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How the President of UW Was Shaped By Her Brother's Murder At The Hands Of The Klan

University of Washington
UW President Ana Mari Cauce

  This story originally aired on May 26, 2018.

Ana Mari Cauce says her relationship with her big brother was pretty typical when they were growing up. 

"Every scar on his body was probably given to him by me," Cauce says, "He had a scar over his mouth where I kicked hime in the mouth -- not on puprose! He was in the front seat, I was in the back seat. He did some kind of name-calling and so I went to kick the back of teh seat, he turned around I caught his tooth."

Cauce has served as President of the University of Washington since 2015. She credits some of her success to her brother Cesar -- to the formative time she spent with him as a kid, and to the tragic way that he died at age 25.

Cauce says she started to notice a change in Cesar after he went away to college at Duke. 

"I started seeing him developing as more of an intellectual. He'd come home and share books and things he was reading. He actually studied Latin American history. That was when we really started talking more about problems in the world, staying up for hours, and talking about how the world could be a better place," Cauce says. 

That budding social conscience drove Cesar to put graduate school on hold and turn his efforts to organizing workers in North Carolina. He joined the Workers Viewpoint Organization, which later became the Maoist-inspired Communist Workers Party, and began organizing in the textile mills. 

"In the South, if you are trying to organize workers to see their common cause, you run into the white-black split. Because it's, how do you get folks to see common cause? And so you run into the Klan," Cauce says.

The Greensboro Massacre

The CWP had already had run-ins with the Ku Klux Klan and other groups, such as the American Nazi Party. In November of 1979, the organization planned an anti-Klan rally in Greensboro, North Carolina. 

Tensions mounted quickly as the rally approached. 

"Was he aware that when they called a rally, that they did use the nomenclature 'death to the Klan?' Did he think people were going to come with shotguns and shoot people? I don't know," says Cauce. 

The day of the rally, activists and neighborhood residents took to the streets with signs and chants. That's when the Klan, who the demonstrators had dared to show up, arrived in force. 

A caravan of nine vehicles slowly made its way past the protestors. Inside were dozens of members of the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party. 

What happened next is a little fuzzy. Shots were fired, possibly into the air, probably by members of both sides. 

But the next part is clear on video shot at the time: Several members of the racist groups opened the trunk of a car, took out weapons, and sprayed the crowd with bullets. In the end, five protestors were dead. 

Feeling "Flattened"

Cauce was not there -- she was in New Haven with friends, getting ready to play Monopoly, when she got a call from her mother, who had heard something about a rally. 

"I turned on the TV, and I thought that I saw my brother get shot. And so I called the police department there, and it took a while before ... it was him. And he was dead." 

It fell to Cauce to tell her mother what had happened. 

"I half-remember her making a sound. I don't even know how to describe it," she says. 

In the days that followed, Cauce described herself as "flattened." 

"I think for a while I was too depressed to be angry. When I could finally feel anger and rage was when I was starting to get healthy again. And I'll be frank: At first I was angry at him. How could you put yourself in that siituation? You were supposed to be there for me," she says. 

"I Thought We Were Further Along"

In the years that followed, as Cauce rose through the ranks in academia, she says she kept her brother's memory close. 

"I do think the last few years I've probably thought of him more often, in the sense of there's just so many resonances to the present era," Cauce says. 

Rarely has that been more vivid than in August of 2017, when "White nationalist" groups joined in a "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virgina. A young protestor died there, mowed down by a white supremicist in his car. 

"Oh my God, I thought we had made some headway. I thought we were further along. I was living in more of a bubble than I thought I was," Cauce says. 

The shock of the incident in Charlottesville pushed Cauce to "recommit to equity and inclusion," she wrote. 

Cauce says her brother's memory is always with her. 

"The thing that I would give my right and left arm for is one more hug around the shoulders. There was just a way in which he'd just put his arms around me that was like, nothing could happen. The world was fine. I miss that," she says. 

And she credits Cesar Cauce with giving her a kind of permission to achieve big things. 

"I think I learned from my brother that I was worthy of respect. If I'm struggling with something or I have a difficult decision, I can close my eyes, and I'm pretty sure what my brother would tell me," she says. 

"My brother's dead, and that's an amazing loss. But my brother's not lost to me."

Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.