Criminal: Birth Of A Massacre

May 20, 2016

This week's Criminal podcast examines the history of the 1979 clash in North Carolina now known by many as the Greensboro Massacre, which left five people dead and nine more injured.  Host Phoebe Judge spoke with Civil Rights activists Nelson Johnson and Signe Waller Foxworth about their run-ins with the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party.

In the 1970s, organizers came to Greensboro to organize black and white workers in the textile mills. They called their movement the Communist Workers Party.

"The Ku Klux Klan, which had a very visible presence still in the 1970s in North Carolina, did not like this work," Judge explains. "They believed that this was some attempt for these Communist workers to try to empower African-Americans to try to overthrow White society."

Tensions simmered further after the China Grove Standoff. In July 1979, the KKK planned a screening of the controversial silent film "Birth of a Nation," which celebrated the Klan's rise. Judge explains the CWP gathered at China Grove to protest the film, and burned a Confederate flag there. The Klan brandished firearms, but no violence erupted.

Activist Signe Waller Foxworth says the standoff only served to embolden the CWP.

"The fact that that did not erupt in violence was something people found amazing," Foxworth says. "We celebrated it as a victory, which was foolhardy of us."

That November, the CWP scheduled a "Death to the Klan" rally in Greensboro, which quickly took a violent turn.

This week's Criminal podcast examines what happened when these organizers provokes white supremacists and the police didn't show up on time. Judge interviews experts about the fallout from the incident memorialized as the Greensboro Massacre, and combs through the findings of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Criminal is recorded in the studios of WUNC.