Lessons from the Greensboro Massacre: Interview with Roz Pelles

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Noam Sandweiss-Back

During the 1970s and 1980s, a wide and diverse socialist movement emerged across the United States. Known as the New Communist Movement, it encompassed tens of thousands of revolutionary organizers who were inspired by popular revolutions across the globe and committed to building working-class power at home. One of the many groups involved was the Worker’s Viewpoint Organization, later renamed the Communist Worker’s Party (CWP). The CWP organized across racial lines and among the working class in communities and industrial settings throughout the country. They were also the target of a brutal and infamous massacre that left five of their leaders dead at the hands of the KKK and American Nazi Party in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1979.

Rosalyn “Roz” Pelles was a member of the CWP and is a survivor of the Greensboro Massacre. Over the course of her life, she has been a significant leader in the fight for economic and racial justice. Today, she is the Vice President of Repairers of the Breach and a senior strategic advisor to the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. I have had the privilege of working with Roz over the last two years and, like countless others, I have depended on her gifts as a mentor and teacher. Near the end of 2019, we sat down to discuss the 40-year anniversary of the Greensboro Massacre and the many lessons from that time for our work today.

NB: Why do you think organizing in the South is so important and how is it different from organizing in other parts of the country?

Roz Pelles
Courtesy of Repairers of the Breach

RP: The South has always been a pivotal place where change needs to happen most, and it has also been a place that has catalyzed change– and those two things are probably connected. The South has historically played a leading role in the most backward kinds of attacks, thinking, and policies in the country – and it has historically had tremendous power in the political arena. So, if you can do some work in the South, that really sets a tone. It’s just a section of the country where the potential for change is there, and if it can happen in the South, it can influence, impact, and be a model for the nation.

NB: What was going on in North Carolina at the time of the 1979 Greensboro Massacre? Can you share a bit on the larger context of the state?

RP: The context for the murders is in many ways broader than Greensboro. Folks who were murdered in Greensboro were part of the Communist Workers Party (CWP), previously the Worker’s Viewpoint organization. There was a decision to build up a party that would fundamentally change the system and which would be mainly made up of people in the working class. A lot of folks in the CWP took jobs and did work among the working class.

We were not acting in a vacuum. All over the country this was happening. There were communist groupings of young people who understood that capitalism didn’t work for the majority of the people and most of us had worked in the other movements before. People came together in the CWP and in other organizations from the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the anti-war movement, and others, having gained an understanding that capitalism didn’t work, and looking for alternatives.

Given that context, and in North Carolina in particular, folks in Greensboro were doing work in textile mills, community organizing, anti-apartheid work, and in other efforts. In the earlier days there were all those liberation struggles: Zimbabwe, South Africa, etc. The idea was to organize working people around the values of the CWP and anti-capitalism. People left their previous work and took on different jobs so that they could be politically situated among the working class. Around the country, people were in the mines, in the army, shipyards, hotels, and community organizations.

NB: This is a whole decade after the murder of King and the last throes of the traditional civil rights movement. But there was also the women’s movement, students, etc. Can you speak to how that history informed the organizing of the CWP?

RP: When I was 13, I started trying to understand how to make life better for Black folks in this country. I knew integration didn’t work and that nationalism didn’t work. I’m not saying there weren’t any gains, but they didn’t significantly change people’s lives to the point where they could live decently and not worry about their lives being taken. When I came to understand that it was a systemic problem, I began to look at where that left us. I think that people in other movements were doing the same thing.

We were on the cusp of an economic crisis just before the 80s, when there was a tremendous downturn. You could almost see that there was going to be a crisis and people were feeling it. Many were feeling a little threatened and companies weren’t giving any raises.

Politically, there was a rise on the right and in the Klan. Ronald Reagan opened his campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, which was a clear sign about where he stood. There were broadly spoken and out-loud indications that there was going to be more repression. It was a very similar kind of time [to today]. There was an uneasiness in the country and all that gave rise to the Klan being more visible. They started walking down the street in full garment, which had not been the immediate history of the Klan. Previously, the Klan did not have the power or the backing to be walking down city streets.

