Unfinished business: The horror and mystery of the GPD’s handling of the 1979 anti-Klan march

by Jordan Green

One bright morning, the first Saturday of November 1979, a nine-car caravan of Klansmen and Nazis rolled into the black housing project of Morningside Homes in east Greensboro, where a multiracial group of communist labor activists were holding a ‘“death to the Klan’” rally. After an exchange of insults and a stick fight, shots rang out ‘— first a powder pistol fired into the air from the front of the caravan, then a shotgun blast from the third vehicle.

The defense team, which won two acquittals for their Klan and Nazi clients, would later characterize these as ‘“calming shots.’”

Testimony by an FBI expert witness that the next three shots came from an area occupied by the anti-Klan demonstrators proved persuasive to the all-white jury (the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission found his testimony to be lacking in credibility). Klansman Roy Toney wrested a shotgun from the hands of Dr. James Waller, a Greensboro union organizer. Sometime later some of the Nazis ran back to a Ford Fairlane to retrieve guns and began firing at the demonstrators.

Waller was killed first. Demonstrator Dori Blitz responded by firing a handgun, to no avail. Demonstrator Claire Butler also fired in the direction of the Nazis behind the Fairlane as Sandi Smith, a union organizer and former student body president at Bennett College, stood beside her on the porch of a neighborhood community center. A bullet struck Smith in the head, killing her.

Dr. Michael Nathan, a physician from Durham, ran to Waller’s aid and was shot in the face. Bill Sampson, a union organizer who had recently been fired from his job at Cone Mills, was shot through the heart after firing a handgun twice in the direction of the Nazis. Cuban-born César Cauce, who had worked to unionize Duke Hospital in Durham, was shot to death trying to defend himself and others with a stick.

Eighty-eight seconds of gunfire. Five deaths. About a dozen others injured. A neighborhood plunged into trauma and fear.

Outside of the frame ‘— of the television cameras that captured the carnage, along with the public discourse that has transpired over the next 26 years ‘— is the Greensboro Police Department, whose officers did not arrive until after the white supremacists had fled the scene.

‘“Nobody today is rooting for the Klan; they’re off the map,’” says Ed Cone, a local opinion writer who publicly came out in support of the truth process in 1999. ‘“The anger at the CWP is a lot more raw. People can’t or won’t address the responsibility of the cops.’”

Despite two years of deliberation by the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission, feelings of anger on the part of many residents at the Communist Workers Party for taunting the Klan with provocative rhetoric continue to overwhelm many discussions about police responsibility. And the commission’s 529-page report, released last month, leaves unanswered a horrifying question: Did police officers deliberately leave the communist demonstrators unprotected with the expectation that they would be attacked by their white supremacist foes?

‘“One thing you can say about the report is that it provides incontrovertible evidence laid out in documentary form that the police had a share of the responsibility,’” Cone says. ‘“The gray area is intentionality. I don’t know any more than I knew before. Which is frustrating.’”

The authors of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report concede their examination of the events of 1979 remains an unfinished work, writing, ‘“The truth we have found is necessarily imperfect because new facts might later come to light that would demand new or altered conclusions. Indeed it is our hope that others who come after us will continue to perfect the collective truth of this event.’”

The seven members of the truth commission were unable to reach a consensus on the question of official conspiracy. A majority of the commissioners concluded that although no legal basis for conspiracy was found in the three trials following the shootings, ‘“among some in the department, there was intentionality to fail to provide adequate protection.’”

Commissioner Robert Peters, a retired corporate lawyer, parted ways with his fellow commissioners, who found ‘“the single most important element that contributed to the violent outcome of the confrontation was the absence of the police.’” Peters wrote in a concurring opinion summary that ‘“the main wrongdoing must lie with the Nazi/Klan due to their violent hate language and their use of excessive force in the deaths and injuries.’”

‘“I don’t think the police intended that the Klan come in and shoot people,’” says Commissioner Mark Sills, an ordained Methodist minister who is the executive director of FaithAction International House in Greensboro. ‘“We didn’t conclude that there was a conspiracy between the Klan and the police to do harm to people. We feel that the police department had so much negative feeling about the organizers that they did not take seriously the potential for violence. They had a tendency to dismiss the Klan as a threat, which was just unbelievable; and they had a tendency to grossly overstate the threat that the Communist Workers Party posed to our community.’”

