‘A North American death squad’
*Editor’s note: The duration of the Greensboro Massacre was misqoted- it lasted 88 seconds not 18 seconds. The online version of this article has been updated to reflect this change.
Rev. Nelson Johnson reflects on Greensboro Massacre 40 years later
When Klansmen and Nazis opened fire at Greensboro’s Morningside Homes, the first thought of Bennett College student body president Sandi Smith seemed to be getting children to safety. But it would have been her last thought because seconds later, she was shot between the eyes. Smith was one of four members of the Communist Workers Party killed during a 1979 attack now known as the Greensboro Massacre. A fifth anti-racism protestor (who was not a communist) would die in the hospital.
While the Greensboro Massacre was described for years in local media as a “shootout” among Communist Workers Party marchers, a caravan of KKK and American Nazi Party members, the historical consensus is that it was an act of domestic terrorism by white supremacists. One of the key findings of the 2006 Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission Final Report, was that “The [Greensboro Police Department] showed a stunning lack of curiosity in planning for the safety of the event,” and that the massacre probably would not have happened if the GPD had done their job.
While the commission stopped short of accusing the GPD of actively conspiring with the white supremacists, pages three and four of the report’s overall conclusion and recommendations indicated there was “strong evidence that members of the police department allowed their negative feelings toward Communists in general, and outspoken black activist and Workers’ Viewpoint Organization/CWP leader Nelson Johnson in particular, to color the perception of the threat posed by these groups. At the same time, we find that the GPD also exhibited a clear pattern of underestimating the risks posed by the KKK, which amounted to a careless disregard for the safety of the marchers and the residents of the Morningside neighborhood where the rally took place.”
In the conclusion of the report, commissioners also found that “both the GPD and key city managers deliberately misled the public” in order “to shift the responsibility away from the police department.” The report called this “an unfortunate pattern of official City response” that “appeared more concerned with protecting the city’s image and clamping down on citizen protest . . . than with meeting the needs of its most vulnerable citizens and helping the community process the event and heal.”
Unsurprisingly to both his admirers and detractors, Rev. Nelson Johnson has an even stronger view of the GPD’s culpability. In a recent interview at the Beloved Community Center, Johnson told YES! Weekly that the men who killed three of his friends and the young woman he considered family belonged to “a North American death squad facilitated by the Greensboro police.”
The following description of the massacre is derived from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro digital collections online article “The Greensboro Massacre” by Rebecca Boger, Cat McDowell and David Gwynn, and “Sequence of events on November 3, 1979,” in chapter seven of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission Final Report.
In October 1979, the Communist Workers Party, which had been attempting to organize workers in Greensboro’s textile mills, announced a march to the Greensboro city hall from Morningside Homes, a low-income black community where many mill workers lived. In his application for a parade permit, CWP member and longtime Greensboro activist Johnson described the assembly point and route of the rally, which was given the title “Death to the Klan.”
The KKK had already been planning revenge for an earlier confrontation with the CWP in China Grove, where nobody was injured, but anti-Klan demonstrators burned the Confederate flag. The white supremacists were made aware of the planned Greensboro march from GPD informant Eddie Dawson, a longtime KKK member who, on the morning of the massacre, drove the pickup truck that led the KKK and Nazi caravan.
Dawson alerted the GPD that the Klan was planning violence at the upcoming march. The GPD did not pass on this warning to the marchers. Some in the department considered Johnson “dangerous,” due to Johnson’s involvement in the 1969 Dudley High/A&T State University protest that led to the Siege of A&T.
Two days before the massacre, Dawson obtained a copy of the parade permit from the GPD and shared it with Klan and American Nazi Party members, alerting the white supremacists to where the rally would begin.
On the morning of Nov. 3, 1979, GPD Sergeant W. D. Comer warned officers of a potential confrontation between Klansmen and CWP members. That same morning, Detective Jerry Cooper received a call from Eddie Dawson informing him that Klansmen and Nazis were assembling at a Klansman’s home on Randleman Road. Cooper and police photographer J. T. Matthews were sent to photograph the caravan. They followed it toward Morningside Homes, and rather than attempting to halt the caravan, they pulled back and parked some blocks away. No GPD patrol cars were dispatched to the scene.
At 11:20, Cooper radioed GPD command that “nine or ten cars” of Nazis and Klansmen appeared to have arrived “at the parade formation point” and, even from that distance, could be heard “driving through and heckling.” Again, no patrol cars were dispatched to the scene.
The white supremacists and marchers heckled each other, and some marchers beat on a caravan car with picket signs. The first shots were fired from the lead car in the caravan. Some Klansmen and Nazis exited their cars and began fighting marchers, while others ran to the ninth car in their caravan and grabbed rifles from its trunk.
As Nazis and Klansmen fired on demonstrators, Smith and Claire Butler rushed a group of children to hide on the porch of the Morningside Homes community center. When Smith looked out to check for other children, she was shot and killed. CWP members Jim Waller and Cesar Cauce engaged in a physical fight with several Klansmen and Nazis. When fired on, Waller ran for cover but was fatally shot in the back. Cesar Cauce was struck from behind with a club, then killed by a bullet through the back of his neck.