[In North Carolina], we weren’t doing anti-Klan work in the beginning. Anti-Klan work came up because the Klan started to rise again.

NB: Do you have a sense of why these social and political changes were happening at that moment?

RP: I think that in times of economic crisis, there’s always an attempt to divide people. One thing I should say about our work is that we were intentional about bringing together black and white workers, and others. The Worker’s Viewpoint and the CWP really was a multiracial organization from top to bottom. Latinos, Asians, Black, and white. There was intentionality about bringing together people across lines, which I think was disturbing to folks who didn’t want to see that.

For those of us who worked in textiles, one of the ways they were able to keep people separate was by giving white people a little more money or giving them jobs that were better. In some mills there were certain jobs that were set aside for black people – in the mill that I worked in, we made denim. We had to dye the fabric and the dye room was the dirtiest and the worst. You just came out with blue dye all over you. That was a way to separate out, and it hurt our humanity because we would concretely have on our bodies a sign that we were the lowest paid worker in the plant.

There were no white people dyeing denim until our comrade Bill Sampson got a job there.

NB: Can you speak a little bit to the relationship before 1979 between the Klan and the police?

RP: Historically, there has been a relationship between the two, because law enforcement often worked in concert with the Klan and other groups to enforce or cover up the atrocious things that they did. There was also a lot of overlap in membership, and that’s not surprising because the outlook sometimes for police officers and the Klan can be very similar. I grew up seeing pictures of Klansmen and they would have on a hood and they might also have their jacket open and you might see a police badge. Often police officers had no intention to protect, take care of, or look after the lives of Black people.

NB: Can you remember how the anti-Klan work got taken up by the CWP?

RP: We started to notice that there was a rise in the Klan in the South. Not so much in North Carolina at the time, but what we were seeing, and reading, and hearing was that there were these big struggles happening in communities where the Klan was showing up in full regalia.

What the CWP leadership did was go and do a tour of the South, just trying to understand. That kind of orientation toward trying to figure out a thing was really a hallmark of the CWP. You know, not only to see it, but then to apply a Marxist analysis to what we were seeing. The CWP kind of followed the tenants of Marx, Lenin, and Mao. So you go, you see, and then ask: what does this mean if you’re thinking about the contradictions among the people?

The first place we went to was Decatur, Alabama. It was actually the first time I’d ever seen Klansmen in full gear out in a community. There was a big fight in that community because there was an accusation that a young Black man who had mental challenges had attacked a white woman. Nobody in the Black community believed that had happened and so there were demonstrations, and the city and the state response was to bring in the National Guard and their personnel carriers, which look like tanks, driving down those streets.

After that, a small delegation went all over the South, talking to people and trying to figure it out. And then we started to write about the rise of the Klan.

Once there was more activity in North Carolina, we started to take it on. First, it started with our newspaper and our flyers and talking to folks, Black and white, who we were working with in the plant. Then there was a showing of Birth of a Nation in a place where we were doing work near China Grove, North Carolina. We worked with that community to protest the showing in a city facility. Well, that didn’t turn out well, because the Klan actually came out. It turned out to be a dangerous situation that the people in China Grove had not thought about. The Klan were very aggressive.

From that moment on, the Klan built an animosity against the CWP. But there was no real back and forth, except on the day of the massacre. For that day, we had made a decision to have a march and a conference in Greensboro. It was about protesting, as well as educating. As we were building up for the march, there was some back and forth between the Klan and the CWP, especially around the permit for the march.

NB: Greensboro played a significant role early on in the Civil Rights Movement. How did that history effect the organizing that y’all were doing?

RP: That is a great question, because people often think about how organizers dropped into North Carolina to start doing work. The reality is that this work goes back to, and includes, folks who have that long history in Greensboro.

You’ve got this history of continuous work among a lot of people who end up being in the CWP. From the 60s, you had the connection with the university and all the school desegregation struggles over there. Malcolm X University had been in Greensboro, which was a national organization of Black students who were rejecting the education they received on their campuses. There was a long history of community organizing.

