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A memoir of the Greensboro Massacre

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The morning was clear and cool, the sun was shining when a handful of Ku Klux Klan members and American Nazis opened fire on an unarmed group of demonstrators in Greensboro's Morningside Homes neighborhood 23 years ago this month. When the shooting stopped, at least six people lay bleeding on the ground, hit by gunfire from Klan and Nazi rifles and shotguns, while other victims had staggered to safety, stabbed, cut or shot in the assault.

Five of those wounded would not survive the coordinated attack on the dubiously named "Death to the Klan" rally, Nov. 3, 1979. Those dead included two doctors, Mike Nathan and Jim Waller, as well as labor activists Sandi Smith, Cesar Cauce, and Bill Sampson. The rally was organized by the Communist Workers Party, and was part of an ongoing campaign to draw together the struggles of workers and people of color in opposition to the historically rooted racism embodied in the Klan.

The Klan was enjoying spurts of a revival as the CWP was reaching out to workers in the massive industrial complex of Greensboro's Cone Mills. The "Death to the Klan" rally followed by four months another affront to the racists, the disruption of a Klan gathering in China Grove where members of the CWP had burned Confederate flags and otherwise cowed the outnumbered Klansmen. The two groups clearly saw each other as the enemy.

But even with this defiant anti-racist action, no one could have anticipated the kind of violence that erupted that November morning in Greensboro. No one, that is, except perhaps the FBI informant who had infiltrated the Klan, or the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms agent who had worked his way into the Nazis. The federal informant, Edward Dawson, was in the lead car of the Klan caravan that attacked the rally, and ATF agent Bernard Butkovich attempted to protect the Nazis involved by hiding them on a farm in Ohio.

He needn't have worried about his Nazi comrades, though, for a year after the attack, all of the accused assailants would be found not guilty, despite having been caught on video tape in the commission of their crimes. Efforts for justice would have stopped there, but for the determination of the survivors of the massacre, particularly Signe Waller and Marty Nathan, women whose husbands had been slain that day. Along with many other survivors and with a national support system behind them, the widows pushed for a civil suit to look into local police and federal government complicity in the murders.

Their efforts were vindicated in court, when a jury found that the agents of the city of Greensboro had been complicit in the attack, and the court awarded some of the survivors a settlement of over $390,000. From this settlement arose the Greensboro Justice Fund, which awards grants each year to progressive causes promoting anti-racism and an end to hatred throughout the country.

Signe Waller, a widow of the Nov. 3 massacre, will be in Durham and Chapel Hill promoting her new book, Love and Revolution: A Political Memoir/People's History of the Greensboro Massacre, Its Setting and Aftermath. She will be appearing at the Regulator Bookshop on Monday, Nov. 11, and will be at the Internationalist Books and Community Center on Tuesday, Nov. 12.

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