Survivors of the shootings say that while the commission stopped short of endorsing their belief in official culpability they are encouraged that the role of the police is being discussed as an important element of the tragedy.

‘“Without the TRC this would just be left a lie; nobody would have realized these aching questions that we have been asking ourselves for years,’” says Dr. Marty Nathan, a physician in Northampton, Mass., whose husband Michael was killed in the shootings. ‘“The whole ‘shootout between the communists and Klan’ thing ‘— that veil has been parted. Good people can ask those questions now. People besides those of us who are affected are being sucked into the horror and mystery.

‘“There’s evidence to prove involvement between all these forces,’” she continues. ‘“How they coordinated it and what were their illegal aims ‘— those things are not known.’”

While centering on the Greensboro Police Department allegations of official complicity ripple outward to the FBI, which had investigated both the Klan and the communists prior to Nov. 3, 1979; and to the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, whose undercover agent, Bernard Butkovich, had infiltrated a group of Nazis in Winston-Salem that joined the caravan that brought violence to Morningside Homes.

Nazis, bikers

and interracial sex

Among the most violent of the white supremacist shooters was Roland Wayne Wood, identified by the White Carolina newsletter as the enforcer of the state’s National Socialist Party of America organization, according to a report submitted by ATF Special Agent Robert Fulton Dukes in the late 1970s. Wood circulated in a volatile underworld of outlaw biker gangs, pornography retailers and gun dealers. Among his preoccupations was his agitation about representations of interracial sex in local adult bookstores and among patrons of Triad-area clubs.

Dukes recalled in 1982 grand jury testimony how he had been transferred to North Carolina by the ATF and assigned to investigate the death of a woman named Linda Tate, who was killed when a bomb exploded under her van at the Country Club Apartments in Winston-Salem.

In an October 1979 ATF report about an individual connected to the Tate investigation ‘— likely Roland Wood ‘— Dukes reported the subject had found Atlas electrical blasting caps in his driveway.

‘“It is this agent’s belief that [Wood] put the explosives there himself to gain sympathy with the Klan,’” the report states. ‘“The caps found in his driveway are the same type caps that were used in the Linda Tate bombing in January 1977. ‘“The investigation is continuing in hopes to discover [Wood’s] sources of explosives and his connection (if any) with the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club or Walter Gaston Tate.’”

According to Dukes, Walter Tate rented the Farmington Raceway and promoted motorcycle races. Wood would later tell truth commission researcher Emily Harwell he grew up with Linda Tate and she was the first girl he kissed.

Dukes confirmed in a 1984 deposition that he was aware that Wood worked at pornographic bookstores, and knew also that the Hell’s Angels had a reputation for running pornographic bookstores across the state at the time. He also acknowledged he received reports from undercover agent Butkovich that Wood was distressed about interracial activities taking place at Club 85 in Lexington and that he might firebomb it. Dukes said he was never able to ascertain that Club 85 was connected to Linda Tate or the Hell’s Angels.

In October 1978, Dukes learned from an informer that Woods had an automatic rifle, and he opened an investigation. The next year the ATF would bring in Bernard Butkovich, an agent from Ohio, to infiltrate Wood’s Nazi group and gather evidence of a weapons violation.

As early as March 1979, the ATF had a forecast of the potential for violence that would take place in Greensboro eight months later.

‘“[Wood] has bragged that he will kill all Niggers & Jews if they interface with the Klan,’” Dukes reported. ‘“More demonstrations are planned by the Klan in the major NC cities. [Wood] is expected to do a lot of traveling throughout the state in support of the Klan.’”

In a report dated Nov. 30, 1979, Butkovich detailed his dealings with Wood. On July 28 he had attended a Nazi meeting in Raleigh at which ‘“the possibility of cigarette smuggling and illegal booze to increase party funds was discussed,’” Butkovich wrote. ‘“It was mentioned that several local sheriffs were no problem because they ‘were under control’ and the ‘state people were never a problem.’

‘“Wood explained that the Klan was always willing to help and there is good cooperation with the Hell’s Angels Winston chapter,’” Butkovich reported in reference to a meeting the following day at Wood’s house. Wood would later tell Butkovich: ‘“There are several policemen and maybe a judge who were Klan members and would make good allies, although they couldn’t be trusted completely.’”

Butkovich had little success gathering evidence for a firearms violation case against Wood, but did encounter some of the seamier sides of the Winston-Salem neo-Nazi scene.

