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Before Charlottesville

An interview with Carolyn McAllaster on the Greensboro Massacre of 1979

On August 15th, 2017, the City Council of Greensboro, North Carolina issued a formal apology for the city’s role in a deadly 1979 shooting of anti-Klu Klux Klan protestors by Klan members and neo-Nazis. Council members tied their vote to issue the apology relating to the “Greensboro Massacre” of November 3rd, 1979 to the August 12th vehicular attack on counter-protestors opposing a rally of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, that killed one and injured 19.

Carolyn McAllaster, the Colin W. Brown Clinical Professor of Law and director of the HIV/AIDS Policy Clinic, said the events in Charlottesville and the president’s response to them sparked memories of the Greensboro Massacre in which five protestors died and 11 were injured even before news of the apology broke. As a member of the legal team that represented victims and family members of those killed in Greensboro in a successful civil action against the city’s police department and some perpetrators of the attack — following acquittals at state and federal criminal trials — McAllaster spotted some parallels and enduring lessons for lawyers and citizens alike. She shared her memories and reflections with Duke Law Magazine.

Duke Law Magazine: Remind us of what happened in Greensboro and the aftermath.

Carolyn McAllaster: On November 3rd, 1979, a group of anti-Klan demonstrators who were, for the most part, members of the Workers Viewpoint Organization, held a demonstration in a public housing project in Greensboro, North Carolina. They were a radical left group that had been doing a lot of organizing of workers in the mills and organizing against the Klan. They had applied for a permit to demonstrate.

At the same time, as this demonstration was being organized and publicized, there were Klan and neo-Nazi groups organizing to come. In the KKK group, there was a police informant keeping the police informed of the Klan’s plans, and in the neo-Nazi group, a Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms agent reported back to the BATF. So on the morning of November 3rd, as the caravan of Klan members and neo-Nazis was driving toward the demonstration, the police informant was in the lead car and was keeping the police informed about what was happening. Yet, right before the caravan got to the demonstration, the police went to lunch. Only one police detective remained on site, but quite far away.

When the caravan drove into the demonstration, the protestors recognized who they were and started shouting at them. Someone may have banged their fist on a car. [The neo-Nazis and Klan members] stopped their cars, opened their trunks, took out weapons and started shooting at people. One woman and four men were killed, and 11 others were injured, some quite seriously. The shooters then got in their cars and drove off.

DLM: Why weren’t there any criminal convictions relating to this public massacre in broad daylight?

CM: There was just incredibly strong bias against the demonstrators because they were Communists. There was a state trial that was very problematic in that the district attorney really never seemed to be looking out for the interest of the demonstrators. Then the DOJ brought federal civil rights charges against these Klan members and neo-Nazis and there were acquittals again.

DLM: How did you come to be involved in the civil case?

CM: I was in a small private practice in downtown Durham doing plaintiff’s work and small criminal cases. The plaintiffs had recruited three trial lawyers from out of state, but needed local counsel. I had represented several of the demonstrators in criminal cases in Durham concerning trespassing or vandalism charges associated with their leafletting and trying to spread their political views. When one of their lawyers asked if I would be local counsel, I said I would consider it, but I wanted equal say and equal participation in the trial.

I spent a lot of time reading about what had happened and really thinking about it. It was an unpopular cause at the time, even among the progressive community. The demonstrators were demonized. There were people who knew them personally who pushed against that, but it came from all sides. And people said to me, “You’re going to hurt your reputation, this will be bad for your career.”

We as lawyers, when we represent people, obviously aren’t saying that we buy into everything our clients may have said or done. But more importantly, it seemed to me really clear that there was a wrong done here. Not only were people murdered during a peaceful demonstration, but beyond that, the actions of the police to me were really disturbing. I felt, and still feel, that the attitude of the police was, Let’s let these fringe groups fight it out and we’re going to step back and we’re not going to provide protection.” And that scares me now, frankly. They weren’t there, and they provided no protection, despite all their knowledge about what was going to happen. I felt there needed to be strong representation for folks who were victims of that.

DLM: How did police action or inaction factor into the civil suit?

CM: The criminal trials didn’t focus on the police’s actions too much, but the police were parties to the civil litigation. At the very least it was gross, gross negligence and, I think, based on an attitude of, “We don’t care what happens to them.”

