RALEIGH — Clearly, the deaths of five communists in November 1979 in a housing project in Greensboro were a tragedy. But beyond that, what word best describes those deaths?
Shooting? Ambush? Or “the events of Nov. 3, 1979,” as one in-depth review frequently described the day?
The state, with the blessing of the Greensboro City Council, has settled on the word “massacre” for a highway historical marker commemorating the deaths of five Communist Workers Party members during a confrontation with Ku Klux Klansmen and the American Nazi Party. The marker, which will be dedicated Sunday, will read: “GREENSBORO MASSACRE Ku Klux Klan members and American Nazis, on Nov. 3, 1979, shot and killed five Communist Workers Party members one-tenth mile north.”
“The marker is a significant accomplishment,” said Nelson Johnson, who was a CWP member and is now a minister and executive director of the Beloved Community Center. “It names it a massacre over other efforts to call it what it was not — a shooting, a shootout, a conflict between outside agitators and so forth. It took a truth process, it took 30-some years of continued engagement to help our city somewhat reluctantly accept the reality that this was a massacre.”
On Nov. 3, 1979, the CWP — then called the Workers Viewpoint Organization — held a march in a poor housing project called Morningside Homes. They had a police permit for the march, although the police had told the members that they couldn't bring weapons. Klan and Nazi members drove through the march; a gun was fired, weapons were pulled from cars and at the end, five people were dead: Sandi Smith, Dr. James Waller, Bill Sampson, Cesar Cauce, and Dr. Michael Nathan.
A state criminal trial in 1980 resulted in not guilty verdicts for the 14 Klansmen and Nazi members. A federal criminal trial in 1984 also ended in not guilty verdicts for nine defendants. A $48 million federal civil lawsuit was filed in 1985 and ended with a settlement in which the city of Greensboro agreed to pay $351,500 to the estate of one victim, Nathan.
In December, the N.C. Highway Marker Historical Marker Advisory Committee unanimously approved the marker, describing the events of the day as a massacre as recommended by Lewis Brandon of the Beloved Community Center in Greensboro, who submitted the application.
Describing the events as a massacre is “tremendously important,” said Waller's widow, Signe Waller Foxworth, who still lives in Greensboro. “It's a question about talking about something in a truthful way or distorting it into something else.”
It's a word that the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission avoided in its report released in 2006. Instead, the commission used “shooting” or “the events of Nov. 3, 1979” in its report.
But in February, days before the Greensboro City Council voted 7-2 to approve the marker, five of the seven commission members wrote a letter saying that they believe “the term ‘massacre’ — a deliberate, targeted, and brutal killing of multiple people — is an accurate description of what happened that day.”
But not everyone agrees. Elizabeth Wheaton, who covered two federal trials and wrote a book about the incident entitled “Codename: Greenkil,” said the word “shooting” would be a better choice, particularly since some of the CWP members were armed.
“Under those circumstances, the fact that five CWP members died does not mean it was a massacre,” she said. “It's a tragedy. It's an abomination. But it was a shooting.”
People's attitude toward history change with time, said Mike Hill, supervisor of historical research in the N.C. Office of Archives and History.
“It's a matter of whose narrative has in the end dominated the historical discussion and consensus,” he said. “In this case, the narrative endorsed by the victims, the Communist Workers Party, is the one that has been dominant or endorsed.”