UNCG Home > The University Libraries > Civil Rights Greensboro Home > Topical Essay - Greensboro Massacre
The Greensboro Massacre
In the 1970s, as in the 1960s, racial and social inequities still existed in the city of Greensboro, North Carolina. Differences in wages, education, housing, healthcare, and government representation were the legacy of years of racially discriminatory practices which were still being battled over a decade after the first sit-ins in the city.1 What changed was the method and rhetoric of the fight. In the mid-seventies, leading local activists and organizations such as GAPP (Greensboro Association for Poor People) began shifting away from separatist Black Power ideology prevalent in the late 1960s to focus on social and economic injustices common to the entire working class, regardless of race.
Greensboro activists were not alone in embracing Communism. They joined liberal organizers in Durham, North Carolina—many who were well-educated and associated with Duke University—to form a Workers Viewpoint Organization (WVO). Many members of the WVO had been active in the civil rights and anti-war movements of the sixties, but had become disillusioned by the lack of progress and government disinterest. After spending years in cell groups of the WVO discussing and debating theory, several of them gave up jobs as doctors and professors and moved to Greensboro, where they took jobs in Cone Mills textile factories. Working within factories, they believed, would better help them unionize workers.2 While fighting for worker rights, WVO members also fought for racial equality by opposing competency testing in schools and exposing police brutality.3
In 1978, WVO supporters from North Carolina participated in protests against acts of Ku Klux Klan (KKK) violence in Decatur, Alabama, and Tupelo, Mississippi. This experience led Greensboro WVO members to combine their efforts for unionizing and civil rights with anti-Klan demonstrations. The WVO opposed the Klan because it divided workers over race, distracting them from their rights as workers. When they learned that the Klan was planning to show Birth of a Nation, a white supremacist film, at the town hall in China Grove, North Carolina, on July 8, 1979, they decided to organize a protest march. The event culminated at the town hall, where Klansmen stood armed with guns on the front porch, while WVO members and local citizens chanted anti-Klan slogans and brandished bats and sticks. Local police officers at the scene made the Klansmen return inside the building, and the WVO burned the Confederate flag on the yard. The WVO considered this a victory against the Klan and decided to extend their anti-Klan activities with a march and conference in Greensboro, scheduled for November 3, 1979.4
The WVO, which had become the Communist Workers Party (CWP) in October 1979, eventually decided to assemble for the march at Morningside Homes, a low-income community where many of the workers they had contact with resided. Nelson Johnson, a CWP member and longtime Greensboro activist, applied for a parade permit which contained the planned parade route and listed Morningside Homes as the assembly point.5 Nearby Windsor Community Center was advertised as an assembly point for out-of-town participants because it was considered easier to reach from the interstate. The parade permit also included a stipulation required by the Greensboro Police Department (GPD) that CWP members not carry firearms and limit the size of their picket sticks. While this unusual condition infringed on their Second Amendment right to carry weapons, after some debate the organization agreed to the stipulation, believing police would be onsite to protect them, and that it was more important to obtain a permit than debate law.6
The CWP ramped up publicity for the event with fliers and press conferences. The event was given the title “Death to the Klan,” and fliers for the event called for radical, even violent opposition to the Klan. One such flier claimed the Klan “should be physically beaten and chased out of town. This is the only language they understand. Armed self-defense is the only defense.”7 Another publicity piece, an “open letter to Joe Grady, Gorrell Pierce, and all KKK members and sympathizers,” asserted the rally was meant “to organize to physically smash the racist KKK wherever it rears its ugly head. Yes, we challenge you to attend our November 3rd rally in Greensboro…”8
