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Codename GREENKIL: the 1979 Greensboro Killings.

Five dead, none convicted in Greensboro


You Say You Want a Revolution by Jason DeParle

On a sweater-weather morning in November 1979, a group calling themselves the Communist Workers Party gathered in a Greensboro, North Carolina housing project for a "Death to the Klan" rally. This was not an assemblage of great interest to the housing project residents. They gazed on quizzically, a few kids in football uniforms standing by their moms, a drunk man in a fake leather jacket. But the spirits of the revolutionaries sored. As local newsmen watched, they unloaded their placards and readied their sound truck. They passed out leaflets and dragged out a Klansman in effigy. The children of the Revolutionary Youth League positioned themselves at the front of the gathering march, joined by the neighborhood kids in football jersey. They began singing "We Shall Not Be Moved," we're told, combining the spiritual with a good pummeling of the Klan straw man: "'Just like a tree' --whap-- 'standing by the wa-ter'--blam -- 'we shall....'"

Then the real thing arrived. "Death to the Klan," the demonstrators began to chant as they caught sight of an eight-caravan of Klansmen and Nazis. "Shoot the niggers," yelled back a baby-faced gunman as he and the others opened fire on the interracial crowd. During the confusing clash that followed, one Klansman stood at his car trunk, nonchanlantly handing out weapons while a cigarette dangled from his lip. Another wrested a two-by-two from a protestor and split open her skull. A few of the demonstrators pulled pistols from their pockets and returned the fire.

Eighty-eight seconds and 39 shots later, the neighborhood lawns were littered with dead and wounded protestors. Unharmed and unhurried, the Klansmen piled their shotguns, pistols, numchucks, knives, and brass knuckles back in their cars and drove off. Bending over the body of her slain comrade husband, Signe Waller raised a clenched fist. "Long live the Communist Workers Party," she screamed. "Long live the working class!"

Television cameras captured the casual slaughter, and millions watched it replaced on national news. But two juries acquitted the killers, first on state murder charges and later on federal charges of civil rights violations. The events of that morning left five dead, none convicted, and many confused. Revelations, of ties between the Klan and the Greensboro police caused even the skeptics of conspiracy theories to wonder if the communists were right in calling themselves the victims of a government set up.

Elizabeth Wheaton, who covered the trials for the North Carolina Independent, offers a detailed account of the Greensboro killings.* Though she finds no evidence of conspiracy, she finds plenty of other disturbing things, like old-fashioned incompetence among the police. But the most interesting element of this story concerns neither cops nor killers nor the terrible injustice rendered. Most intriguing is the bizarre personal and political odysseys of the victims, form liberal idealists to raging Leninists conviced they were on the verge of tearing down the capitalist state. That journey is one that speaks to the ancient tensions between radicals and reformers and caries lessons for activists of many stripes.

What was to be done?

It was Duke University Medical School, of all places, that brought most of these future revolutionaries together. Like most of their classmates, they arrived with fistfuls of academic honors. Paul Bermanzohn, the son of Holocaust survivors, had been student body president at City; College of New York. Mike Nathan, the son of a struggling widow in Washington, D.C., had been at Duke since his undergraduate years, scraping by on works-study wages and scholarships. Bill Sampson had Harvard Divinity School and the Sorbonne behind him. Though their class backgrounds and worldly experiences differed, they and a few others shared a zeal for social action that put them in sharp contrast to most of their classmates.

That zeal took different forms. Nathan spent much of his undergraduate career living in a rundown Durham neighborhood where he helped residents demand improved housing. He and a number of other student activists lent their support to a 1968 drive to unionize the university's service workers, most of whom were black. The drive had its militant moment when several hundred students surrounded the administration building and sent a delegation to the home of Douglas Knight, the Duke president, confronting him with their demands. Knight turned them down, and police dispersed the crowd.

Bermanzohn devoted himself to the cause of neighborhood health clinics. When officials proposed building a new Durham Country General Hospital on the outskirts of town, he and other health activists charged it was being located there to benefit realtors, developers, and doctors but not the poor people who needed it most. They enlisted the help of a state health department official. "We thought he was there to help us," Bermanzohn said, "... he screwed us, just didn't do any of the things he said he was going to." Bermanzohn felt the betrayal deeply.

Others in this prerevolutionary band did similar work. As a group, they had at least two things in common: a deepening sense of life's unfairness and a growing frustration with their inability to change it. Their protest was dispersed. The union was defeated. The hospital was built. Nothing seemed to work. And beyond Durham, things didn't look much better. Nixon was president, Kissinger was dropping bombs on Cambodia, and a local media crank named Jesse Helms had just been elevated to the U.S. Senate. What was to be done?

