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Oral history interview with Elizabeth Wheaton by William Link


Date: March 24, 1988

Interviewee: Elizabeth Wheaton

Biographical abstract: Elizabeth Wheaton is author of Codename GREENKIL: The 1979 Greensboro Killings , a study of the shootings at a Death to the Klan rally in Greensboro on November 3, 1979.

Interviewer: William Link

Description:

In this transcript of a March 24, 1988, oral history interview conducted by William Link with Elizabeth Wheaton, Ms. Wheaton discusses the November 3, 1979 shootout between the Ku Klux Klan and the Communist Workers Party, including her analysis of why the shootings took place, the reactions of the police department and other parties involved, and the outcomes of the resulting trials. She also discusses civil rights and race relations in Greensboro after the shootings occurred.

Subjects:

Format of original: Oral History

Collection: GreensboroVOICES Collection

Repository: The University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Item#: 1.10.591

Rights: It is responsibility of the user to follow the copyright law of the United States (Title 17, U.S. Code). Materials are not to be reproduced in published works without written consent, and any use should credit Civil Rights Greensboro and the appropriate repository.



Oral history interview with Elizabeth Wheaton by William Link

WILLIAM LINK:

Interview with Elizabeth Wheaton, March 24, at two p.m. And just to begin, why don't you say a little bit about yourself and your background and what brought you to Greensboro. And then, you know, we'll go from there.

ELIZABETH WHEATON:

My life story.

WL:

Yeah.

EW:

Okay. Well, I grew up around Chicago, came here in 1969 with my then-husband, who was transferred with Western Electric. [I] was not involved with much of anything until '72, when I worked real intensely with the [George] McGovern campaign as a volunteer. And that's where I met some of the people that I knew who were involved: Signe Waller, Kate White, and Jim Wren. But anyway, that's where I met them and then continued to work in groups that they were involved with in the peace movement. And at that time I remember Signe in particular was—she was probably pretty much [unclear] then anyway. She really started to get into it hardcore, and, you know, I wasn't interested, so I went off my way and she went off hers. And—gosh, I probably hadn't seen Signe since '74 or '75.

I was living in Richmond, Virginia, at the time the [November 1, 1979] shootings occurred. And I don't know where I was on Saturday, but I wasn't around the television set, because I remember getting up on Sunday morning and going out and getting the paper off the porch. And there's Signe Waller, grieving[screaming?] over her husband's body [Dr. James M. Waller] and Nelson Johnson and Kate and June[?] and all these people. I said, “Shit [laughs], what's going on?” And I called some friends in Greensboro and said, “Is the city blowing up?” I'm sure with everybody else, it was, you know, from—I consider myself from Greensboro.

So that was something that really kicked my interest in the whole thing. And then in 1980, right before the state court acquittals of the Klan and Nazis in the first trial, I came down to Durham to work with the Institute for Southern Studies. And, in fact, we were having a, a fundraiser at the time—it was 5 o'clock, and at 5:30 somebody comes in and says they've acquitted those guys. And we all just said, “No! It can't happen.”

So, it was about that time I said I would really like to write about this. And it turned out to be much more than just writing an article, although it was still half an apple. We produced a special report for the institute—thirty-two pages. And that was the first time [Ku Klux Klan informant] Ed Dawson had talked. For some reason he decided to talk to me. And I got him on tape, and included a lot of that in the institute report. And that eventually led to a New York publisher being interested. In fact, Paul Bermanzohn had been going around showing people copies of this and saying—they had their own person they wanted to write the book—Viking, the publisher, said, “No, you're not going to have your own person, how about this person?”

So, I entered a contract with Viking. And then after I submitted the full manuscript we parted ways, and I went to University of Georgia. So that's sort of a capsule.

WL:

Yes. Now just going to the book now [Codename GREENKIL: the 1979 Greensboro Killings], what were some of the, the first difficulties getting information or, you know, how was that part of the book—the research—you said Ed Dawson, you were one of the first people to talk to him—

EW:

Yeah.

WL:

—and I imagine that opened up a whole new aspect for you.

EW:

Yeah, it did. The problem was that when I started the book, all of the Klan and Nazis, all of the police, all of the F—not all the FBI, but FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol and Tobacco and Firearms [ATF] agency, and half of everybody else in the world was named in their civil suits, so they could not talk. So I didn't have any access to those people for—until the federal trial started.

