Revolutionary History: The Greensboro Massacre At 40

Memorial marks site of Greensboro Massacre

Forty years ago on November 3, 1979, five comrades from the Communist Workers’ Party (previously known as Workers’ Viewpoint Organization) went out to demonstrate against the Ku Klux Klan at Greensboro, North Carolina. They would never return home again. César Cauce was a Cuban who graduated with highest honors from Duke University. James Waller was a member of the Central Committee of the CWP, a physician who left his practice to serve the people. Sandra Neely Smith, the only New Afrikan victim, was a well known Civil Rights organizer and founder of the Youth Organization for Black Unity. Michael Nathan was chief of pediatrics at Lincoln Community Health Center, a revolutionary physician, and extremely active in organizing medical support for revolutionaries in Zimbabwe (aka “Rhodesia”) who were fighting the fascist, settler colonial regime of Ian Smith. William Sampson was president of White Oak Organizing Committee and a graduate of Harvard Divinity School. 

These were comrades from a variety of backgrounds and who had come through the high tides of the 1960s and the revolutionary ebb of the 1970s. We forget, often, that in the late 1960s many people believed that the revolution was imminent, and that all one had to do was study Marighella, Che, and Mao, buy a gun, cook up some shit that went boom, and apply it. People in the movement today often forget that the decentralized Black Liberation Army which predated, yet was a refuge for the most militant members of the Black Panther Party, was actively struggling against the police with armed force all throughout the 1960s and 1970s, rolling grenades under pigmobiles and catching them slipping at the station, making them pay with their lives. Free Huey or Else! Revolution Now! This was the line, the time, and the practice which nurtured the comrades who would die that day.

The Communist Workers’ Party was the product of Jerry Tung, a former member of the Progressive Labor Party (excoriated by Huey P. Newton in his highly recommended autobiography), who split over changes in the party line and practice. The CWP, like many other New Communist Movement groups, started out organizing at points of production, garnering a modicum of success at various textile mills in North Carolina. The party’s line was essentially an anti-revisionist, Mao Zedong Thought one. It supported the Gang of Four in China and correctly considered the USSR a social imperialist superpower, following the position of the Chinese Communist Party in its revolutionary stage. But, like many NCM groups, it was unable to develop firm roots among the masses. The leadup to Greensboro was criticized as being an ultra-left turn as a result of frustration on the part of cadres and mass organizers. Ultra-leftism is also the understandable response of comrades coming off the ebb of high points of movements. In 1979, Deng Xiaoping held power in China, the Gang of Four were broken as a political force, and the economy was in the doldrums. Many male settler proletarians were getting ready to put the neoliberal fascist Ronald Reagan in the White House, and instead of becoming Communists, were reacting viciously to legal “gains” made by nonwhite and nonmale people in the ‘60s and ‘70s by joining formations such as the Klan or the myriad of Nazi inspired groups popping up around the country, most of which were extremely violent. A sober summation of the Greensboro slaughter by the Amilcar Cabral Collective states: 

The WVO’s violent rhetoric leading up to November 3rd wasn’t directed at the Klan, it was directed at the Black masses. Revolutionaries have a responsibility to lead in tactics and strategy to help to direct the masses ongoing fight more sharply at their real enemy. What the WVO was doing was tailing what they assume to be the spontaneous militant sentiments of Black people. Since the Klan was getting some serious publicity, they assumed Black people must see the Klan as an immediate danger, even if they didn’t. So WVO raised “Death to the Klan” to gain points with the masses. To them, “Death” was just a word. They came from almost exclusively academic backgrounds where they were taught to talk, theorize, polemicize, etc. but not to grasp the concrete connection between words and deeds, the actual effect of rhetoric on material reality. Thus they misjudged the effect of their rhetoric on both the masses and the Klan. Black people generally see the Klan not in terms of how much publicity they get but what measure of actual threat they pose to the Black community and more importantly to the ongoing struggle of Black people. Therefore, while being somewhat concerned by the increase in Klan activity, few Black saw the need to make fighting the Klan a major activity as long as they confined themselves to holding exhibits or showing movies. Moreover most Black people saw fighting the Klan in the context of building the Black Liberation Movement generally or for some, simply defending the Black community. “What we need to do is get our people organized.” Therefore, Black people generally found the anti-Klan activities lightly amusing and entertaining. As the violence of the rhetoric intensified, people began to see it as needlessly provocative even before November 3rd. By the time VWO’s open letter came out, you began to hear a lot of “these people are crazy.” WVO thought the Klan were idealist like themselves. They expected to engage in a little harmless rhetorical exchange as is customary between leftist groups. Maybe a little symbolic pushing and shoving and ineffective stick swinging to add just a hint of realism. They did not realize that Klansmen, bullets, shotguns and death are real material forces.

We can accurately describe the Greensboro Massacre as a shot in the arm for the egos of the settler fascist movement. This would only grow with the election of Ronald Reagan to the White House and the subsequent reversal of legal gains made of the ‘60s and ‘70s. We find ourselves in a similar, yet different, situation today. The Left, in various forms, is in a resurgence. So too is the violent right, which has been growing and sharpening itself through practice since the late 1970s. There are both legal and extralegal wings of this movement, and even though there are quarrels and spats, some of which turn open and nasty (see: Traditionalist Workers’ Party, led by the Strasserite, Matt Heimbach), they can safely be said to be united around the belief that they believe that the settler population is in mortal danger of vanishing, and are willing to violently struggle against this scarecrow they have constructed in their head. Charlottesville was this generation’s Greensboro, but instead of immediately galvanizing the right like Greensboro did, it caused organizational splits. None of the Greensboro perpetrators saw a day in prison, serving a sentence. The “veterans” of this massacre went on to become stalwarts in every aspect of the fascist movement of the ‘80s, ‘90s and the new millennium.

They would inspire and guide individuals such as the Bruder Schweigen (the Order), the Oklahoma City bombing perpetrators, and Dylann Roof. While the left squabbles amongst itself, self purges and cancels each other into oblivion, and discusses what it will do in future, the right is practicing in armed camps, developing ideological coherence and unity, and even attempting to do mass work to appeal more to disinherited settler proletarians. The Left ignores this trend and the increasing danger from our enemies to our peril. Positional warfare against ourselves will only lead to more Charlottesvilles and Greensboros, and when this country inevitably falls to armed civil conflict, most of the victims will be on our side. Get smart. Things have not gotten better, they have gotten worse.