The Greensboro Massacre

Nelson Johnson beside the murdered Jim Waller. ()

Nelson Johnson beside the murdered Jim Waller. ()

Death to the Klan!” shouted many protesters to a caravan of Klan and Nazis on Nov. 3, 1979.

Equality, good working conditions, and the end to poverty was what the protesters wanted. Instead, death was what five members of the Communist Workers’ Party received.

“Dr. Michael Nathan, Sandra Smith, Dr. James Waller, Cesar Cauce, and William Sampson will be forever known as the CWP 5, the victims of the Greensboro Massacre. The 23rd anniversary of their deaths passed the Sunday before last, and the 23rd anniversary of the funeral march occurred Nov. 11.

THE BEGINNING

During June of 1979, The Ku Klux Klan began organizing a public showing of the movie “The Birth of a Nation,” which was to occur in July.

This movie glorifies the KKK. In it Klansmen ride in on horses and save a terrified white woman from a monstrous black man, killing him on the spot.

In July, the Communist Workers’ Party interrupted this showing at China Grove. Dr. Paul Bermanzohn, a leader of the CWP, along with plenty of others armed with canes and two-by-four’s, marched to the scene shouting, “Death to the Klan.”

“Part of what we wanted to do was break this idea of the Klan being an invincible force that could not be opposed and that nothing could be done about it,” Bermanzohn said. “Our view was that they could be defeated, and we wanted to do that.”

On that day, they seemed to accomplish their goal.

Many Klansmen were caught off-guard and even appeared to be visibly shaken by the approach that the CWP took. Others were extremely outraged and vowed vengeance.

A shouting match occurred. Several Klansmen brandishing shotguns and semi-automatic weapons yelled at the masses of CWP supporters who did not shy away and yelled right back. One protester held a pole with a burning Confederate flag at the end.

“We will not have it,” a CWP supporter said. “We will not tolerate it. If we have to die here, we’ll die here. But, there will not be any Klan. Today. Tomorrow. Never.” Then he stomped off, chanting “Death to the Klan.”

“When we got there and we were confronting them, they had guns,” a widow who wished to remain unnamed said. “It was real scary. Up until then, we were willing to be strong. It really hit home about who we were dealing with. They are a violent people.”

Later she added, “We also felt victorious that we had stood them down.”

The vengeance that the Klansmen promised would come.

Klan rallies ensued after the July confrontation. In one scene caught on videotape, a Klansman held a string with a black baby doll suspended by its neck.

In September, the Klan and the American Nazi Party merged to form what the media would call the United Racist Front.

On Oct. 19, Nelson Johnson, a leader of the CWP, applied for a protest permit. In this application process, he was told that the march could only be held on condition that people come unarmed. At that time, it was an unprecedented request.

SATURDAY, NOV. 3, 1979

As a Klan dummy, hung from a stick, dangled in front of him, CWP member Tom Clark played the guitar, and several children and anti-Klan adults sang the song “We Shall Not be Moved.”

This anti-Klan march, organized by the CWP, was set to begin at the intersection of Everitt St. and Carver Dr. in the middle of a project of Greensboro called Morningside Homes.

At 10:40 A.M., an authority radioed the Greensboro Police Department, instructing them to take an early lunch.

At 11:06 A.M., Detective Jerry Cooper used a surveillance camera to photograph a caravan of Klan and Nazis, which had stopped to wait for another Klan member to join them on their way to the rally.

Shortly thereafter, chaos ensued.

At 11:18 A.M., the caravan slowly passed through this protest shouting “n*gger,” and “commie bastard,” to the crowd.

A few people dared the caravan, yelling “Get out!” and motioning with their hands for Klansmen and Nazis to come get them. Several others kicked the cars as they passed.

The United Racist Front would not back down from the challenge.

A man leaned out of a window of one of the first vans in the caravan and fired a shot in the air. Apparently, this signaled the beginning. Men jumped out of the other cars, getting shotguns and pistols out of the trunks, while others picked up sticks and began beating the protesters.