WL:

Which was when?

EW:

The first one was in '84. That was the federal criminal civil rights trial that the feds indicted the, the Klan and Nazis. Then in '85 it was the CWP's [Communist Worker Party] for the widows and survivors civil suit.

So there was a big gap there, but there was still a lot between when I started out in '83. I started out in the spring of '83. The first federal trial started in January of '84. So, in the meantime there were—all of the, the CWP folks were real eager to talk, because they wanted to promote their own stories.

One thing that happened that I think really helped me a lot to understand what was going on with the police and the Klan and to begin to really question the conspiracy theory was that a friend of mine who had been a, a news reporter and I were having drinks somewhere and ran into Jim Coman and Rick Greeson, who were the state prosecutors. And in fact I had been involved with [unclear] Jim Coman. Jim had been the police attorney back in '74 or '75, and I sued the coliseum over a search—their search policy. They were searching all kinds of people. And Jim was the city attorney. He was a bulldog. I was just terrified of him. I thought I never wanted to see this guy again. So Joanne introduced me to him and said, “Look you can trust her, she's doing all right.”

So we met a couple of times and talked. And they just opened up their records—everything that they had that wasn't sealed in some way. So I really had a good background for when I got into court. I knew I had—they had never transcribed any of the state trial, they had transcripts of it—but I had the police and FBI interviews that Greeson and Coman used to build their case.

And so I pretty much knew who was who, and who was doing what, when, and where, and that kind of stuff. And so then I spent, you know, three months in both of the federal trials taking notes and getting their testimony. And that was real, real helpful, especially coming from a Lefty kind of background. I realized how, how biased I was against police and even Klan. That there could be a nice, pretty decent Klan guy was not something that was in my mind, you know. But once you get to know some of these people, you're around them every day—that was a real eye-opener for me, just to see my own biases and to have them toppled. So two trials later I finished with the newspaper, and then I went on a great hunt for another publisher. [laughs]

WL:

When you were assessing let's say the, the whole incident itself—rather than the trials, but the actual shootings—what would you say, or how would you say the racial situation was in Greensboro at the time?

EW:

In '79?

WL:

Yes, and in response to the shootings.

EW:

I think, I think it was made more of a racial incident than it really was. And I, and I think the people in the black community that I talked with were as upset with the Communists for bringing their deaths to the Klan march into that neighborhood as they were the police for not being there. That modified somewhat over time, but I think you'll still find a lot of people who are very, very critical, especially black leadership-type folks, mainstream leadership people.

WL:

Critical of outsiders sort of coming in, that kind of thing?

EW:

Well, not so much outsiders, but of anybody being so reckless as to challenge the Klan to come into this black neighborhood, which was what they did. “We dare you to come down off your rock,” and that kind of stuff. And “We'll be in Greensboro on November third.” And then they had posters up all over the place saying where it was going to be, [unclear] and there it was, right there.

So I think there are a lot of people who, who are real critical. That's not to say that the Communists got what they deserved, or any of those nifty little phrases.

It's a—it was a tragedy, but I don't think you can say that it was a racial event. And that's one of the things that the, the trials really showed to me, that they were more—I think a lot of them thought that they were going to come into a bunch of black people, that they were mad, that they had been goaded. And, you know, I think if, if, if a bunch of Junior Leaguers had goaded them [the Klan] that way, they would have come in. [laughs] Probably not, but you know they were dealing with the Communists.

The racial situation at that time I really, I don't feel real comfortable talking about it, because I wasn't here and I wasn't really involved. I think it certainly shook the community up, and a lot of the subsequent events. And made a lot of people realize that Greensboro was not the so-called progressive place as Bill Chafe said so well in his book [Civilities and Civil Rights].

Greensboro's a real—well, it may be documented—it's a very difficult town to really get a grasp on social issues of any kind. Or issues on anything. Because although there's a good solid core of progressives and activist people, for some reason it's real hard to break through to the, the movers and shakers and, you know, the real power people. And they, they seem to have this real paternalistic attitude towards the city, that it's their city. I don't know if you were here when all of the wrangling over district representation and how long that went and how racist that got. But I think that's a real good indication of what the forces that any social change group has to deal with in Greensboro. It's just not an easy task.

