Signe Waller, Love and Revolution: A Political Memoir: People’s History of the Greensboro Massacre, It’s Setting and Aftermath (London & New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002).
On November 3, 1979, a caravan of Klansmen and Nazis drove slowly into Morningside Homes, a black housing project in Greensboro, North Carolina. There, a “Death to the Klan” rally organized by the Communist Workers Party (CWP) was about to get underway. A confrontation erupted, and in the midst of the melee, Klan and Nazi gunmen opened fire. In broad daylight, the assailants gunned down five young revolutionaries, as television cameras rolled and the Greensboro police looked on.
The Greensboro Massacre was a pivotal event in the history of the CWP, as well as that of race and labor relations in North Carolina and the recent US left. The murders cut short the Party’s promising trade union work in North Carolina by eliminating key leaders in the textile mills and Duke Hospital. Most of the surviving party labor activists lost their jobs when employers fired them in the immediate aftermath of the shootings. State and federal authorities, along with much of the local media, facilitated this purge by creating a climate of anti-communist hysteria.
Signe Waller, who was a member of the CWP in Greensboro and whose husband was murdered on November 3, has made a major contribution to the history of the New Communist Movement and to radicalism in the U.S. She describes her book as “a tale of government collusion in political assassinations… historically rooted racism in the United States… a home grown, American variety of communism that rode the crest of the sixties’ wave of civil rights and antiwar struggles and a love story.” I would add that it also explores significant, but overlooked Southern labor struggles, while documenting the massacre survivors’ campaign for justice, an effort that long-time activist Anne Braden calls “a watershed in the struggle against racism.” Moreover, Waller ably explains why young people from diverse backgrounds came together to form a revolutionary organization, what their goals were, and how they attempted to organize workers and build the party in the textile mills of North Carolina. All these questions are of much interest to today’s young activists, who often have been denied any understanding of this previous generation of struggle. Indeed, Waller’s book is the first in-depth account of the Massacre and the Party from a perspective sympathetic to the CWP.
Waller’s central argument is that the North Carolina organizing of the Workers Viewpoint Organization (the CWP’s precursor organization) threatened the state’s powerful economic and political interests. Leaders of the organization were targeted for repression as a result.
Waller explores the WVO’s work in the first half of Love and Revolution, where she offers an insider’s view of the party’s grassroots organizing in North Carolina. This is rich, new material for historians and students of the 1970s, the labor movement, and recent Southern history. WVO’s main work in the three years before the Massacre centered on organizing workers in several divisions of Cone Mills textile factories, as well as health care and maintenance workers at Duke Hospital in Durham. WVO activists also organized support for liberation movements in Africa and Central America, struggled for quality public education, helped build a movement to Free the Wilmington 10, and fought police brutality.
This organizing represented a real “contending for power,” Waller argues, because a small band of dedicated, disciplined, capable, and doggedly persistent revolutionaries strove to organize workers into unions and a communist party in a reactionary industry in one of the nation’s most reactionary states. Among them were prominent leaders of the black liberation movement in North Carolina, as well as white organizers who had “pitched their tent” in the Old North State. They were flawed and youthful, but they meant to stay and make a difference, and they were learning. “[T]hey succeeded for a time,” as Anne Braden comments on the book jacket, “in uniting people of color and whites in one of the most repressive states in the South.” Jim Waller, an open communist, had been elected president of his Granite Finishing Plant local after leading a strike. Bill Sampson, also murdered November 3, was “a shoo-in” for president of the White Oak local, until the national leadership of ACTWU (the textile workers’ union) pro- hibited local elections by putting all five of the Cone locals into receivership. Likewise, Sandi Smith, the only African American murdered on November 3, had led the Revolution Organizing Committee at Cone’s Revolution plant. While the work of the WVO was incipient, its potential loomed as a threat to the bourgeoisie, and was, therefore, nipped in the bud.
In 1979 the WVO had launched a campaign against a Klan recruiting drive in the South that threatened black communities as well as the fragile unity of black and white union workers. Waller argues that a highly publicized confrontation between the Klan and the WVO in China Grove, North Carolina in June 1979 galvanized an alliance between KKK and Nazi factions in September and served as the immediate precursor to the Greensboro Massacre.
The second half of Love and Revolution documents the party’s effort to survive anti-communist hysteria and pursue justice through the courts. Waller also develops her indictment of the role of the mill owners, government agents, and the media through an extensive review of evidence assembled for the three trials that took place following November 3. In the state criminal trial, the prosecutor narrowed the investigation by dropping conspiracy charges against the Klan and Nazis and made no secret of his contempt for the CWP. The party refused to cooperate and predicted that the sham trial would result in acquittals. An all-white jury found the accused Klansmen and Nazis not guilty of murder following a year of deliberations. The verdict shocked many people in the state and throughout the nation, increased pressure on the federal government to pursue a federal civil prosecution, and helped create an enlarged public sentiment for justice in Greensboro. In the federal trial, with which the CWP did cooperate, another all-white jury reached the same verdict. All the while, the Greensboro Justice Fund, a broad coalition of religious, civil rights, and justice groups led by the survivors and supported by the CWP, built support for its $48 million civil rights lawsuit against the Klan, Nazis, and Greensboro Police Department. In 1985, a jury awarded several hundred thousand dollars to some of the survivors. Two Greensboro police officers were convicted, along with the Klan and Nazis, of negligence for their failure to protect the demonstration. The city of Greensboro paid the entire judgment, including the amounts levied against the Klan and Nazis. Survivors of the Greensboro Massacre turned part of the settlement over to the Greensboro Justice Fund, which has continued to fund anti-racist organizing in the South.