For example, Morningside Homes, where the massacre happened, had been a place where people had been organizing forever. It’s not like we just went and took over this Black community and put everybody in danger. People knew all of our folks because they had been helping on housing issues for years. That history played itself out in terms of connections that people had in various places from the NAACP to the folks on the corner.

NB: Can you talk a little bit about the folks that joined the local struggle from outside?

RP: When young people were trying to figure out how to change the world, and as they were forming organizations and parties, there had been an understanding that change is made in workplaces – at the point of production. If that doesn’t work, then nothing will work. People were moving out of other jobs and out of academic settings, and into workplaces to do their organizing.

People who were in the CWP came to work in places where there was a possibility of making breakthroughs. In the South, where there were textile mills, that made a lot of sense, and Greensboro had a lot of mills. Based on that, people came to Greensboro and joined forces with folks who were already in the orbit of the Worker’s Viewpoint and the CWP.

NB: I’m interested in the orientation of the CWP. There were certain ideological currents in which you were organizing. Can you speak to that?

RP: We thought it was important for people not to be afraid and to understand the fullness of why we were doing our work — that we were trying to build a better society. We were really claiming who we were and working to have people understand that what we were doing was connected to change in the country and the world. But it did become a bit of a barrier.

It was quite shocking for most of us to get to a place of understanding about the economy and society around us. Once we got there, we wanted everybody to get there. I had a lot of friends who were communists, but the reality was, what did that really mean? I was thinking, “I don’t know what that is.” But once I spent some time understanding and thinking about my own work and developing an analysis, including about how economic systems work, it became knowable. The thinking was, if you just tell people, they’ll understand it.

The thing about the Worker’s Viewpoint and CWP, for better or worse, was that we used all of the language that we understood. We talked about capitalism and socialism, and I remember doing leaflets about the dictatorship of the proletariat and all that. And people in the plants had to work their way through that to get to us. That was an extra burden in retrospect.

What is amazing – and this is what is so beautiful about the working class – is that they are forgiving. As long as you’re honest, do the work, and tell people what you’re going to do, and do it, they are right there. Once they develop deeper understanding, they are not going to leave. That’s because it just makes so much sense to people who struggle every day.

NB: Returning to 1979 – was there a sense that the CWP was being specifically targeted by the Klan?

RP: The week or so before, the FBI or some enforcement agents were in Kannapolis, NC showing pictures of folks that included people who were later killed. And the way the attack happened was an indication that people were targeted. Those who were seriously wounded were known leaders and they got shot with buckshot. Most other people got sprayed with birdshot. That won’t kill you. But it hurts. There were a couple of people who weren’t known leaders of the party who were wounded more seriously. But, in the main, it was the leaders. And it wasn’t like they were picking out Black people, because that would have been an easier thing to do.

NB: Right. When you look at this history you realize that white people organizing really flew in the face of the Klan.

RP: That’s exactly right. That’s who they were. They were shining lights. They were good organizers. They had a lot of people who loved them. There is this great movie called Red November, Black November made by one of the supporters of the CWP. The director interviewed people who worked with us and it’s the most beautiful thing ever. It’s just these white workers telling this story about how when they were in the plant nobody talked to each other, that they saw Black workers as their enemy, and about how they came to see something different.

We had a life that was real. It was not just this chaotic, organizer, running around kind of life. We were really part of communities. When I was working at Duke, there was an article in the newspaper that basically said that when I was not selling the CWP newspaper, they could find me at the PTA meeting where I was the president. That’s the kind of people we wanted to be. It really is hurtful when, especially back then, people tried to characterize us as these two crazy groups. I didn’t feel crazy at all. I had two children and a husband. That felt like hard work.

NB: Could you speak about what happened to the CWP after the massacre?

RP: Immediately afterwards, a lot of our leaders were dead or in jail. They were arrested on a felony charge of inciting a riot and they had bonds as high as, or higher than, the Klan.