I think since then, there have been a lot of gains made. And I think the last election—not this, this one—well, this one too; I mean, Jesse Jackson won the primary in Guilford County. But in the November election, in the city council election, the power of the black community, the political power that they have when they're organized, really became evident for the first time. And I think, I think things are going to start changing a whole lot faster, I hope. But there's still a real plantation mentality.

WL:

You, you mentioned that, just a minute ago, some of the subsequent events of the, of the incident as being more racial perhaps than the actual shootings. Can you elaborate on that a little bit?

EW:

Well, I think that—let's see, the—

WL:

Certainly, the media coverage, I think, is part of it.

EW:

Well, I'm thinking that the district campaign, I think it's one real clear example, and I wish I could remember what the billboard said. Something about Greensboro, the way it is, or—I can't remember. It would be interesting to look it up. It was just glaring.

I think the way the city council and city leadership didn't exactly dismiss it, they sort of swept it under the rug when the citizen's commission came out and said. “There are some real problems here.” And the city council just sort of said, “Thanks, see you next time.”

When Bobby Doctor came up here from this civil rights commission in Atlanta and said in a public statement that if the shootings had occurred in Irving Park or some place like that he felt sure that there would have been a different response on the part of the police. And he almost lost his job over that. You know the city power-mongers got on the horn with then-Congressman [Richardson] Preyer's office and got the word up to the federal civil rights commission that this guy was out of line for saying something like that. And that was a real testy period. But again, it was one of those things that, that shows that Greensboro does not like to deal with racial issues.

WL:

Getting back to the book for a minute, did you encounter a lot of opposition during either the, the gathering or the writing of the book from any group?

EW:

Not until the end really. Well, there was a lot of mistrust. There was a lot of mistrust all the way along, especially the police and the Klan and, you know, a lot of those people. It took, it took time and a lot of them still don't trust me which is fine, because those are the ones that I don't trust either [laughs]. But the, the strangest thing was when the CWP folks cut me off after I had written a couple of articles during the civil rights trial for the Independent which said what is coming out of this trial is that these were not innocent victims, that they did have some role in this and that you can't just say, “Here's the villains, here's the [inaudible].” There was a lot of crossover there.

And they just—that was it, they wouldn't talk to me. That was the end of it. And in fact, they did—when the University of Georgia took the book, their attorneys wrote a letter saying, “We want you to,” something like this, “We want you to know that this book is biased and inaccurate,” and, and they almost called it a lie. They came real—as close as you can without getting in legal trouble. And [the letter] said, “If you, knowing this, if you proceed to publish this book, we're going to go to your board of directors.” The implication is, “We're going to cut out your funding,” or, you know, “Your board of directors is going to go nuts.”

And that was a, an infuriating time and a kind of scary time, because I hadn't worked with the press director that much. I had a good feeling that he was not about to be intimidated, but I didn't know. And I didn't know what his board of directors would do. So he told them to fly a kite [laughs]. And they had a [unclear.]

WL:

Since the book has come out, you know, has been received, how—what kind of response have you gotten from any, you know, groups across the board?

EW:

I haven't gotten any response from any CWP folks, although one reporter that I told about this threatening stuff did call them, and, and they said they were not going to sue. [unclear]. Although there wasn't anything they could have sued over, still they can go to court anytime and it costs money—

WL:

Exactly.

EW:

I can't think if any, any people involved that contacted—a couple of the Nazis had, to try to get copies of it because they couldn't find copies. But I don't think I've had any response from any of the participants[?].

WL:

Well, just one, one last thing on the book before we move on. For anybody who hasn't—a listener who hasn't read the book yet—I'm sure that after they hear this interview they will do so—but could you succinctly sum up your analysis of the situation that had happened? You mentioned that there wasn't—there weren't really good guys and bad guys, that it wasn't really so black and white.

EW:

Yeah, I think what it was more than good guys and bad guys was a lot of people making real stupid judgment decisions. I think the CWP folks were—had gotten almost into some kind of political psychosis where they really did not understand what they were up against and what they were encouraging to happen. I think that the Klan and the Nazis were into their macho, big guy thing, you know, “Let's go down and rough them up.” And that was definitely their plan, was to come in and slug it out with them. But you can see on the famous video tapes, if you look at it, you can see that when the Klan and Nazis first get out of their cars, they're not armed. When they go into that intersection and there's that fight—I don't know if you've watched it, but—

WL:

Yeah, I have.

