‘Low-profile’ plan reason for police absence during 1979 killings
The accounts of two former Greensboro police officers who were on the force 25 years ago suggest a plausible explanation for the carnage of Nov. 3, 1979 that is different from both the official view that the killings were a matter of two extremist groups choosing Greensboro as a site for a violent showdown, and the survivors’ belief that the Klan and Nazis carried out five assassinations on behalf of the police and federal law enforcement agencies.
In surprise testimony on Aug. 26, a former traffic cop named Ramon Bell told the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission there is a simple reason why the police weren’t around when Klan and Nazis opened fire on the demonstrators at the corner of Everitt Street and Carver Drive: their administrative operating plan called for them to be more than a half mile away at Dudley High School.
Bell, who is now a private investigator based in Stokesdale, said the administrative operating plan would have normally been written by the district captain, who was at that time Trevor Hampton. He said he read the plan while it was posted in the general patrol assembly area of police headquarters. Consistent with what he characterized as Hampton’s typical approach to policing, Bell said the plan called for ‘“a low-profile operation.’”
‘“I read the operating plan twice because I couldn’t believe it,’” Bell told the commission. ‘“A lot of us read it. It didn’t make any sense. You’ve got two extreme ideological groups coming together and you’re not going to have a buffer? We should have been there. That was a big mistake.’”
Bell testified that he believed Hampton thought a highly-visible uniformed police presence at the rally could potentially incite hostility from the demonstrators. But he pointed out that using Dudley High School as a staging area ‘— a distance of more than half a mile from Everitt and Carver ‘— meant it would take a minute or two for the police to respond to any incident. As it happened, the killing and wounding took place in 88 seconds.
Former District Attorney Michael Schlosser, who represented the state in the 1980 criminal case against the Klan and Nazis, said in an Aug. 28 telephone interview that he recommended that Bell share his story with the commission.
Hampton and lead anti-Klan organizer Nelson Johnson met before Nov. 3 to discuss plans for the march.
They had good reasons to work with each other. Hampton was a young African-American police captain with a promising career ahead of him whose district included the march’s starting point. Johnson was a black radical leader whose student and labor organizing and whose identification with the black power and militant labor movements of the day had already earned him the enmity of many in the police community.
‘“As I walked down the hallway with the parade permit, I met Lt. [sic] Trevor Hampton and we confirmed that we would meet at Carver and Everitt Street at 11:30,’” Johnson, who is now an ordained minister, told the commission. ‘“There was absolutely no confusion about the starting location or the time of the march.’”
But Hampton didn’t show up for work that day.
Even with the ‘low-profile’ plan in place, there was still an opportunity to intervene in the killing, Bell said in a subsequent interview.
‘“It’s my opinion that the lieutenant in charge could have ordered the police to Everitt and Carver when he heard [the Klan caravan] was moving earlier,’” he said. ‘“If he had’ve violated that operating plan he would have caught pure heck from Captain Hampton.’”
As it happened, the two police officers who responded most effectively to the carnage had to violate the operating plan to do so. Officers Art League and Sam Bryant, who were assigned with one of the tactical squads to Dudley High School, were waiting for their orders when League’s curiosity got the best of him.
League, who has so far declined to testify before the commission, described in a December 2004 interview with YES! Weekly how he and Bryant came to intercept a van full of Klansmen fleeing the scene.
‘“I said: ‘Let’s go to the church on the route so we can see,”” he said. ‘“I wanted to see the Klan in their robes. I said: ‘Don’t worry, I’ll take the rap if we get in trouble.””
League, who is also now a private investigator, and Bryant were at the church when the van came lurching up the street after the conclusion of the gunfire.
‘“I jumped out from behind a brick column with a shotgun,’” League said. ‘“Sam, thinking quick, blocked them off with the car. The van was full of guns. We weren’t supposed to be there. We broke assignment.’”