Meanwhile, the Klan had become aware of the march through Greensboro Police Department informant Eddie Dawson. Dawson, a longtime Klan member and former FBI informant, was hired by the police to attend and report on meetings of the Klan and local communist organizations. He attended at least one CWP planning meeting in addition to several Klan meetings at which it became apparent the KKK wanted a confrontation with the CWP.9 He also posted KKK fliers in Greensboro—often over Death to the Klan posters—that stated: “Traitors beware. Even now the cross-hairs are on the back of YOUR necks. It’s time for old-fashioned American Justice.”10 Two days before the march, Dawson obtained a copy of the parade permit from the GPD and shared it with the Klan and with Nazi Party members who had recently joined Klan efforts due to lagging membership.11
While Dawson informed members of the GPD of the Klan’s plans for armed confrontation, the police did not in turn warn the CWP about the potential for violence.12 For years the GPD had been monitoring the CWP and other local communist organizations, and many in the police department were extremely wary of the march, especially because Nelson Johnson was involved. Johnson, a longtime Greensboro activist, was considered dangerous by many in the GPD due to his involvement in the 1969 Dudley High/A&T State University protest. [read more about this event] The “demonization” of Johnson and other communists led the GPD to deny protestors the right to bear arms in the parade permit, and to overestimate the threat of the CWP at the expense of their protection from the KKK.13 The CWP was particularly frustrated that police delayed issuing the permit, leading Johnson to hold a press conference at which he announced: “We fully expect the police to continue their slimy tactics. They will do anything to disrupt this march...The Klan’s nothing but a bunch of cowards, they’re not coming here unless the police aid them.”14
Thus, the stage was set for violence in Greensboro.
November 3, 1979
On the morning of November 3, the GPD held a tactical meeting with officers assigned to the parade detail. Sergeant W. D. “Dave” Comer warned officers of a potential confrontation between Klansmen and CWP members, and asked officers to report to the center of Morningside Homes at 11:30. Meanwhile Detective Jerry Cooper received a call from Eddie Dawson informing him that Klansmen and Nazis were assembling at Klansman Brent Fletcher’s home on Randleman Road. Cooper and police photographer J. T. Matthews were sent to the home to photograph the caravan, but found the caravan had already left. Eventually, the group was spotted on an onramp to I-85. For the next fifteen minutes, Cooper and Matthews followed the caravan and radioed their locations. From the movement of the caravan, it became clear they were moving away from Windsor Center, the original advertised meeting place, and toward Morningside Homes.15
About this time, Sgt. Comer arrived at Morningside Homes to meet with Nelson Johnson. However, Comer was an hour earlier than planned, and none of the marchers had arrived. He then decided to look for Johnson at Windsor Center, where a large crowd had already gathered. There he faced hostility from protestors who challenged police to stay away from the day’s event. Though Comer was unable to find Johnson, he did not return to Morningside.16
Shortly after 10:30, demonstrators and CWP members began arriving in Morningside Homes. They put together picket signs and sang protest songs to build energy for the march, while local media filmed their activities. Unknown to anyone outside their organization, some CWP members had brought firearms and hidden them in vehicles. Though required to remain unarmed, they believed in armed self-defense, and one member had warned them that challenging the Klan could lead to violence.17
At 11:20, Cooper radioed: “Okay we got nine or ten cars…now at the parade formation point…they are driving through and heckling…they’re scattering.”18
