Greensboro, NC issues historic apology for police complicity in 1979 massacre

  • Marty Nathan, Rev. Nelson Johnson and widows Dale Sampson and Signe Waller in 1985 after a jury found the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis liable for the killing of Nathan’s husband, Michael, in the Greensboro Massacre of 1985. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Michael Nathan and his daughter, Leah, at a North Carolina beach. Leah was just 6 months old when her father was killed in the Greensboro Massacre on Nov. 3, 1979. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Michael Nathan and his daughter, Leah, who was just 6 months old when her father was killed in the Greensboro Massacre on Nov. 3, 1979. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Michael and Marty Nathan at their wedding in 1978. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 10/7/2020 3:44:52 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Nov. 3, 1979, is the day that neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members shot Marty Nathan’s husband dead in North Carolina. Michael Nathan was one of five who were killed in what became known as the Greensboro Massacre.

Now, nearly 41 years after that bloody day, the Greensboro City Council voted on Tuesday night to apologize for the role that the city’s police played in the attack on members of the Communist Workers Party and their supporters as they marched that day. Nathan, who now lives in Northampton, was able to witness the 7-2 vote because it was taken in a virtual session due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I was so proud of people who have faced the racism of that city and were personally willing to stand up for what they knew to be right,” Nathan said in a phone interview Wednesday morning. “My heart was just filled with love for them.”

The killings came during a “Death to the Klan” march at the predominantly black Morningside Homes housing project organized by the Communist Workers Party, which was helping mostly black textile workers in the region unionize. Nathan was part of the party and her husband was at the rally with her.

Following the massacre, two all-white juries found Klan and American Nazi Party members not guilty of criminal charges. But survivors filed a civil lawsuit, and in 1985 a jury found the Klan and Nazis liable for the killing of Michael Nathan. The jury also found the Greensboro Police Department responsible for failing to act to prevent the violence, despite the fact that a Klan member had been a paid informant who told police that there was a possibility of white supremacist violence at the march.

The Greensboro City Council’s apology noted that city police “along with other city personnel failed to warn the marchers of their extensive foreknowledge of the racist, violent attack planned against the marchers by members of the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party with the assistance of a paid GPD informant.”

“The City Council of the City of Greensboro hereby expresses its apology to the victims, the survivors, their families and the members of the Morningside Homes community for the events that occurred on November 3, 1979, and the failure of any government action to effectively overcome the hate that precipitated the violence, to embrace the sorrow that resulted from the violence, and to reconcile all the vestiges of those heinous events in the years subsequent to 1979,” the apology reads.

The council also committed to honoring five students annually with a “Morningside Homes Memorial Scholarship,” one for each of the five people killed: Nathan, Cesar Cauce, James Waller, William Evan Sampson, and Sandra Neely Smith.

Locally, the Northampton City Council passed a resolution last year commemorating the massacre.

Reached by telephone Wednesday, Greensboro City Councilor Yvonne Johnson — the city’s mayor pro tem, who previously served as Greensboro’s first-ever African American mayor — said the apology was years in the making.

“It should have come up years ago, and it didn’t,” Johnson said. “But with everything that’s happening now, with the hate crimes and all the violence and demonstrations, I think it prompted some people to get to the point where they thought it was the right thing to do.”

Remembering the massacre is essential now, Nathan said, at a time when President Donald Trump is emboldening white supremacists and fueling right-wing violence.

“What we said in 1979 was that that complicity went to the top of the city of Greensboro, and now it goes to the top of the U.S. government with Trump saying that there are ‘very fine people on both sides,’” Nathan said, referring to Trump’s comments about the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a white supremacist killed a counterdemonstrator.

Nathan said that she hopes people see the city council’s apology, as well as the victims’ victory in court, as the result of years of constant organizing by the community and victims.

“I want this apology to be a gift to the young fighters of the movement for Black lives,” Nathan said. “I want them to use the outline of what we learned for them to be able to assess what goes on in the ongoing killings of Black people by either white supremacists, paramilitaries or by police.”

For Johnson, Tuesday’s 7-2 vote was about justice.

“We need to move toward a more equitable society, and we need to call out and tell the truth about what has happened in the past and not sugarcoat it,” Johnson said. “That had a lot to do with what happened last night.”

Shortly after the jury handed down its decision in the 1985 civil lawsuit, Nathan — herself a physician — married anthropologist Elliot Fratkin, who eventually took a faculty job at Smith College.

The family relocated to Northampton in 1995, and Nathan began work at Baystate Brightwood Health Center in Springfield. She is a well-known climate and social justice organizer in the Pioneer Valley.

Nathan and her family have lived in the area since. They have three children: Leah, who was just six months old when her father was killed in the massacre; and Mulugetta and Masaye, who the family adopted in Ethiopia in 1994.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at
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