of the massacre filed a federal civil rights suit and won. During that trial, evidence was introduced that showed that the KKK and Nazis were aided by an agent of the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, and Tobacco, Bernard Butkovich. Evidence presented at trial showed that Butkovich was present during the planning leading up to the murders and knew when the murderers were headed with firearms to the march site. Also a Greensboro police informant was in the KKK caravan that came to Morningside Homes and had been making regular reports to the Greensboro Police. We also learned during the civil trial that the Greensboro Police commanding officer in charge of the area where the march was being held ordered all officers out of the area and told them to take an early lunch. These facts confirmed our suspicions that federal and local government agents had colluded in the massacre.
Why? I believe to stop the work of the CWP, in North Carolina and around the country, that threatened the status quo, and that was bringing people together across all lines and that was exposing capitalism as the source of problems people were facing. In addition, I think it was meant to have a chilling effect on all the organizing that was led by other groups who were part of the New Left and new communist movement.
JC: How did you make sense of things after the massacre?
RP: It was a very scary time, especially in North Carolina. We didn’t know what was going to happen next or where the next attack would be. We had to be strategic about how we fought back and continued the work while grieving. We had to develop an analysis of what had happened. We had to take a breath. I think that saved many of our lives. We found a way to grieve, fight back in the courts, and continue the work. We survived.