Many, including Greensboro massacre historian Elizabeth Wheaton, believe League and Bryant have never been properly recognized for their courage that day.
One of them is Bell.
‘“I’ll tell you what it is: Art’s one of the nosiest people,’” Bell said. ‘“He was a hero, but [the department] couldn’t give him a commendation because he violated an order.’”
Bell’s testimony and the corroborated account offered by League suggest that Hampton’s knowledge is a key piece of the puzzle.
Hampton and Johnson, the anti-Klan march organizer, have maintained sporadic contact since 1979, and Johnson said both men’s daughters attended school together and Hampton’s granddaughter visits his family often. Johnson added that he believes Hampton, who left the Greensboro Police Department and went on to serve as police chief in Durham, has been ‘“scapegoated’” by other police officers for the events of Nov. 3. Bell and League, incidentally, have no particular sympathy for Johnson and have both expressed the belief that the march organizer asked the police to stay away.
Research Director Emily Harwell said the commission has so far been unsuccessful in its efforts to locate Hampton but will continue to try to get him to testify.
Bell said the police’s low-profile approach to the anti-Klan march has never been a secret, but based on interviews with other Greensboro police officers in the course of his investigative work he believes the administrative operating plan disappeared.
‘“When the trials were over all the paperwork was destroyed,’” he said. ‘“They didn’t want to admit that Trevor Hampton made a mistake because then it would have gone straight up to the top instead of to some lowly detective. They would have had to pay out a whole lot more than they ended up paying out.’”
For the survivors, the two days of testimony that began Aug. 26 were occasions of cathartic release, expressed regrets and at the same time strongly-worded allegations of official complicity in their loved ones’ deaths. For the judge who presided over the first state trial, for three of the lawyers appointed to defend the Klan and Nazis and for Greensboro Police Department Capt. Rick Ball, the hearings variously provided the opportunity to justify the acquittal of the shooters, defend the department’s handling of the incident and launch renewed attacks on the motives of the organizers of the anti-Klan march.
‘“Ponder with me, what father would bring his two young daughters to a planned expected ‘shootout’?’” Johnson said in a prepared statement. ‘“When I hear establishment apologists with a glib arrogance promote the absolutely false view that I planned a ‘shootout’ and then misled the police, my blood boils and my soul rages.’”
Johnson, like other survivors who testified, questioned how the police could not be complicit in the killings when a police informant, Eddie Dawson, led the Klan caravan to the Morningside Homes, and Dawson’s handler, Det. Jerry Cooper, brought up the rear of the procession. Johnson also spoke in detail about his difficulty getting a permit for the march from Capt. Larry Gibson, about the police’s insistence that the anti-Klan marchers carry no weapons and his belief that the police were trying to sabotage the march.
With the commission lacking testimony from Jim Melvin and William Swing, respectively the mayor and police chief in 1979, it remains an open question why the department would take a low-profile approach when a detective was collecting intelligence about a group of white supremacists planning to violently disrupt it.
While still insisting that the police should be held accountable, Johnson described his regrets about the way he handled the march. He made two apologies.
‘“I denounced Mayor Jim Melvin as a ‘dog’ and a representative of the capitalist class,’” he said. ‘“I am sorry I used such language. Under any circumstances, it demeaned his humanity.’”
He added: ‘“I very much regret that a flyer was developed in the form of a letter that called the Klan members ‘cowards’ and challenged them to come out from under their rocks and face the wrath of the people. That was wrong. I do apologize for that letter to my Klan and Nazi brothers and sisters.’”
He mentioned two additional regrets: the use of the slogan ‘Death to the Klan,’ which he said was rhetorical shorthand for ‘“death to racism,’” but was misinterpreted as an action plan; and the use of the word ‘communism,’ which he said ‘“no longer describes my core beliefs.
‘“In addition, because of the fear and confusion associated with the word,’” he said, ‘“it became almost impossible to use that term to convey broadly anything of value.’”
