New inside perspectives on 1979 shootings point to police complicity
Recent statements by a Greensboro city councilwoman and former police officer, coupled with those of a former Ku Klux Klan exalted cyclops who worked as a paid informant for the FBI, add support to a widely held belief that police intentionally allowed Klansmen and Nazis to attack a march convened by communist labor activists in the African-American public housing community of Morningside Homes in 1979.
Neither EH Hennis, an 84-year-old retiree who was active in the Klan in the 1960s and ’70s, nor Councilwoman Dianne Bellamy-Small, a Greensboro police officer in 1977 and 1978, were directly involved in the events of Nov. 3, 1979, but each was familiar with the culture and common practices of their respective organizations.
Hennis was friends with Edward Dawson, a fellow Klansmen who reported as an informant to the Greensboro Police Department and led the Klan/Nazi caravan to Morningside Homes. Bellamy-Small joined the force as a young African-American woman in the rookie class of 1977, which she said had the largest number of blacks of any rookie class up to that time.
And while neither person’s statements indicate any active conspiracy between the police and the Klan, they create an impression that the police acted with negligence and were aware of the impending danger but chose to not intervene.
Based on conversations with Dawson, who is no longer alive, Hennis told YES! Weekly in a recent interview that he believes members of the Greensboro Police Department decided to allow the Klan and Nazis to attack demonstrators after march organizer Nelson Johnson warned police to “stay out of our way.”
“The police, I believe, knew right much about it,” Hennis said. “After Nelson smart-mouthed them, they decided to just stay back and referee…. They didn’t have no plan, but they knew about it and couldn’t care less.”
Hennis’ daughter, Brenda Kay Lewis of Elgin, SC, attended Klan rallies with her family while she was growing up in Greensboro. She recalls meeting Dawson on two or three occasions.
“He said the police deliberately stayed away; they deliberately stayed away,” Lewis said. “You’ve got a bunch of policemen that are Klan. It was a very secret identity. When they hollered, ‘Death to the Klan,’ they asked for it. [The police] knew the power the Klan had as far as weapons. A couple of them are involved.”
Lewis was unable to provide any names of police officers who were active in the Klan.
As an African-American woman who served on the police force at a time when the department was dramatically increasing its number of black officers, Bellamy-Small holds a markedly different worldview than those of Hennis and his daughter, who remain proud of their Klan involvement. Yet the three share similar conclusions about the police’s role in the bloodshed of Nov. 3, 1979.
“The police department did not follow their own rules and regulations,” Bellamy-Small said in a recent interview. “I had only been out of the department for a year. I remember I went back and looked at my training manual. The training manual says specific things that you’re supposed to do in a riot situation. Those things were not done.”
The councilwoman, whose district encompasses the site of the shootings, questioned whether tensions between the police and Johnson caused the police to not respond appropriately.
“Our law enforcement may not play politics with citizens,” she said. “They played politics and did not protect the citizens. It was like if you had the most obnoxious person in the world in the neighborhood and his house caught on fire and the fire department just said, ‘Let it burn down.'”
While insisting that the Klan had no intentions of opening fire on the Communist Workers Party members prior to the moment demonstrators started beating on Klan vehicles with sticks, Hennis suggests his fellow Klansmen contemplated violence in some fashion before driving to Morningside Homes.
“It was a botched job,” he said, adding that the Klan would have traded the lives of five slain Communist Workers Party members for that of Johnson, who they considered their primary adversary.
“He rolled under a car or something,” Hennis said. “Eddie told me later, ‘The big fish got away.'” Hennis added: “The only thing they was uneasy about was collateral damage, a child being shot. I was uneasy about that too. But that would have been more Nelson’s fault.”
Hennis said the FBI did not give him any instructions on whether to show up for the confrontation. Anticipating the potential for gunplay he opted to stay away.