Make revolution, they decided. These activists who initially took aim at Durham County General began setting their sights higher, training them on the entire capitalist state. But the intellectual and emotional mechanics of this conversion from reformers to Vanguard are never adequately explained, either by the revolutionaries or by Wheaton. ("June 1976. Everyone was taking revolution," Wheaton writes. "It was the bicentennial.") Sally Bermanzohn, Paul's wife, explains that "I kept fighting for those values of what's right for the people and coming up against brick walls...." It's a statement that casts little light. She was disillusioned, and few seek the destruction of the state. The failure to explain why these activists did is the one significant omission of Wheaton's account.

The leap from Gray's Anatomy to Mao's Red Book plunged the converts into a world of fervent polemics and the quest for the correct line of revolutionary action. For most of them, union organizing was the answer. Some, like Sampson, left medicine to work in North Carolina textile mills. Others stayed in medicine and agitated from outside the plant. All grew increasingly difficult for the noncommunist left to deal with.

When the Carolina Brown Lung Association, an occupational health group, convinced wary workers to take lung tests, one of the Vanguard physicians began haranguing them about the coming workers' state. This sent the proletariat fleeing. During a 1976 union drive at Duke, Wheaton reports, "Warring Communist groups began to leaflet Duke workers with single-spaced legal-sized diatribes criticizing each other's political line." The union lost the drive. At a textile mill, the factional rivalries led to a bloody melee between competing organizers, to the management's delight. The Vanguard became pariahs to much of the noncommunist left but "refused to see their political isolation for what it was," Wheaton writes. "They saw the (noncommunist) leftists' refusal to work with them as proof... (that they) were morally bankrupt."

This immersion in the workers' struggle happened to coincide with a series of right-wing antics that fueled the communists' faith and fervor. In Illinois, Frank Collins's Nazis were preparing their march on Skokie. Closer to home, a loudmouthed 23-year-old Nazi named Harold Covington popped into the papers in 1977 with runs for the Raleigh city council and the state senate. He made the latter bid during a Republican Paarty primary. "Scratch the surface of any Republican and you'll find a Nazi underneath," he later explained. Impressed, Collins came to North Carolina and recruited Covington's help in the Skokie march, propelling them both into the national news. Wanted by the law, Covington later fled to South Africa and disappeared.

The Klan hit the headlines too. In early 1979, a dozen or so North Carolina Klansmen donned their mildewed robes and lit a few crosses, drawing more reporters than white hegemonists but getting the publicity they sought. Pleased with their media success, the ragtag band of racists scheduled a Klan exhibit at a county library and held a showing of Birth of a Nation. Piecing it all together, the Vanguard concluded that the nation was lurching towards fascism

A month later, the concerned revolutionaries found inspiration in Alabama, where anti-Klan forces had organized "armed self-defense patrols." The North Carolina communists planned their own show of force, staging an armed "Smash the Klan" rally outside a community hall where the clan was attempting another showing of Birth of a Nation. Outnumbered, the humiliated Klansmen retreated into the community center as the crowd chanted, "The only solution is socialist revolution." In the weeks that followed, the Klansmen seethed and the communists grew bolder. The Leninist lesson was clear: strike again.

Organized into the new Communist Workers Party, they scheduled the Death to the Klan rally in Greensboro and dared the humiliated Klansmen to fight. Thus stood the movement for the workers' state on the morning of November 3 when the caravan of Klansmen and Nazis arrived.

Beating the rap

The murder of five people in the streets on a sunny Greensboro morning was shocking enough, but the acquittals that followed were unfathomable. The communists responded with cries of conspiracy, and the revelations that followed made their theory seem plausible.

It turned out that law enforcement officials had infiltrated both the Klan and the Nazis and had plenty of warning of the impending violence. Yet they did little to stop it. Then came word that Covington, the Nazi leader, had sent the communists a letter six weeks before the shooting, boasting that the police had approved their murder. "We had it all worked out with the cops ..." he wrote. "We'd waste a couple of you and none of them would see anything." There were other suspicious details. The police provided the specifics of the permit, including the march's route, to a Klansman named Eddie Dawson, who was doubling as a Greensboro police informant.

But Wheaton's reporting ultimately revels the police not as complicit schemers but as pitful bunglers who couldn't even keep track of the rally's starting time. The parade permit said noon. Notices posted in the housing project said 11:00. When the shooting began at 11:23, most of the cops assigned to cover the protest were miles away sitll eating lunch.

Then there was this edifying exchange in an interrogation room, between prosecutors investigating the case and an agent of the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms who had infiltrated the Nazis:

"Who the fuck are you?" the prosecutor asked.