The caravan had driven past assembling marchers. The two groups heckled each other, and some marchers began beating caravan cars with picket sticks. Shortly afterward, while TV cameras rolled, the first shots were fired from the head of the caravan, although it was not entirely clear by whom. Klansmen and Nazis began exiting their cars and heading back toward the intersection, where they engaged in a physical fight with demonstrators. The violence escalated rapidly, and Klansmen and Nazis retrieved guns from the trunk of a Ford Fairlane. Two CWP members were hit as they took cover behind a car. Cooper radioed that a fight was in progress, and four additional officers headed toward the scene, even though they had not been instructed to.19
By this time, six Nazis and Klansmen had retrieved their weapons from the trunk and had begun firing at demonstrators. CWP members Sandi Smith and Claire Butler had taken children to hide on the porch of the community center. When Smith looked out to check for other children, she was shot above the right eye and killed instantly. Klansmen Roy Toney and CWP members Jim Waller, Jim Wrenn, and Cesar Cauce engaged in a physical fight. Unarmed, Waller ran for cover, but was fatally shot in the back, piercing his heart and lungs. Cesar Cauce fell when he was hit on the back of the head with a picket stick, and was then killed by a bullet through the back of his neck. CWP member Paul Bermanzohn, standing nearby, was shot in the head and arm.20
Other CWP members took cover behind adjacent cars and a news van. Bill Sampson was using a handgun to shoot back, but was shot in the heart. As he lay dying, he handed his gun to Rand Manzella, who was already wounded. Standing in the intersection, pediatrician and CWP sympathizer Michael Nathan was shot twice in the head. Jim Wrenn saw Nathan lying in the road and went to pull him to safety. Wrenn was then shot nine times.21
Eighty-eight seconds after the violence had begun, the final shot was fired by CWP member Allen Blitz, hitting no one.22
At 11:25, police officers arrived at Morningside Homes and apprehended a yellow van containing the remaining Klansmen and Nazis, arresting all twelve men inside. Two minutes later, police headed towards the scene radioed to ask if fleeing vehicles should be stopped, but received no response.23 Thus, of the ten vehicles in the KKK caravan, only the yellow van was apprehended.
Demonstrators who had taken cover began coming out of their hiding places and saw bodies lying throughout the area. Sally Bermanzohn and Allen Blitz attempted to lift Cesar Cauce’s body and yelled for doctors. Sally then found her husband Paul and tried to stop his bleeding. Signe Waller found Nelson Johnson kneeling with her husband Jim Waller. Johnson told her he had just watched Jim take his last breath. After kneeling over his body, she stood and said, “Long live the Communist Workers Party. Long live the working class.” 24 Dale Sampson watched as a wounded Tom Clark and a police officer attempted unsuccessfully to revive her husband Bill. Confused and grieving, many of the CWP members began accusing the police and the government of involvement in the deaths.25
Numerous CWP members were arrested onsite. Rand Manzella kneeled over Cesar Cauce’s body while still holding Bill Sampson’s handgun and was arrested for being armed to the terror. Nelson Johnson claimed there was police involvement and government conspiracy in the violence. When police asked him to stop speaking, he refused and was wrestled to the ground. CWP member Willena Cannon came to his aid. Both were arrested. Johnson was taken to the hospital to receive stitches in his arm and hand. Cannon was released later that evening, while Johnson spent the night in jail and was released the next morning.26
Michael Nathan, Paul Bermanzohn, and Jim Wrenn were taken to the hospital in critical condition. Bermanzohn underwent brain surgery that saved his life, but sustained permanent paralysis on his left side. Wrenn had received two shots to the head and one to the chest. He too had brain surgery and was put on life support, but would survive. Nathan, however, was given a grim prognosis and died two days later, having been sworn into the CWP on his deathbed.27
The Funeral March
That week, the CWP announced plans for a funeral march. Funeral processions did not require a permit, and the CWP reached an agreement with city officials that would allow them to have an armed honor guard accompanying the caskets under the stipulation that the weapons remain unloaded. However, the weekend of the march, a Greensboro city official declared a state of emergency.28 The police department planned road blocks and called in five hundred National Guard troops and four hundred extra police officers.