EW:

—pretty much there's this fist fight. And then you hear shots, and then they run back to their cars and get out the guns. Now that's not saying they couldn't have left, but I still think that—well, I understand that the law is they could have at least been convicted of second degree murder, you know, some kind of state charges, but they haven't.

The police were absolutely pathetic as far as their departmental communications. And the one thing that really struck me, and I didn't find it out until the civil rights trial in '85, was that the one person who could have stopped it—there was one police officer who could have stopped it. And he was the officer who was over at Morningside Homes. And he was listening to the radio while [Det. Jerry] Cooper's saying when they're driving up this way and driving up that way. When the shooting stops and the other—finally the captain or lieutenant get on the line and they radio this guy and say—he says “We're sending all the powers over to Windsor Center.” And this sergeant says, “They're not at Windsor Center.” And this is on the transcript of the tapes, which there's so much [unclear]—I didn't—and I've read them a thousand times.

He said, “They're not at Windsor Center. They're over at Morningside where the tact teamers are.” He was under the impression—and he had not been briefed that morning—that when the attack, attack, you know, tactical units were assigned, they were to come on duty at ten o'clock. He was—thought they were supposed to be on location at ten o'clock, which would have put them right over there. And he testified—and I had no reason to doubt him—that had he known they weren't there, he would have had time to move over to Morningside. And one uniformed cop and one mobile[?] cop would have done it. I'm sure there wouldn't have even been a fight. But—and there's no excuse for him not knowing. There's absolutely no excuse for that.

The conspiracy, I guess that's the big question, was there a conspiracy? And I would say yes. The Klan conspired to come down here, rough them up, knock some heads, do some stuff. The police conspiring to stay away? No, it was bungling. I still believe, although I've never—I didn't say it in the book and I've never been able to get anybody in the police department to say it, but there was somebody in a key position that may have only been thinking to himself, “Wouldn't it be nice if these guys all got together, started busting each other up, and we can just bus them off without a riot and get rid of them?” But, you know, that's—it's hard to believe the level of incompetence that had to occur for the shootings to have happened. That's why I have just this gnawing feeling that there was somebody who let a signal go by, [unclear] something.

WL:

And what about the trials? Do you think the acquittals—

EW:

I think—the hardest one to explain is the first trial. And I think, I think that the Communist folks have got to take the blame for it, for refusing to testify. They set up a whole scenario that made it ten times more difficult for the prosecutors to get convictions.

You know, people can—I can understand their fury at the state. But, you know, to not cooperate in any way is just—[dog starts barking]—just—it back[fired]—well, it didn't backfire. If there had been an acquittal, that would have been the end of it. Or a conviction, that would have been the end of it. With the acquittals—and that's a cynical way of looking at it—but with the acquittals, then they could mobilize the whole two more years, three more years, whatever they put into it, raise a lot of money, make a name for themselves, get on TV. You know, I—and that is, that's very cynical, because I do believe that they would much prefer to have their loved ones back than to make any kind of statement.

But there was a—a political mindset going on there— [speaks to dog: Ursa!]

WL:

She's okay. [dog panting]

EW:

—that just I think blinded them to what they were doing. And they've, they've had gotten so—[dog growls] this is going to be wonderful to transcribe 'a dog in the background' [laughter]—they've lived with it so long, day in and day out. For the first year or so they were never alone, with people who were feeding that conspiracy. But I think it would have been very difficult to—for somebody to step back from that and say, “Wait a minute, I don't care, I'm going to testify, I want these guys gone.”

WL:

Let me just—

[End Tape 1, Side A—Begin Side Tape 1, Side B]

WL:

Now you worked for the North Carolina Civil Liberties Union [NCCLU]. Were you working for them at this time that you were writing the book?

EW:

No. No, I was working full-time on the book. I had some grant money and some friends who helped me survive through that time.

WL:

And now when you, when you were working for the, the NCCLU, what were—what was—well, actually, was there any involvement with CLU in the shootings at that point? Or by the time you were there it was already passed?

EW:

It was passed during the time that I was working on the book, I was still living—I was living in Greensboro again, and I was on the [NCCLU] state board of the directors. And there was a lot of, a lot of discussion. The CWP initially wanted the Civil Liberties Union to sponsor a suit against the, the city and the feds. And the board did not feel that there were—that there were civil liberties issues, which means that the attack must have had to, you know, interfere with their first amendment rights, or due process, or something like that I mean, it gets very technical. But at any rate, they declined sponsorship for this case.