While Waller succeeds in recounting the events leading up to and following the Greensboro Massacre, she remains largely silent on the larger significance of November Third for the development of the CWP. In particular, she does not go deeply into the question of how the party’s line and analysis contributed to the tragedy or to its political isolation after the murders. While there is criticism of “naiveté,” “sectarianism,” and “bravado,” there is no discussion of the tension between the CWP’s party-building priorities and its mass work. Waller gives careful attention to the long struggle for vindication in the courts, but does not explain why the comrades won the court battle, yet lost the party. I see this failure to engage in a more strategic analysis as a lost opportunity.
At times Waller hints at internal tension between the national CWP and some of the comrades in North Carolina, including Nelson Johnson, a national party spokesperson and long-time leader of the black liberation movement in Greensboro. Waller quotes a letter to allies in Greensboro in which Johnson argued that “police collaboration with Klan-Nazi terror must be our point of unity” to battle anti-communist hysteria and defend all progressive organizing in the aftermath of the Massacre. The official party line, however, emphasized a campaign to “avenge the CWP 5,” an approach that was unlikely to attract broad support. Although Waller does not address this apparent contradiction explicitly, it is my view that the “avenge” line came increasingly to represent a trend in the national leadership’s outlook, and resulted in numerous confrontations with police agencies, most notably at the Democratic National Convention in 1980. Waller suggests some of the negative implications of this line when she quotes Elliot Fratkin, a party member who married Marty Nathan, one of the widows who now leads the Justice Fund.
“We were lashing out in frustration and anger,” he said, “targeting the police and showing how tough we were. In a way, we had to stand up or the cops and the state would have unleashed more Greensboros. But it also spelled the beginning of the end for us as an organization. We lost jobs in the mills and elsewhere, and we also gave up a lot of our grassroots work. In a few more years, we ceased being a militant working-class organization altogether, and more and more party members entered the mainstream, including myself.”
Although, to my knowledge, there was never any open debate about these questions, Johnson’s view offered an alternative, broader “united front” approach to the one initially adopted by the CWP. Eventually, the Greensboro Justice Fund forged a successful coalition to fight for justice in the courts. Ironically, however, this necessary work also pulled cadre out of grassroots organizing and encouraged party members to enter the mainstream. The loss of a grassroots organizing focus, along with problems of internal democracy (also only hinted at by Waller) allowed many comrades to become absorbed by the mainstream and contributed to the demise of the CWP as a militant working-class organization. While a full assessment of the CWP’s attempted transition to social democracy as the New Democratic Movement awaits an analysis focused on these questions, Waller’s study provides essential material to inform such an assessment.
Some of these broader political questions are dealt with explicitly, if briefly, in Max Elbaum’s recent overview of the New Communist Movement, Revolution in the Air. Elbaum traces the shifting political lines and leaders of the movement’s major organizations. In reference to this period in the CWP’s history, Elbaum says, “While most other groups argued for constructing a broad front based on opposition to racist violence, the CWP stressed slogans like ‘Avenge the CWP 5’ and argued that support for its own program should be integral to the resistance. Most non-CWP activists criticized this approach and the extremely ‘left’ strategy behind it.” Elbaum, however, does not go deeply into the work or internal dynamics of the CWP or other groups. Before we can truly assess the strengths and weaknesses of the New Communist Movement and its revolutionary legacy, we need more work that focuses on the grassroots organizing and political campaigns of the New Communist groups. Waller’s memoir represents an important step in the right direction.
Waller believes that her book “affirms and celebrates the real power of working people to understand and guide their own destinies.” Despite the demise of the party, Waller believes she and her comrades left an enduring legacy. In particular, her book highlights the example of the young revolutionaries who transformed their lives to do the hard work of organizing unions and building a party among the workers of North Carolina. She sees the work of the Greensboro Justice Fund as an important institutional legacy. And in the work of Nelson Johnson and others in Greensboro, efforts facilitated by the long fight back for public understanding and justice, Waller sees a continuation of the party’s organizing tradition. In the end, Waller argues, revolutionary transformation in the U.S. must move beyond both capitalism and old-style socialism, incorporating lessons from the struggles of indigenous peoples and respect for the sacred into our revolutionary theory and vision.
Finally, why Love and Revolution? From the beginning to the end of this book, Waller makes it clear that her “love story” is not primarily about personal romance, although romance is manifest throughout. Rather, she writes of a love of comrades and a love for the people that enabled the young revolutionaries to transform their lives and undertake dangerous, grueling, and unpaid organizing in the mills and hospitals of North Carolina. In those days, there was no Union Summer to introduce student activists to trade union organizing. Indeed, much of the union leadership was violently hostile to radical organizers (and vice versa). To become a member of the WVO, or any of the new communist organizations, was not a matter of signing a card and giving some money-it was a commitment to transform one’s life, take a stand with the working class, and make oneself accountable for this to a disciplined collective. “Love,” Waller says, “gave people courage to challenge the status quo and go forth to change it…” The fundamental question with which Waller challenges her readers is, quoting Marty Nathan’s observation at the time of November 3: “If you truly love people and see how they are oppressed, how can you not strive mightily to change the system oppressing them?”
Reviewed by Yonni Chapman
Graduate Student in History, University of North Carolina;
Former North Carolina Member of the Communist Workers Party