In an interview on the front porch of his home on Groometown Road outside of Greensboro and in a subsequent phone conversation, the former exalted cyclops insisted that Dawson was the primary instigator among the Klan and Nazi coalition, but that the white supremacist violence was justified as self defense. Dawson, he said, never received any promises from the rest of the contingent that they would participate in violence.
“It wasn’t going to be nothing except, ‘Just show ’em we’re not cowards,'” Hennis said. “I believe they were going to heckle them at most.
“Eddie did everything he could to get it started by saying, ‘You asked for the Klan, here’s your Klan,’ but he didn’t do any of the shooting,” Hennis continued. “He wouldn’t have cared if a couple policemen or Klansmen got killed. It went like he wanted it to.”
Hennis has also said on numerous occasions that M-14 rifles were available to Klan groups at the time. For whatever reason, the Klan groups that took part in the shootings did not take advantage of the opportunity to buy the military weapons, and instead came to Morningside Homes largely armed with hunting gear.
Hennis, who wears an eye patch, flannel shirt and work pants around his house, said his sole companion is a Walker hound dog named Blizz. At the age of 84, he professes eagerness to talk about his past to anyone who will listen. He speaks with equal relish about winning a gospel singing competition and having his Cadillac – paid for by the FBI – shot up in an internecine Klan squabble in Richmond, Va. Though mostly genial, he shows flashes of anger when he discusses various people with whom he’s feuded.
Such was the case when he abruptly veered into a commentary that appeared to convey an ambiguous threat.
“It would be real easy to smuggle a bomb into a judge’s chambers,” he said in the presence of a reporter. “They’d never know what hit ’em.”
Bombs – real and imagined – are not a new theme for Hennis. Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes, who is one of the targets of Hennis’ ire, recalled how tensions escalated in the 1990s between Hennis and the county over the former exalted cyclops’ refusal to clean up his property. In one incident, Hennis was jailed for defying county orders to remove some trailers from his yard. While in jail, Hennis hinted that contract workers might get hurt if a bomb exploded while they were on the premises.
“He had booby traps set up on the property,” Barnes said. “He told me where they were. They were harmless. He had pipes that he had set up and rigged with empty shotgun shells so that when you open the door it would blow out papier-mache and flour. When it goes off it’s going to startle you.”
On another occasion, Barnes recalled that Hennis “brought what turned out to be a fake bomb into a county commission meeting. Scared the bejeezus out of the county commissioners. He went a little too far that time.”
During the trial that commenced, Hennis’ past as a double agent was exposed when retired FBI agent Dargan Frierson, the man who recruited him as an informant, appeared in court to testify on his behalf.
“I was afraid when that came out that he would be killed,” Lewis said. “My dad paid a heavy price for being in the Klan. He kept a lot of murders from happening. He saved a lot of lives by stopping things that were about to happen. You know when the Klan comes into a black neighborhood they will get very emotional about it. My father kept things under control.”
Lewis said her father’s job was to steer other Klan members away from violent activities. Hennis said he was elevated to exalted cyclops by virtue of providing a building for Klavern No. 7 to meet.
When the klavern assembled, Hennis would give the invocation.
“All present who have not attained citizenship in the Invisible Knights of the Ku Klux Klan will return to the outer den with the knighthawk until they’re sworn in,” he would say. “The kluckster and the klarogo will take their post and faithfully guard the entrance of the klavern.”
Klan activity was a family affair for the Hennises. Lewis said she received an E for “excellence” from a teacher when she wore Klan robes to class for a junior high school show-and-tell program. Hennis said his wife, an employee of Sedgefield Country Club, headed a Klan women’s auxiliary known as the Travelers Club.
“I’ve been to the rallies,” Lewis said. “It was the most beautiful thing. They would set up crosses and burn them. We’re talking about thousands of people. There were security guards around the perimeter. It was like a real little army thing. It wasn’t, ‘Let’s go out and kill black people.’ It was about, ‘Let’s keep our blood pure.'”