‘“We stopped at an adult bookstore downtown and Wood talked to a female impersonator about buying his pet skunk,’” Butkovich reported in September 1979. ‘“Wood showed me where bi-racial movies were being advertised and shown in the rear of the bookstore. Wood intends to paint swastikas on all the viewing screens and possibly burn the building down.’”

When Wood and several others carpooled to Greensboro on Nov. 3 to confront the communist anti-Klan demonstrators, Butkovich showed up late, intentionally missing his ride.

Curtis McHargue, the retired owner of McHargue’s Gun Shop who now lives in Rural Hall, says Wood and fellow Nazi Milano Caudle told him shortly after the shootings that Butkovich encouraged them to go to Greensboro.

‘“I think Butkovich was the main instigator for the whole thing,’” McHargue says. ‘“From what they told me, he encouraged them to go down and heckle the parade. They wasn’t even going to go with guns, but he encouraged them to take guns. He had the kits to convert them to fully automatic.’”

McHargue acknowledges Wood and his group bought guns from him. He also did business with the Hell’s Angels, but he says he knew of no relationship between the two groups.

The retired gun shop owner says he knew Wood well, but hasn’t seen him in years. He finds it difficult to believe Wood was smart enough to organize his group to travel to Greensboro without outside help.

‘“Roland was a bit short of a full deck,’” he says. ‘“I think his parents must have dropped him on his head when he was young. I knew twenty Klansmen. Take twenty of them and divide it in two and you’ve got the average intelligence. You’ve got to have somebody to pull the string and make it go. Once you drop the string, it’s just gonna stop. They had to have someone besides Roland. Milano was a smart guy but he couldn’t organize.’”

Wood, now reportedly ill and receiving care at an assisted living center in Winston-Salem, continues to maintain that the federal government orchestrated the shootings, but his allegations have lacked detail. Wood apologized to Signe Waller in January for the death of her husband. Waller’s son, Alex Goldstein, and anti-Klan march organizer Nelson Johnson were also present.

The Rev. Nelson Johnson, now the pastor at Faith Community Church, reported to the commission in written testimony: ‘“Wood seemed genuinely contrite. He apologized over and over again for what happened, while stressing that he had no idea that people would be killed. He acknowledged that he was controlled by hate. He said that he had a problem with forgiving himself. As it relates to how the massacre occurred, he stated over and over again that he believed the federal government set up the confrontation.’”

Butkovich is no longer around to answer to the allegations that he encouraged the Nazis to travel to Greensboro. As detailed in a June 1987 item in the Charlotte Observer, the 36-year-old Butkovich and his 23-year-old passenger, Rebecca Attwood, were killed when Butkovich crashed his single-engine airplane during a stunt maneuver over an airfield outside of Cleveland.

The truth commission did not find any evidence to substantiate the allegations made by Wood and McHargue.

‘“We believe it was immoral and unconscionable for the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms ‘— which both had their own inside intelligence on the Klan and Nazis about the potential for violence on Nov. 3, 1979 ‘— to fail to share that information with local law enforcement,’” the report states. ‘“Although he certainly did nothing to prevent it, based on the information available to us we do not find that agent Butkovich acted to provoke the violence.’”

Inside the GPD

Much of the suspicion that members of the Greensboro Police Department deliberately enabled the Klan and Nazi assault centers on three troubling factors:

‘• The police had an informant inside the Klan named Edward Dawson, who played a key role in bringing the various white supremacist groups from across the state together to confront the communists. Dawson communicated with his handler, Detective Jerry Cooper, on the morning of Nov. 3. Yet rather than stop the Klan-Nazi caravan, Cooper followed it to Morningside Homes;

‘• Tactical squads, whose job was to ‘“get between the Klan and the marchers’” if trouble occurred, were sent to an early lunch, and were not assigned to their positions until 11:30 a.m. ‘— seven minutes after the shootings, as it turned out; and

‘• Officer April Wise was called away from a domestic call a block away from the march formation point about 20 minutes before the Klan-Nazi caravan arrived there.

As a backdrop to all these decisions, the police have acknowledged they consciously took a low-profile approach to the anti-Klan march, but until now confusion over who was responsible for initiating the plan has clouded the discussion of police complicity. The plan has often been incorrectly credited to Capt. Trevor Hampton, the highest-ranking African-American officer on the force at the time, and the commanding officer of District II, which included Morningside Homes.