While Johnson and fellow anti-Klan demonstrators Sally Bermanzohn and Floris Weston gave dramatic reassessments of their own roles in the tragedy, representatives of the judiciary, defense counsel and police ‘— with the exception of Bell ‘— ceded little ground.
Judge James Long, who presided over the state trial, said a sound analysis conducted by an FBI agent using television news footage of the killings to plot the location of the gunshots determined that 18 of the 39 shots came from positions occupied by the communists.
‘“That satisfied the defendants’ claim that their gunshots were fired in self-defense,’” he said.
Later, commissioners struggled in a cross examination with the three defense attorneys over the question of whether shots 3, 4 and 5 came from the communists. Shots 1 and 2 are widely understood to have been fired into the air by members of the Klan and Nazi contingent.
In later testimony, Lewis Pitts ‘— who represented the survivors in a 1985 federal civil trial that resulted in the city and members of the Klan and Nazis being found jointly liable for the death of one of the demonstrators ‘— questioned the FBI’s sound analysis of the gunshots, contending that the methodology was new and untested and that the agent was not credible as an independent expert. To make the case that the FBI could not be trusted, he showed the commission November 1979 television news footage of an interview with FBI agent Cecil Moses stating that the agency had no advance knowledge of the attack and had made no attempt to investigate the Klan and Nazi groups. In contrast, Pitts quoted from a June 1979 US Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms bureau briefing paper on caravan member Roland Wood as saying ‘“the FBI has been informed of this investigation and it is being coordinated with the FBI and ATF at the [special-agent-in-charge to special-agent-in-charge] level.
Winston Cavin, then a reporter for the Greensboro Daily News and the only print reporter on the scene that day, also gave testimony that countered the suggestion that the confrontation was a ‘shoot-out’ between equally-matched groups. Crouched behind a car, he watched the shooters unload weapons from the trunk of another car and advance on the communists.
The media portrayal of the confrontation has changed over the years, he said.
‘“I think documentaries have softened the view of people who were in fact the victims of a shooting rampage,’” he said. ‘“Reporters looked for a way to find someone to blame and found in the Communist Workers Party a fitting target. Scapegoating is an attempt to make a bad memory go away.’”
In his testimony, Capt. Rick Ball, who now heads the Greensboro Police Department’s vice-narcotics division and was one of the officers who arrived on the scene after the carnage, read from an administrative report released by the department weeks after the killings.
‘“A lot of the exemplary action of the police officers is overshadowed by accusations that police officers conspired to kill the demonstrators,’” he said, concluding his presentation. ‘“I am here to say, ‘Enough is enough.’ When you separate fact from rhetoric, you will find not one ounce of evidence to support that position.’”
Percy Wall, a court-appointed lawyer who successfully defended Klansman David Matthews, gave perhaps the harshest testimony directed at the anti-Klan activists. Wall called both the communists and their white power adversaries ‘fools,’ and commented: ‘“My fool won the case and the other fool lost.’”
‘“Some people want to rewrite history,’” he said. ‘“They must create distrust and unrest, for only in that climate can they operate effectively. That must be stopped. Greensboro has come a long way. We have a long way to go. We can go all the way if the fools of 1979 will let us.’”
Floris Weston, who had been married to Cesar Cauce for six months, acknowledged the communists made errors of judgment. She was frightened by an earlier confrontation with the Klan in China Grove in which violence had been narrowly averted, she said, adding that members of the group privately discussed their concerns with each other but not as a full group. In the days after her husband’s death, she said she felt angry at herself and her friends who had organized the march. But she does not excuse the police for their absence.
‘“I thought we were American and we would be protected; the police are supposed to protect us and maintain order,’” Weston said. ‘“I think we made a huge mistake in how we planned the march. But the bottom line is you’re supposed to be able to have a demonstration and not be killed for it ‘— even if it means protecting us from ourselves.’”
To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at firstname.lastname@example.org.