After developing informants in the Klan in the 1950s and ’60s Frierson shifted his focus to black power groups. One activist in particular became a source of obsession for the FBI agent. Frierson paid close attention to Nelson Johnson, who would go on to lead the fateful anti-Klan march in 1979. During the period he was under the most intense FBI surveillance, Johnson was a student at NC A&T University and the FBI was concerned that black power activists were attempting to organize a Black Panther chapter in Greensboro.
In oral history interviews conducted in late 1989 and early 1990 for the “Greensboro Voices” oral history project, Frierson expressed antipathy for Johnson, and admiration for Dawson. “Greensboro Voices” is a collaborative effort between the UNCG Library and the Greensboro Public Library that was funded by the Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro.
Frierson expressed some measure of sympathy for the Klan’s political objectives and aversion to the perceived objectives of Johnson and others organizing for black empowerment in the late 1960s. The retired FBI agent, who lives in Greensboro, declined to be interviewed for this story. His son said he has been in poor health lately.
“I certainly must say that I think that we, in the South, and particularly in Greensboro, didn’t want integration but accepted it with less trouble than anywhere else in the country,” Frierson told interviewer Kathy Hoke in 1989.
Frierson described the Klan as a patriotic organization that sought to preserve order. The FBI’s role, he said, was to prevent acts of violence by the Klan, while allowing the group to carry on constitutionally protected First Amendment activities.
“When you question [the Klan’s] loyalty to this country, that’s absurd,” he said. “They never intended anarchy, they never intended overthrowing anything. They just wanted to straighten out and protect what they thought was the rights of white people – who were misguided, of course – but the rights of the people against communist domination of the civil rights movement.”
Frierson’s attitude towards Johnson stood in marked contrast to the personal feelings he expressed about his Klan informants.
“Nelson Johnson prevailed upon a group of black students from A&T to go over to Dudley High School, which is just a few blocks away, and get those kids all stirred up,” Frierson said, referring to the university students support of efforts to have Claude Barnes installed as the student president at Dudley High School in 1969. “So all hell broke loose over at Dudley then and they started breaking out windows and rioting on the campus and it was all led by the group from A&T and Nelson Johnson.”
Johnson, who is now pastor of Faith Community Church, said in a recent interview that Frierson’s account is substantially inaccurate.
“Before we went over to Dudley, students were arrested for picketing to install Claude Barnes as president,” he said. “The police fired tear gas. I wasn’t there. Students from A&T weren’t there…. The students came to A&T and asked for a place [on the agenda of a campus meeting]. They had been in jail. They were wet and had scars. We adjourned the meeting and went over to Dudley. There was no breaking of windows; there was no riot after that.”
In his 1989 interview Frierson also referred to Johnson as a Black Panther, and questioned whether Johnson’s ecumenical calling was genuine. Johnson, in turn, maintains that he has never been a member of the Black Panther Party.
“He used to be a Black Panther and then he became a Communist Workers Party member and now I see in the paper Nelson is now a preacher,” Frierson said. “He plays the field, wherever the money is he’s there, that’s for sure. To see Nelson Johnson calling himself ‘Reverend Nelson Johnson’ after having been the leader of this whole shootout thing back in ’79 is sort of a strange switch for a man who’s a very active Communist Workers Party movement and avowed leader of it.
“When I was on city council and Nelson was a leader of the Communist Workers Party, and they had the big shootout out here in 1979 and killed the communists, Nelson Johnson was on the scene,” Frierson continued. “But one of the cameramen from the TV station told me as soon as the shooting started, the cameraman jumped underneath the van, and he said he could hardly get under the van because Nelson Johnson had already gotten under there before he did and left his children standing out on the street. So that’s Mr. Johnson. That’s what I think of him.”
Frierson said he was distressed about the justice system’s treatment of Dawson, his former informant, in the wake of the deadly shootings.
“I worked Ed Dawson early on and he’s a good friend,” Frierson said. “They turned and indicted him and they talked about him and that burned me up. Ed Dawson was the only man who told the police that the Klan was coming the day they had the big shootout. He kept them advised.”