High-level officers on the force first met to discuss plans for the anti-Klan march on Oct. 31, according to an internal affairs report prepared by Capt. David C. Williams. Capt. RW Steele expressed concern that Hampton would not be on duty for the march. At a meeting the next day, Hampton would explain to Steele that he had a prior commitment to attend a meeting at Cosmos Restaurant.

Reports from both the police department and the FBI in the aftermath of the shootings indicate Sgt. Dave Comer, who was assigned to be the patrol field commander, raised concerns about whether staffing levels for the march would be adequate. Comer told the FBI he asked Hampton if he could ‘“arrange to have the tactical units assist him in handling the parade.’” Hampton, in turn, went to Capt. Larry Gibson, who had issued the parade permit, and asked him to assign the tactical units.

The first mention of a low-profile plan occurs at the second meeting of ranking officers on the morning of Nov. 1. The internal affairs report suggests the police were cognizant of the Klan and Nazis’ intentions to oppose the communists, and the police were at least as concerned about protecting the white supremacists’ First Amendment rights as those of the anti-Klan demonstrators. Hampton appears to have been a voice of caution.

‘“Captain Hampton expressed the firm belief that the Department should only tolerate one parade,’” the report states.

Later in the meeting Deputy Chief Walter ‘“Sticky’” Burch ‘“suggested to the officers that the parade should be handled on a low key and a low profile maintained by officers.’”

Burch told Capt. Williams during a Nov. 30 internal affairs interview that he took charge of the planning for the anti-Klan march because Chief William Swing was scheduled to be away for the week of Oct. 29 through Nov. 2.

‘“We wish we could have interviewed ‘Sticky’ Burch,’” Commissioner Mark Sills says today. ‘“It was disturbing that he agreed to an interview with us and backed out. He told me he was advised by the police attorney not to speak with us. He could have clarified a lot of questions.’”

Following the Nov. 1 morning meeting, Nelson Johnson received the permit for the march. On his way out of the police department, he encountered Hampton. The internal affairs report indicates Hampton informed Johnson that Comer would meet him at Everitt and Carver at 11:30 on Nov. 3. Johnson has consistently maintained over the years that Hampton agreed to be there himself, and made no mention of another person.

Having learned shortly before that the All Nations Pentecostal Holiness Church had withdrawn permission to be used as the termination point for the march, Johnson held a press conference on the police department steps, denouncing the police for interference.

The role of the tactical units would prove to be governed by complicated dynamics, compromised by miscommunication, and highlighted by both urgency and inaction. Ultimately overseen by Gibson, the units were immediately supervised by Lt. Sylvester Daughtry, who would go on to become Greensboro’s first black police chief in 1987.

Comer, who was not present at the Nov. 1 planning meeting, told the FBI he only learned at the scene of the shootings that the tactical units were not supposed to be in place by 10 a.m. as he had assumed, but would instead be in place by 11:30 a.m.

‘“Sergeant Comer states that he was never present nor did he hear any discussions concerning the possibility of stopping any Klan caravan which intended to arrive at the vicinity of the [anti-Klan] parade,’” the FBI report states. ‘“No suggestions on the radio were ever made to stop the Klan caravan.’”

Prior to the shootings, Sgt. Jimmy Hightower, who headed Tactical Squad B, and his partner, Officer JB Clark, told internal affairs their walkie-talkies malfunctioned while they were ordering food at the Biscuitville restaurant on Randleman Road. Hightower said Officer Johnny Freeman came in and advised him that Daughtry was trying to reach him on the radio, and that he wanted him to get in position. Hightower and Clark were stuck in traffic at the intersection of Randleman Road and Interstate 85, four miles from the mustering point of the anti-Klan rally when they heard over their radio that the first shots had been fired.

Clark seems to have been either unaware or unconcerned about the impending violence.

‘“Officer Clark stated quite frankly, upon reporting for duty November 3, 1979, he thought it was somewhat of a joke as he knew of no Klan in the area,’” the internal affairs report states.

Freeman told internal affairs he also told tactical officers RL Smith and JF Compton of Daughtry’s order to ‘“rush it up.’”

‘“You tell the lieutenant I’ll be there just as soon as I finish eating,’” Freeman recalled Smith as saying in response.