The civil suit was a very broad suit. We sued several of the Klan members and neo-Nazis, several individual police officers, the city of Greensboro, and several actors in the BATF.

We sued on behalf of about 15 people, the widows and widowers, and the injured. There were maybe 17 lawyers in the courtroom during the trial. And we brought a whole range of causes of action; everything from state law claims of negligence to civil rights violation claims.

We won on the negligence charges against the city of Greensboro and two of the police officers, among other parties. And we won on behalf of two of the injured victims and one widow, Marty Nathan.

We were involved in litigation for five years, and we all moved to Winston-Salem to actually try the case. My job on the trial team was primarily to present the plaintiffs — I did some cross-examination of a couple of the Klansmen, but I was mainly the one trying to humanize our clients. As a result, I really dug deeply into their stories. And I’m still close to a couple of them. They really weren’t that different from anyone else. They were active in fighting for their beliefs. Marty Nathan’s husband was a doctor at Lincoln Community Health Center in Durham and he was killed.

When we were picking the jury, it really was striking how prospective jurors would react to the term “Communist” versus how they reacted to “Klan.” There was so much stronger a reaction against the Communist label. One of the jurors we challenged for cause said, “Oh yeah, my son has a [Klan] robe in the closet.” It took a little while to find a jury.

DLM: What about the Greensboro case strikes you as relevant or parallel to the aftermath of the Charlottesville violence?

CM: I thought about the demonization of the victims, the aspects of the trial that were about the communist groups language. The Greensboro rally was called “Death to the Klan,” and that language was problematic in trying the case. But I became convinced that that was rhetoric and not an indication of this group’s view that they could only fight the Klan with violence. I’m sure there were outliers then, as there are now. So we argued that there is a big difference between rhetoric and murder; None of the Klansmen were killed.

So, I’ve been thinking a lot about Greensboro and really my reaction [in the wake of Charlottesville] has been somewhat complicated. I have real worries about young people. I want to be sure that they are completely aware of the danger. I think these racist groups are armed and they don’t care if they hurt people. Some are bragging about having killed someone in Charlottesville now. It is important for people to try not to put themselves in a position of foolishly provoking them, or at least being completely aware of the risk that you take when you do.

I am not in the camp that thinks you shouldn’t show up at all [to confront hate groups]. I think you show up without the need to engage in violence yourself. That’s where I am, but I’m certainly not critical of nonviolent civil disobedience. I think if you’re going to get into any group involved in these demonstrations and counter-demonstrations, you should learn the full philosophy of that group’s strategy on making change.

The whole Greensboro situation reinforced for me that violent rhetoric is probably not the way to go. You can use strong language without using inflammatory language. I just keep coming back to being aware of the danger and taking precautions or at least recognizing that there are people who wouldn’t hesitate to use those guns. And there seem to be a lot of guns.

There’s a real parallel between what’s happened in the aftermath of the Greensboro Massacre and the way that President Trump is equating the two groups in Charlottesville. There were headlines about Greensboro that called it a “shootout” and tried to lay equal blame on both sides. And when our President had his press conference where he started creating the same false equivalencies, I didn’t even know what to think. Wow. The dead and seriously injured are all on one side in both cases, and in Charlottesville the other side was literally chanting Nazi slogans, but we have leadership that can’t acknowledge that.

I think the truly radical Nazi-type groups are relatively small, but I think they are emboldened by this kind of poor leadership. We have to work to keep making their views unacceptable in nonviolent ways, but they clearly feel they have some societal and political permission right now.

DLM: Did your experience with the Greensboro case yield any lessons that you have carried with you, or that you try to pass along to students?

CM: Well, for one thing, I lived in that courtroom for three months, and it gave me the trial experience to get my foot in the door at Duke University. And here I am, 30 years later.

I also think that it reinforced my inclination to get involved in a case that, on the surface, seemed to be quite unpopular but to me really resonated as one that needed a good legal team behind it. To try not to worry too much about the consequences to my reputation. I think that if you take on an unpopular client or cause, as long as you act with integrity and according to the ethics you’ve been taught as a lawyer, you’ll gain the respect of the other lawyers and the judge in the courtroom and you’ll be fine.

This article was originally published by Duke Law. 

Carolyn McAllaster is the founder of the Health Justice Clinic, formerly the AIDS/HIV and Cancer Legal Project, directs the HIV/AIDS Policy Clinic, and is a Clinical Professor of Law at Duke. 

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