Living Out Loud

The Greensboro Massacre


In November of 1979 I was a junior high student in Jacksonville, NC when I heard on the news about what the media initially called a shootout between the Ku Klux Klan in conjunction with a group of Nazis and Communist labor organizers in Greensboro, three hours away. I remember being confused that the Klan and Nazis, who in my mind were relics of a dark but distant past were still active and engaged in violence. And, I'd never even heard of Communists on American soil. It was a tumultuous time in America that month. It was when Iran took more than 50 Americans hostage. Inflation was over 10% and rising. President Carter was not the revered statesman he is today, but a beleaguered man presiding over a country that felt lost.

As it turns out, on that day in Greensboro, there was no shootout. Instead there was a massacre planned with the aid of an active police informant that involved carloads of Klansmen and Nazis, who the police knew were on the way to what turned into a killing ground in a public housing project. With television cameras rolling but no law enforcement present, the forefathers of today's alt-right movement gunned down the labor organizers from the Workers Viewpoint Organization, who were graduates from Duke and Harvard and in a couple of cases, medical doctors. Having previously faced down the Klan at a China Grove, NC rally. The left-wing activists underestimated the willingness of the fascists to engage in violence and paid for it with their lives. Aside from the five who were killed, 10 more were wounded.

The state and federal government both tried to convict the planners and shooters involved in the massacre. There were numerous eyewitnesses. The Klan was infiltrated with informants. There was ample video tape. In both trials, however, all white juries refused to convict those responsible for the violence and death on the streets of Greensboro. We aren't talking about 1960's Mississippi Burning times. One of these trials happened when Michael Jordan was in college in NC.

Two decades later, when I became involved in activism in North Carolina, some of the same people who had naively been involved in the Greensboro anti-Klan organizing were still committed to trying to do things like establish a death penalty moratorium, ensure affordable housing, ending the nuclear arms race, ensuring same sex marriage and stopping the US led war in Iraq. My mentor was a Ph.D economist from Temple University who had worked for 10 years as a lathe operator in a mill while trying to organize workers. His wife was a leading neurosurgeon who had taken a break from medical school to work on a textile mill to organize the people on the looms. Their lives had been upended by the events on 1979 and Kim, the wife, never quite recovered the fire in her belly to organize, Chip, her husband remained actively working with low wage workers and community activists until his death in 2014.  

I was horrified when the Unite the Right rally happened in Charlottesville in 2017. I know what these people are capable of doing. They've shown us. Hopefully those who oppose them won't fall into the same trap as the anti-fascists did in 1979. This stuff isn't from the distant past. It's from the here and now.