On November 3, 1979, an armed confrontation between members of the CWP and several Klansmen and Nazis ended with five Communist Workers Party members or supporters being shot dead. Three trials soon followed, and CWP survivors and their supporters claimed that their anti-establishment views incited a conspiracy to have them killed.
CWP leader Jerry Tung claimed that his father, Ernest Tung, a Chinese student at North Carolina State University, was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in Raleigh in 1950. Historian William Wei believes Tung’s claim and speculates that the alleged murder might have been a factor leading to the Greensboro confrontation. However, a State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) report, available in the NC State archives, expresses that the 1950 death of Tung’s father was a suicide.
In 1979, the CWP "was consciously trying to upgrade its level of militancy, to become more adept at combining legal and illegal tactics" (according to CWP activist Signe Waller, whose husband James Waller was killed on November 3). This militant attitude was reflected in the actions of CWP members and supporters in New York City and in Greensboro. In New York’s Chinatown, CWP members and supporters violently attacked the offices of a critical newspaper and members of a rival, radical organization opposing the political direction of a CWP front group. In Greensboro, CWP activists had violent confrontations with a rival Maoist group, the Revolutionary Communist Party. This confrontational attitude reflected the tenets of Maoist communism: faithful communists are beset by enemies, including capitalist sympathizers within the communist movement.
CWP activists in Greensboro also sought to organize textile workers, and to displace other union activists who were seeking to accomplish the same objective. Dr. James Waller, a physician who belonged to the CWP, got a job in a textile plant and organized the workers. Dr. Waller was later fired, after being accused of concealing his professional status.
The CWP sought to wage a campaign against the local Ku Klux Klan, attempting to disrupt a Klan showing of the movie Birth of a Nation at the public library in the town of China Grove. The CWP members believed local anti-Klan activists lacked sufficient militancy in confronting the Klan.
Planning a “Death to the Klan” rally near the Morningside Heights housing project in Greensboro on November 3, 1979, the CWP publicly challenged the Klan. CWP said that cowardly Klan members would not make an appearance and face the “wrath of the people.” The local Klan, however, sought the assistance of some neo-Nazis and responded to CWP’s challenge.
There were two government informers in the ranks of the Klan and Nazis. Edward Dawson, who had formerly been an informant in the Klan on behalf of the Federal Bureau of Investigations, was now informing on the group for the Greensboro Police Department (GPD). Dawson’s allegiance was not clear – depending on one’s interpretation, he was either a stooge of the GPD or a manipulator trying to work both sides. Dawson got a copy of the CWP’s planned parade route from the GPD.
Klansmen and Nazis (including Dawson) drove their cars to the site of the CWP rally. GPD officers were not present at the scene. Details of the ensuing confrontation between the CWP and the Klansmen/Nazis have been somewhat controversial. It appears that Bernard Butkovich, an agent of the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), was doing undercover work among the Nazis.
Five people were killed, four of whom were CWP members. The CWP dead were Cesar Cauce, Bill Sampson, Sandy Smith and Dr. James Waller. The fifth fatality was Dr. Michael Nathan, a physician who had worked with the CWP activists and who was married to CWP member Martha Nathan. There were no fatalities on the Klan/Nazi side.
The CWP held an armed funeral March in Greensboro, where Tung praised the “martyrs” and hailed the coming revolution. CWP members said that the shootings were part of a government plot, and they sought to “serve notice” on the purported plotters by (among other things) seeking to disrupt the national Democratic Party convention.