The planned funeral march also caused tensions even within Greensboro’s black community. Rev. Frank Williams of New Jerusalem Baptist Church stated that he had “asked Nelson Johnson not to come through the Morningside area on Sunday. The community did not want this last week and they do not want it Sunday.” 29
Nevertheless, at one o’clock on November 11, some two- to four hundred people had assembled for the march. Lining the parade route were police officers decked in riot gear. When the procession reached Market Street, hundreds of National Guardsmen were waiting in a field by the road. Marchers attempted to sing songs but the mood was somber and the weather cold and rainy. The march ended at Maplewood Cemetery, the traditionally all-black cemetery near Morningside, where four of the five victims—all of them white—were buried. The body of Sandi Smith, the only black victim, was returned to her hometown in South Carolina.30
On November 4, warrants had been issued for the fourteen Klansmen and Nazis involved in the shootings. On December 12, they were each charged with four counts of first-degree murder, one count of felony riot, and one count of conspiracy.31
The spring of 1980 brought the beginning the first criminal trial of defendants seen on tape shooting at protestors. Charged with murder were David Matthews, Jerry Smith, Jack Fowler, Harold Flowers, and Billy Joe Franklin. On June 16, jury selection began. According to Elizabeth Wheaton, two-thousand Guilford County residents were asked to appear. Most of them were excused for hardship reasons or because they believed the defendants were guilty. The day of jury selection, ninety-four African Americans were in the pool. Seventy-eight were dismissed for cause—most said “they were unable to judge a Klan member objectively.” The defense then ruled out the remaining sixteen African Americans through questioning, creating an all-white jury for the trial. One of those chosen was Octavio Manduley, a Cuban exile who was strongly anti-communist.32
The state criminal trial began August 4, 1980. The CWP members involved in the event refused to testify, not wanting to participate in the system they believed targeted them, and believing there was enough evidence to convict already. Sound analysis of the media footage of shots fired was called as substantive evidence. However, the inability to say directly whether initial shots were fired by Klansmen or CWP members was confusing to jurors. The prosecution had also planned to call police informant and Klan member Eddie Dawson as a witness, but after meeting with him they decided it would be in their best interest not to.33 Jury deliberations began November 10, a little over a year after the shooting. On November 17, after a week-long deadlock, the jury they returned a not-guilty verdict on all five murder counts.
The Greensboro community responded to the verdict with shock and anger. In contrast, Nazi Party leader Harold Covington was pleased with the outcome and announced plans to “create a ‘Carolina Free State’” that was “free of non-white people.”34 Soon, organizations such as People United and the Greensboro Justice Fund—which was founded in the wake of November 3—called for further investigation and a federal trial. In December of 1980, federal attorney H. M. Michaux announced plans to file charges against ten of the Klansmen and Nazis involved in the shooting.35
In February 1982, a federal grand jury was called to decide if charges could be filed regarding the November 3 violence. A year later, indictments were filed against nine men: Virgil Griffin, Eddie Dawson, David Matthews, Wayne Wood, Jerry Smith, Jack Fowler, Roy Toney, John Pridmore, and Milano Caudle. All the men were charged with conspiracy to violate federal law, conspiracy to violate the civil rights of a person because of their race or religion, and conspiracy to violate the civil rights of a person participating in an integrated activity. Wood, Smith, Fowler, and Toney were also charged for actions regarding the violation of civil rights that resulted in the injury or death of persons. Wood was charged with interfering with interstate commerce in the injury of a media photographer, and Griffin and Dawson were charged with interfering in a federal investigation.36
On January 9, 1984, jury selection for U.S. v. Griffin began. All blacks were excused from the pool, resulting again in an all-white, predominately middle-class and middle-aged jury. During the trial, witnesses were called from the Klan, Nazis, and those connected to the CWP.
Regarding sound and video analysis of the media footage, expert witnesses were called by both the defense and the prosecution, providing contradicting explanations. Jury deliberations began on April 13. Three days later another not-guilty verdict was returned on all forty-eight charges.37
On November 3, 1980, victims had also filed a civil suit against the city of Greensboro, Klan and Nazi party members, and federal and state law enforcement agencies, alleging harassment and assassination of CWP members, and asking for $48 million in damages. In 1981, city, state, and federal defendants named in the trial filed a motion to dismiss the complaint. The case was delayed for three years until April 22, 1984 when the dismissal was rejected. Jury selection for the trial began in March of the following year, and on June 6, 1985, $351,500 was awarded in the wrongful death of Marty Nathan. Smaller amounts were awarded to survivors Tom Clark and Paul Bermanzohnm, while no money was awarded to the estates of Waller, Cauce, Sampson, and Smith. In November 1985, Marty Nathan received her payment from the City of Greensboro, which covered the payments for all of the defendants, including Klansmen and Nazis. No money has ever been paid to Paul Bermanzohn or Tom Clark.38
Truth and Reconciliation?