"Fuck you," the federal agent replied. Still, conviction seemed assured. The murders took place in midday, before dozen of witnesses, and on film. The prosecutors even had virtual confessions from some of the captured Klansmen. "Niggers and Communist party, you could hardly tell who was niggers and who was Communist," said David Matthews, a Klan member. "I got three of them."

Wheaton does an impressive job of tracking the complicated legal details to the case and explaining the mechanics of the acquittal. The Klansmen got one break when the court assigned them top-notch (and liberal) attorneys who fashioned an argument around self-defense. Ironically, they got another when prosecutors pursued the death penalty. Since the law forbids death penalty opponents from sitting on such juries, prosecutors had to face a more conservative panel. In most murder trials, that works to the prosecutors' advantage. But not in this case, when the victims were communists. One of the jurors had fought against Castro at the Bay of Pigs.

The prosecutors' job didn't get any easier when the communist survivors refused to testify, denouncing the proceedings as a capitalist coverup. "I will never remain silent while the bourgeoisie brings fascism and world war on the heads of the American people," shouted widow Marty Nathan before bailiffs taped her mouth and dragged her from the courtroom. (She left behind a vial of foul-smelling oil.) Did the communists want to losw the trial? Wheaton doesn't speculate, and the answer isn't clear. But defense attorneys could hardly have asked for more. They portrayed their clients, Wheaton says, as "goodole-boys, who had been provoked beyond endurance and then attacked by gun-wielding communists" afraid to testify. The jury bought it.

The second tragedy

In North Carolina, where I was a Duke student at the time, many shrugged off the injustice of both the killings and the acquittals. That attitude wasn't confined to the Piedomont. When I proposed an article about it to a liberal magazine a few year later, an editor told me not to bother; the communists were courting trouble, he said. And so they were. But we shouldn't need reminders that the espousal of communist doctrine, however unappealing, doesn't merit deathby-posse in the Greensboro streets. Wheaton finds just the right image for the outrage: five dead and their killers free without so much as a fine for littering.

Still, the double injustice of murder and acquittal isn't the only tragedy of this tale. The second, more interesting and perhaps more instructive, is the tale of political dissolution among the Vanguard. After a social suicide, the relevance of these activists had died long before the Klan showed up.

The metamorphosis from reformer to revolutionary promised a grander stage--the transformation of the whole world instead of one sad corner. But it resulted instead in political undertakings of dismally minor significance. Signe Waller, who reiterated her devotion to the working class even as her husband was dying in her arms, carried on the struggle a year later by sneaking into the Democratic Convention and setting off firecrackers during Jimmy Carter's acceptance speech. "It had to be done," explained one fellow revolutionary widow.

What's stunning is the speed with which this group swapped its idealism for cynicism and hatred. When the world, like a difficult mistress, refused their advances, they scorned it in return. Though they spoke with disdain of their fastrack classmates who sought six-digit salaries and a convenient tee-off time, they bore a paradoxical similarity: the revolutionaries wanted it all and right away.

Never mind that their factional infighting caused them to lose a union election. Never mind that their revolutionary diatribes sent sick workers fleeing the clinics. In their happily alienated world, every setback offered further proof of the world's injustice and the Vanguard's patent on political correctness.

This political pathology led them to abandon the fights that mattered. They were talented physicians, with boundless energy and a rare gift or recognizing the world's uncounted people. The path of politics and medicine as they first chose it didn't promise a world transformed, but it did pormise one improved. Rather than take that path, they chose to stand in the street and call Klansmen names. A crowning irony, as Wheaton points out, lies in the revolutionaries' inability to see the Klansmen as part of the same downtrodden working class whose struggle they claimed to be leading.

It's tempting to write off this political declension as the unistructive acts of a few crazies. But there are lessons here for most social activists. Few are likely to wind up shouting Leninist slogans at Klansmen. But almost all will find themselves thwarted by a world they know to be unjust and tempted to succumb to bitterness and suspicion. In the crusade I know best and support whole-heartedly, that to abolish the death penalty, I've seen this fever take hold of frustrated leaders who begin viewing every cop, prosecutor, and prison guard as an intractable and dishonorable foe; happily, a trend that seeks to address the concerns of crime victims is gaining sway. There's a temptation for anyone with a compelling vision of the world's injustice to dismiss those who have yet to embrace it. That's why one test of any new political vision lies in its treatment of the uncoverted--its ability to be both radical and relevant. That's test the CWP failed. Jason DeParle is an editor of The Washington Monthly. *Codename GREENKIL: The 1979 Greensboro Killings. Elizabeth Wheaton. University of Georgia Press, $24.95.

Photo: Members of the CWP at anti-Klan rally

Photo: Klan warning issued before CWP rally
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Author:DeParle, Jason
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Bibliography
Date:Feb 1, 1988
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