They did get involved in 19—was it 1980? February of 1980, when there was a big national march here, a national protest march, and the city was trying all sorts of hoo-ha to get them to prevent it from happening. And the CLU stepped in then and filed suit. I think they were trying to screw around with granting permits[?], something like that. So, that was, that was the only action that the North Carolina Civil Liberties Union took. Later on the national ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] did have an advisory role in the civil rights suit, but it wasn't an active sponsorship.

WL:

And during your time at the—with the Civil Liberties Union, how would you—or from a civil liberties perspective, how would you assess race relations in North Carolina in general during this period? I imagine along with the—

EW:

You mean more recently?

WL:

Yeah, more recently, during your time at the Civil Liberties Union.

EW:

It's strange. It goes back and forth. I mean during that time—[dog barks] a couple of months ago, there was the whole Robeson County thing with the Jimmy Cummings shooting [Lumbee Indian killed by white deputy], which we became involved in. There are a number of cases that were almost throwbacks to the sixties, complaints that we got from black people who could not get service in restaurants. There were a couple of those, which was kind of surprising.

WL:

That is very strange, it seems.

EW:

No, they weren't actually denied service, they were made to wait for like forty-five minutes or something, and other people, white people, got in the door. So there are definitely pockets of racism around, and Greensboro is certainly not free of them, I'm sure.

I think it's a whole lot more subtle. I mean it just has—racism and sexism, almost all those things have gotten so subtle that when you hear about something like a black person being denied in a restaurant, it's really shocking. But I think that there are little ways that it goes on all the time, especially in the corner.

WL:

But—so would you assess that, say, the racial issue has gotten better, or more subtle and less visible, let's say, rather than actually better?

EW:

I think it depends on what you're looking at. And here's where good old Marxist economics come—comes in. If you're looking at the black middle class and relations between maybe more upper-middle class blacks and whites, you don't find as strong an undercurrent of racism as you would in working class or really impoverished people.

Poverty just seems to breed everything that's awful. And racism is, is one of them, and I think we're real fortunate right now to have a real low unemployment and all that good stuff. But if you're employed at $3.35 an hour it doesn't help a whole lot.

WL:

Right.

EW:

It doesn't make you middle class, it makes you working poor.

WL:

Yeah.

EW:

And I don't know. I wonder too about things like the merger, the school merger question, whether underlying that is not a lot of racial fear. I think people worry about that, and they, and they don't—which school was it, [dog growls] one of the elementary schools that had—was assigning little kids to black and white classes, separating them into black and white classes in different rooms. They don't want to be the lone ranger, in, you know, an all-black class or an all-white class, and that's something that misses the point altogether.

I don't know if it's so much Greensboro or North Carolina as it is the influence of Reagan and his insensitivity towards racial issues that sort of makes it more acceptable for people to say, “Oh, okay, we can do this.”

WL:

Well, and it seems to me, just from other interviews, that part of the problem with Greensboro is that—it's something you mentioned—a lot of the people in power tend to think of it as a very progressive city, rather than even recognizing some of the problems that exist. And so I think that's a problem.

EW:

Yeah. I think one of the best things to happen—or from what I understand of it—one really good thing is the Greensboro Visions.

[recorder paused]

WL:

You were talking about the Greensboro Visions. If you—

EW:

Yeah. I think that the research that they're doing—and they're putting in a lot of time, volunteer time and—they're really looking at the city as a whole, and not just from a racial perspectives, but taking a real comprehensive look at what's going on. And some of the things that they've found I think are real eye-openers for the whole community.

The one that comes to mind is that the city, rather than improve the bus system and go to a city bus system, they let slip by some—I'm thinking it was over a million dollars in federal transportation funds that they could've gotten. But Duke Power wants to—I don't know why they want to run the bus system. I don't have any idea. It must be a money user. But rather than say, “Let's get a good bus system like they have in Chapel Hill or some place like that,” they just let the money slide. So I think they're finding out a lot of, of important and kind of embarrassing facts like that that are going to make people question city government more than they have.

WL:

Well, just to conclude, do you have any future writing plans as yet?

EW:

Well, actually, I'm using this couple of months—I've got severance pay—

WL:

We'll cut that out of the transcript.

EW:

—to try to put together a weekly newspaper. Get a new alternative going.

WL:

That sounds great. Thank you very much.

[End of Interview]