Twenty years after the shootings of November 3, 1979—still colloquially referred to as the “Greensboro Massacre”—memorial activities were held in Greensboro. Members of the community and survivors soon noticed there were continued community divisions and a lack of knowledge about the events of November 3. In 2001, the Greensboro Justice Fund and the Beloved Community Center were awarded a grant from the Andrus Family Fund to create a truth and reconciliation commission in Greensboro regarding the November 3, 1979 violence. Two years later, a mandate was created by the Greensboro Truth and Community Reconciliation Project for the formation of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Modeled after the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, it was designed to “examine ‘the context, causes, sequence and consequence of the events of November 3, 1979’ for the purpose of healing transformation for the community.” The effort was lead by seven individuals independent from the event and chosen through a community-wide selection process.39 For two years, from 2004 to 2006, the commission heard testimonies at public hearings and completed research. Their final report was presented on May 25, 2006 at Bennett College.40
The events of November 3, 1979 remain a controversial topic in Greensboro even today, and the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was not universally praised. In June, 2009, the Greensboro Human Relations Commission asked the city council to issue a “statement of regret” about the incident. The council did so by a one vote margin on June 17 amid criticism by dissenting council members and some city residents for dwelling on an issue that was, to them, not representative of the current state of race relations in Greensboro. In fact, to some in the community, the event was never about race to begin with; in their view, the Communist overtones were much more disturbing than any racial ones. The sentiment that the protestors somehow deserved their fate is still commonly expressed by some in Greensboro; many others prefer not to discuss the issue further at all. Others, however, believe that it must be addressed in order to heal the community and to prevent similar tragedies in the future.
Thirty years after the violence in Morningside Homes, the wounds inflicted on Greensboro that Saturday morning in 1979 have yet to completely heal.
CRG Project Assistant
UNCG Digital Projects Coordinator and CRG PI
1 Learning from Greensboro p 7.
2 Signe Waller, Love and Revolution: A Political Memoir (Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2002), Chapter 2-4.Elizabeth Wheaton, Codename GREENKIL: The 1979 Greensboro Killings (Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1987), 60-71; Cynthia Brown et al., Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report (Greensboro, 2006), 49, 57; Nelson Johnson, Oral history interview by William H. Chafe, circa 1977.
4 Brown et al, 129-130; 132; 138.
12 Sally Avery Bermanzohn, Through Survivors’ Eyes: From the Sixties to the Greensboro Massacre, (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2003) 198-199.
13 Brown et al, 122-123; GTRC Final Report 194, as quoted in Learning from Greensboro 7.
17 Waller, 219; Brown et al, 171.
20 Wheaton, 137-141; Brown et al 184; Waller, 225.
21 Wheaton, 146; Brown et al, 183-185.
26 Waller, 229-230; Bermanzohn.
27 Bermanzohn ; Wheaton 161; Waller 256.
28 Waller 263-264; Wheaton 172.
32 Wheaton 203, 207; Waller 314.
35 “The Greensboro Justice Fund,” circa 1982; “Civil rights charges eyed in shootout,” Greensboro Daily News, December 13, 1980, City/State section; Mark McDonald, “Justice Department reviewing Michaux’s Nov. 3 case advice,” Greensboro Record, May 6, 1981; Ed Hatcher, “Nov. 3 rally indictments are asked,” Greensboro Daily News, June 25, 1981.
36 Waller 394; Wheaton 253-254.
37 Wheaton 257; Waller, 423; Wheaton 279.
39 Greensboro Truth & Community Reconciliation Project, “Pre-Commission (2001-2004): Planting the Seeds: Launching the Effort and Establishing a Commission” http://www.gtcrp.org/groundwork.php