We immediately had to decide: what do we do? The leadership of the CWP, which was housed in New York, and a bunch of folks from the central committee came and pulled together members to talk about what to do. It was all based on a political understanding – sizing up the situation and figuring out politically how to keep moving forward. This was November 5th. By then we knew who was killed.

There was already all this press that was starting to shift. The first day it was a massacre. The next day it was a shoot-out. The next day it was off the front pages because the hostages in Iran had been taken.

We looked at what our choices were, knowing that the bottom line was that even in the midst of this tragedy, what we were all committed to was still doing our best to make the world a better place.

NB: And this is a conversation you’re having days after?

RP: Yeah. Two days afterwards. We saw three main options. We could go underground, but that wasn’t really the solution, because we couldn’t do the work and we’d be scattered. We had seen the Panther kind of model and we knew what happened with that, and we didn’t have guns like that. That didn’t make any sense politically. The last option was to fight in the superstructure, do a legal challenge, and organize the base in all the places we were located around the country. That’s the way we chose, and I believe that’s how we stayed alive.

I think any of the other options would have immediately stopped the work. Given that, we had to figure things out. We knew how to organize in a plant but our lawyers were in the plants. So, we had to bring lawyers literally out of plants to come to North Carolina and get other lawyers who would be willing to get in the mix. It was just this incredible time where we were doing stuff that we really didn’t know how to do, and making that choice turned the tide.

Now, what else was happening is that groups like ours basically walked away from us. As I look back in retrospect, they had to be scared and that was exactly the point. If you hit one group, you got the rest. That’s exactly what the Klan went for. And so even people who had been our friends were saying stuff like, “they were trying to be martyrs.” That hurt.

A lot of times we were fighting by ourselves. They rounded up the Klan the day of the massacre, though they had not tried to stop them from killing people. In the first trials, the state had a duty to prosecute the Klan and they were our lawyers. There was an all-white jury. Even though the shooting was on film, the Klan were found not guilty. The prosecuting attorney, in his opening statement, said something like, “I am a Vietnam veteran and you know whose side I was on.” One of the jury members that did not get contested had been in Cuba or had family there and had a real bad view of communism. On the first day of the trial, one of the Klansmen came into court in a t-shirt that had five skulls on it. This is in court. Open court!

NB: Throughout this conversation, you’ve spoken about the mindset, actions, and decisions of that time. Can you share what you think some of the greatest lessons from that experience are for today?

RP: One lesson is that you’ve got to fight and there are risks, but for those of us who see something wrong in this system, it’s our obligation to fight. We owe that to each other.

The other lesson is to understand your own work. That’s huge. To understand the impact that your work could possibly be having that could make the state want to crush it. A lot of times we as organizers don’t look at our work that way. If we don’t get 100 percent, we think it’s nothing. But that’s not how people look at it. That’s not how people judge the work.

The state’s interest in our work was: did it challenge the status quo? Did it bring people together across lines? Did it give people enough information to see what was really happening in our country? You can’t underestimate the state and its power. It’s more than a notion to talk about “capitalism has got to go” without thinking about who gets upset by that. The other thing is this whole question of fighting for Black/white unity. That’s a lesson for folks who may be thinking that any one group can do it alone. You cannot.

And, finally, the role of political education. There’s got to be some understanding of the world beyond what you were taught in civics, and you get that understanding by looking at successful struggles around the world. And everything isn’t cookie cutter. You can’t pick up what happened in China or Africa or Cuba and just drop it here. But it’s a basis for the work, and there can be a universal understanding of capitalism. Understand that. Because that’s real. That’s science. If we understand these things, we are equipped to ask questions like: how do you build a united front? How do you deal with the contradictions among the people? How do you listen to the masses?

This theory can be used in every aspect of life to be honest. Dividing one into two – that’s a very simple concept. Anybody can understand it. It just means looking at all sides of a thing. But a lot of times people don’t do that. It doesn’t mean reading two things and now you know everything. It really means digging deep. You’ve got to keep reading. Now, every person you meet is not going to do that. But there has got to be some leaders who are willing to put the time in and share it.

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