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Signe Waller tells story of “Greensboro Massacre,” talks activism at UNCG

A survivor of 1979’s “Greensboro Massacre,” Waller lost her husband to an attack by armed Klansmen and Nazis; her new book tells an activist’s story

Published: Monday, March 3, 2003

Updated: Monday, January 18, 2010 09:01

Nelson Johnson at the body of Dr. James Waller, November 3, 1979, Greensboro, NC.

Author and activist Signe Waller returned to Greensboro this week to speak to UNCG students about the meaning and importance of activism – in her generation and theirs.

A survivor of the Greensboro Massacre – in which her husband and four friends were killed by heavily armed Ku Klux Klan and Nazi members before an anti-Klan rally – Waller said that 20 years later she’s sharing what political action meant to her and her friends, and asking students to look at what it means in their own lives.

“[Cuban revolutionary] Che Guevara once said that every true revolutionary is motivated by the feeling of love,” told a small crowd in Curry Auditorium on Monday night. “I had that sentiment in mind when I chose the name Love and Revolution for my book.”

Waller’s book, “Love and Revolution: A Political Memoir” recently published by Rowman & Littlefield, is the story of her life up to and after the Greensboro Massacre, with that tragic day as the book’s dark center.

Before launching into her talk, entitled “We had a Bias For Action…,” Waller showed a 10 minute video essay by photo journalist Jim Waters, who was sent by WFMY-TV November 3, 1979 to cover the anti-Klan rally. Waller said when a caravan of Nazi and KKK members arrived and began shooting many other cameramen ran for cover. Waters, a veteran of reporting in the war zones of Northern Ireland, captured the whole scene.

“The film is graphic, showing scenes of violence,” Waller warned the crowd. “But it also suggests a context for the violent incident in the historical struggle for civil rights.”

In the film Waller and her group, the Workers’ Viewpoint Organization, had gathered a large crowd in a black housing project in Greensboro. As the protesters milled around and began organizing, a skirmish began and cars began rushing onto the scene, nearly hitting a number of people. When KKK and Nazi members with guns emerge and begin shooting the crowd scatters, but some rush forward to challenge them before being shot down.

“The most selfless of the crowd rushed forward without weapons to try to protect the others,” said Waller. “Some of them with just sticks or their bare hands. They were killed for it.”

The assailants hand each other shotguns and what appear to be automatic weapons from the trunks of their cars while firing at those who aren’t hiding. Shortly after the KKK and Nazi members get back into their cars and speed away the Greensboro police arrive and begin arresting protestors, physically carrying many away from the scene.

In one scene Waller’s late husband, Dr. Jim Waller, lies dying in the aftermath as she cries over his body.

“It’s never easy to watch that film,” Waller said. “I’ve turned away from it sometimes, because it takes me back and it’s so real. But it’s important for people to see it as it was.”

Waller said that over the last 20 years there has been confusion over why and how the shooting happened – confusion she’s hoping to dispel with her book.

“Why were we there?” asked Waller. “What brought us to that place? What was the struggle about and why did we join?”

Waller went on to explain why her story was not a terribly unusual one in the American South of the late 1970s. She and her group of friends – which included graduates of Ivy League colleges, doctors, lawyers, authors and factory workers – became radicalized by the Vietnam war and their view that even when the war ended, the problems that had caused it would continue.

“Many people became students of society willing to look deeply into the source of societal problems and to deal with problems at their root,” said Waller. “The commitment to make a better world involves a great deal of student of history and social forces. There is little lasting benefit in actions for social justice that are purely reactive or are based on shallow thinking. We need more than a knee-jerk reaction to the obvious and obscene gap between rhetoric and reality.”

Waller said that like many of that time, her friends’ examination of society’s ills led them to Marxism – and because of the social and economic injustice so many of them saw all around them, they became communists. Though they knew that “communism” had been a dirty word in America at least since the McCarthy Era, they chose not only to embrace it ideologically – but to put it into action.

“We did not merely study,” said Waller. “We acted. We took to heart a maxim of Marxism that philosophers interpret the world but the point is to change it. We had a bias for action and sought to change society toward greater democracy and justice.”

A lofty goal for a group of young people in any era – but in the turbulent 1970s, with the momentum of the 1960s carrying them, Waller said she and her friends believed something like “revolution” was entirely possible.

According to Waller, who spoke in an interview from her home on an organic farm in Indiana, she and her husband Jim were working to organize poor workers in North Carolina’s textile mills – a cause Jim had taken up while teaching at Duke University Medical School.

“He began to see Brown Lung Disease – which is like the Black Lung Disease of miners, but it’s the product of cotton manufacturing,” Waller said. “He got so involved that he began to see the larger problems – it was less profitable for the corporations to run the mills safely, to protect the health of the workers.”

Quitting his prestigious job, Jim co-founded the Carolina Brown Lung Association and went to work in a Cone Mills textile plant in Haw River. From inside he helped organize and eventually became vice president of the AFL-CIO union local. Among other things he led a strike in 1978 that helped the union grow from about 25 members to almost 200.

Waller said she realizes that to many, leaving a teaching position at one of the nation’s top medical schools might seem insane – but in the context of the times, it wasn’t so unusual.

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