On the patrol side of the operation, confusion appears to have muddled police preparations. Around the time the tactical officers had gone to lunch a black officer, JT Williams, went to look for Nelson Johnson at the Windsor Center, an alternate mustering point. Williams told internal affairs he approached Willena Cannon to ask where he might locate Johnson.

Cannon refused to speak to him, he said, chanting with a group of children, ‘“Death to the pigs, death to the Klan, pigs stay away, leave us alone.’”

‘“I don’t remember saying ‘death to the pigs’ or ‘death to the Klan,”” Cannon says today. ‘“Usually when we had demonstrations the police would put provocateurs among us; we were expecting that. There was a place where they were supposed to meet him in Morningside; for the police to say they did not know that is preposterous. I thought they were coming to start trouble.’”

Nelson Johnson says at one point he was prepared to drive to Elizabeth City, where he believed Hampton was serving as police chief, and refuse to leave his house until he explained his absence on Nov. 3, 1979. Then he learned Hampton had retired and was living in Florida. Despite a subsequent friendship between the two men’s families, Johnson says Hampton has changed his phone number in an apparent effort to evade contact.

Hampton told internal affairs he left his home around 11 a.m. and started driving into Greensboro on High Point Road. Listening to his radio, he overheard Lt. Paul Spoon, the event commander, request that Daughtry meet him at the old train station. Radio transcripts indicate Spoon received a call from police communications at 11:14 a.m. and learned that All Nations Pentecostal Holiness Church had withdrawn permission for the anti-Klan marchers to use its facilities. The truth commission found that troubling due to the fact that Johnson had publicly announced this development on the steps of the police department two days earlier.

Even more disturbing was Daughtry’s decision to leave the area where the anti-Klan marchers were gathering.

‘“Cooper reports that the [Klan-Nazi] caravan is parking on Everitt,’” the truth commission found. ‘“One second later, Spoon finally got back in radio contact as he was leaving the GPD and radioed Daughtry, who asks him if he had been listening to Cooper’s transmissions. Spoon replies, ‘Negative. I’ve been on the phone. Another thing popped up you need to be made aware of.’ Rather than asking Daughtry what radio traffic he has missed, Spoon asks Daughtry, who is at Washington and Benbow, just a couple blocks from Carver and Everitt, to meet him at the old train station ‘— some 20 blocks in the opposite direction. Rather than inform Spoon that a caravan is one block from the parade formation point, Daughtry simply leaves the area.’”

Two minutes later the shooting began.

Later in November 1979, Daughtry was interviewed by the FBI about his role in policing the anti-Klan march. Daughtry told the FBI he knew Johnson well because the two had attended NC A&T University together. The lieutenant added that he knew Johnson to be associated with ‘“communist-type groups.’”

Daughtry joined the Greensboro Police Department in November 1968. Four months later Johnson would start organizing students in support of striking cafeteria workers. As the campaign unfolded, students at A&T stoned cars after marching to the university president’s house and later exchanged gunfire with police.

The FBI report indicates Daughtry shared Deputy Chief Burch’s view that the police should take a low-profile approach with the anti-Klan march.

‘“This low profile approach was very much in keeping with Lt. Daughtry’s view of Nelson Johnson as an individual trying to get a cause started to unite black people,’” the report states. ‘“Lt. Daughtry anticipated Johnson would attempt to verbally abuse officers as he wanted an issue either with the Klan or the police department for the purpose of uniting the community with the WVO (the predecessor of the Communist Workers Party).’”

Daughtry disavowed any conspiracy between the police and the Klan in his FBI interview.

‘“Lieutenant Daughtry advised he is not aware of any officers who are members of or sympathizers with the Ku Klux Klan and further he received no information indicating the possibility of any officers assisting the Klan to carry out their attack against the Communist Workers Party,’” the report states. ‘“To the contrary, Lieutenant Daughtry stated that their plan of action was totally geared toward preventing the type of violence which occurred.’”

Daughtry is now the executive director of the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies in Arlington, Va. He declined to return seven phone calls over a period of two weeks for this story.

The man who was chief of police on Nov. 3, 1979, now in his eighties, indicates he has no interest in reflecting on the bloodshed at Morningside Homes.

‘“I think it’s been pretty well covered, don’t you?’” Williams Swing says. ‘“It’s been what, twenty-five years?’”

Then he ends the conversation by hanging up the phone, his voice laced with tired contempt.

‘“If there’s confusion now,’” he says, ‘“then the person is stupid.’”

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