Then, they opened fire on a crowd of protesters who were running desperately to get away. Many ducked into an alleyway, while many went into their houses, or the houses of others.

A select few stood their ground and fought back. Cesar Cauce was one of them. He stood in his final moments with a two-by four in one hand and a small stick in the other before he was gunned down trying to protect the crowd.

Bermanzohn, who tried to assist Cauce, was shot in the arm and in the head while racing over to fight with him. He was to become paralyzed on his left side.

“I didn’t know I was shot until a week later,” he said.

Amazingly enough, this was all caught on 88 seconds of videotape.

THE TRIALS

Six Klansmen were indicted.

The first of three trials lasted six months, which is the longest trial in North Carolina history and was the first trial to introduce videotape as evidence.

The video clearly showed those six Klansmen, whose faces could be identified (as well as others who could not), shooting at people. Other than that fact, every fact and everyone seemed against the CWP.

The jury in the first trial was filled with 12 unsympathetic white Christians.

The jury was a “very reactionary, pro-Klan, racist jury,” Sally Bermanzohn, Paul’s wife said. They were interested in “old-style Southern justice.”

Even one of the prosecuting attorneys made statements that cleared the air as to where his loyalties lay.

“I fought in Vietnam, and you know who my enemy was,” a prosecuting attorney stated.

“The lawyers were operating on a conflict of interest,” Paul Bermanzohn said.

The CWP recognized this early on and requested that prosecutor William Kuntsler represent them. The state of North Carolina denied them that right, despite it being perfectly legal to request a new prosecutor to present the case.

Also, in the first trial, “[the defense] had an FBI analysis of the tapes,” Sally Bermanzohn, said, “and they said that . the third, fourth, and fifth shots might have come from [the protesters].”

“The same exact [FBI analyzer], in the second trial, said that it was the Klan,” she added.

This analysis was crucial to the defense’s case in the first trial, whose plea was self-defense.

One of the widows rejected that plea. “It was not self-defense; It was an attack,” she said.

With the courtroom focused on communism and the vulnerability of the United Racist Front on Nov. 3 instead of the murders themselves, the defense’s objective had been reached.

After a week of deliberation, the verdict came in: NOT GUILTY.

“I felt abandoned by the legal process,” an anonymous widow said, adding, “I felt that the legal process was totally prejudiced. I was outraged at the first verdict.When you could see what happened, how could that not be enough?”

The defendants were found not guilty in the second civil rights trial as well. In this circumstance the defense pleaded that “the Klan and Nazis were not racist, they were motivated by anti-communism,” Paul Bermanzohn said.

In the third and final civil trial, Klansmen, Nazis, and the Greensboro Police Department were held liable for the wrongful death of Dr. Michael Nathan, but no others. This did, however, mark the first time that KKK, Nazis, and police had been held accountable for a single murder.

The court awarded a sum of $351,000, to be paid by the Klansmen, to Michael Nathan’s widow. All of the money, however, was suspiciously paid by the City of Green
sboro.

“It’s my suggestion that they [the City of Greensboro] were buying the Klan and Nazi’s silence,” Paul Bermanzohn said.

NOW

Much of that money given to Michael Nathan’s widow was used to found the Greensboro Justice Fund (GJF), which strives in its mission statement to “educate the general public with regard to the origins, symptoms, manifestations, dangers and injustices of discrimination.”

The GJF will be assisting in the 25th anniversary in 2004, where CWP supporters seek to hold a truth and reconciliation meeting similar to the ones held in South Africa after Apartheid.

At the funeral march on Nov. 11, 1979, people gathered, chanting “The whole world is watching. Avenge the CWP 5.”

Vengeance never occurred.

At the end of the funeral march, they reached the burial site. The tombstone of the CWP 5 reads, “Live like them. Dare to struggle”. Dare to win.

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