Frierson said he told Dawson he wanted to testify on his behalf, but the prosecution declined to call him.
“Ed is still a good friend,” Frierson said. “I see him occasionally and he did a grand job. He was totally dependable, responsible, every bit of information he ever furnished to me was accurate and then they turned around and indicted him. That’s appreciation.”
While expressing regret that the police weren’t present to protect the demonstrators, Lewis said the Communist Workers Party bears significant blame because they taunted the Klan. In the Klan daughter’s view, a show of overwhelming force – if not by the police, then by white supremacists – might have prevented the tragedy.
“The communists – I don’t even like to say the word – they were rebel-rousing,” she said. “It should have been every Klan in the state. Maybe then they would have seen what they were up against and backed down. The police were aware of it. They let it go on.”
Most members of the Greensboro Police Department have long resisted the notion that the department bore significant responsibility for the 1979 deaths of the anti-Klan demonstrators.
Capt. Rick Ball testified before the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission in August 2005. Ball, who has since retired, was then a senior command-level officer. As a patrol officer responsible for an area that encompassed Morningside Homes in 1979, he was on the scene shortly after the killings.
“From a police perspective there were a lot of things we could have done better on November third,” Ball told the commission. “It was an exemplary performance on the part of some officers present…. Unfortunately, their actions that day have long been overshadowed by accusations that they and other members of the Greensboro Police Department conspired to commit the murder of five individuals. I am here before you to say, ‘Enough is enough.’ When you separate fact from rhetoric, you will not find one credible ounce of evidence to support any such allegations because it doesn’t exist.”
The commission stopped short of finding that the police conspired among themselves or with the Klan, but a majority of the panelists concluded that “there was intentionality among some in the department to fail to provide adequate information or to take steps to adequately protect the marchers.”
The commission’s final report, published last year, states: “Despite the obvious and important role[s] of the [Klan/Nazi coalition and the communist labor activists], the majority of the commissioners find the single most important element that contributed to the violent outcome of the confrontation was the absence of police.”
After reviewing the comments of Hennis and Councilwoman Bellamy-Small, Mayor Keith Holliday said he had not changed his mind about the role played by the police on Nov. 3, 1979.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt in anyone’s mind that the Greensboro Police Department made numerous mistakes,” he said. “I truly believe if you could go back, they would do things differently, including getting in place by 11 a.m. considering that the shooting took place at 11:23.”
The mayor said he discounts the possibility “that there was an intention on the part of police officers to orchestrate or allow violence to take place…. There were too many moving parts for that to be possible. It would have been easily revealed if any officers were derelict in their duty or dragged their heels. That would have come out really fast.”
Chief Tim Bellamy also said he was unimpressed by the statements of Hennis and Bellamy-Small.
“Those are two persons’ opinions who weren’t present that day,” said Bellamy, who is not related to the councilwoman.
He added: “It was a tragic day for Greensboro. It was a tragic day for those involved, especially those who lost their lives and their family members. As far as the police action, I was not a police employee. I was miles away from Greensboro. If anyone needs to comment, it needs to be the chief of police then, the people who were in command or the people who had information.”
The commission reviewed documents obtained from the FBI through the Freedom Of Information Act, but they were so thoroughly redacted that little information could be gleaned, former Executive Director Jill Williams said recently. The commission was also hampered in exploring the role of federal law enforcement agencies by time constraints.
Williams said she interviewed Hennis for the commission, but his comments were not used in the final report because researchers were unable to corroborate his assertions that police officers were active in the Klan or that the shootings amounted to “a botched job” in which Johnson was a target. Still the totality of information suggests that the police held more responsibility than has been acknowledged by the department or the city, she indicated.
“I think there was intentionality to not have a visible presence at the start of the march, ” Williams said, “and there was knowledge among key commanders that the Klan and Nazis were coming in a unified force, that they were armed and that they at least had the intention of throwing eggs at the demonstrators.”
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