Other marchers took cover behind adjacent cars and a news van. Bill Sampson returned KKK fire with a pistol but was shot in the heart. Standing in the intersection, pediatrician Michael Nathan was shot twice in the head. When CWP member Jim Wrenn ran to pull Nathan to safety, Wrenn was shot nine times.
The encounter lasted 88 seconds and ended with Smith, Waller, Cauce and Sampson dead at the scene. The critically wounded Michael Nathan and Jim Wrenn were taken to the hospital, along with CWP member Paul Bermanzohn, who underwent brain surgery that saved his life, but left him with permanent paralysis on his left side. Wrenn also had brain surgery and was put on life support, but survived. Nathan died two days later.
Nine other protestors and one Klansman were also injured. Among the wounded was Nelson Johnson. In a 2017 FOX 8 report in the wake of Charlottesville, Johnson displayed the scar on his arm from the knife blade that passed through it.
On Nov. 4, warrants were issued for Klansmen and Nazis identified in eyewitness testimony and news footage. 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’s Codename Greenkill: The 1979 Greensboro Killings, 94 African-Americans were in the jury pool. Seventy-eight were dismissed for cause. The defense then ruled out the remaining sixteen, creating an all-white jury that included a virulently anti-communist Cuban exile. All the defendants were acquitted on the grounds of self-defense.
“The trial ended up being not about what actually happened,” said Johnson in last week’s interview, “but about the alleged evils of communism. The Cambodian genocide was fresh in the news, and the DA allowed the defense to present us as the moral equivalent of Pol Pot. Our refusal to take part in this farce was why we were accused of blowing the trial. But we had nothing to offer that the police didn’t know, and the only reason we would have been put on the stand was so that the defense could badger us over the question of communism. This was admitted by the Klan’s lawyers who took part in the Truth and Reconciliation process, where they stated they would have ‘ate us up’ if we’d taken the stand.”
The killers were also acquitted in a 1984 Federal criminal civil rights trial, in which the defense successfully argued that the Klansmen and Nazis did not attack the marchers out of racial hatred, but out of anti-communist fervor.
In a successful 1985 civil suit, a Christie Institute legal team led by Lewis Pitts and Daniel Sheehan of Greensboro, Durham attorney Carolyn McAllaster and Flint Taylor of the People’s Law Office of Chicago won the only liability to result from the massacre. Two Klansmen, three Nazis, two Greensboro police officers, and a police informant were found liable for the wrongful death of non-CWP demonstrator Dr. Michael Nathan, and for injuries to survivors Paul Bermanzohn and Tom Clark.
“About 15 years after that trial, a man came by this office and told me that he was the only black person on that jury,” Johnson said. “He said that the white members of the jury did not want to find anybody liable, but that he insisted the evidence is overwhelming and said he wasn’t leaving until somebody was found guilty. He said he felt a lot more should have happened, but that was the compromise that they reached.”
Johnson said before the massacre, he would have never believed that the KKK would dare come into a black neighborhood and shoot people in broad daylight– not in the 1970s, and not in the presence of the police.
“But of course, the police weren’t there,” he continued. “They knew in advance that the Klan was coming, knew that they were armed, saw the weapons in their car, drove behind this caravan of Klansmen and Nazis who had a trunk full of concealed weapons, and didn’t stop them, didn’t call for any help, and stepped away from the march and took pictures. It wasn’t a shootout, it was the murder of five wonderful people, and it’s now clear to me that the Greensboro Police were up to their necks in it.”
So were, Johnson alleged, the ATF and the FBI. “As early as March 1979, those agencies had taped Klansman Roland Wayne Woods saying he ‘planned to kill some niggers.’ Those were his words.”
Johnson said this was discovered during depositions in the 1985 civil suit. “The police were not the smartest crooks in the world because they put all this in their file, so we were able to depose them, and that’s why we know what we know. When this happened on Nov. 3, we had none of this information.”
I asked Johnson to help put human faces on the five murdered demonstrators and labor organizers, whom he called “some of the best individuals that it has been my pleasure to know and to work with.”
Johnson described his friend Jim Waller, a former Duke professor who co-founded the Carolina Brown Lung Association and left his medical practice to organize textile workers, as a humble and soft-spoken man. “He was a pediatrician who took care of my two daughters, and he worked in the Cone Mills plant at night on second shift and actually went to people’s homes and took care of their children.”
Johnson said he didn’t know Dr. Michael Nathan, chief of pediatrics at Durham’s Lincoln Community Health Center, as well as he knew the others. “He was there as the physician for the march. We had some older people there, and Michael had his little medical kit, and he was there to help them or anyone else who needed it. I think he was there to try to go to someone who was shot when he was in the open and shot flush in the face.”
William Sampson, a Harvard Divinity School graduate and medical student active in civil rights, worked at the Cone Mills White Oak plant. “He had done a heck of a job of building up the union there, becoming the lead organizer at the largest denim producing factory in the world.”
Johnson also praised the dedication of Cesar Cauce, a Cuban immigrant who graduated magna cum laude from Duke, worked in the anti-war movement and was the brother of Ana Mari Cauce, the current president of the University of Washington. “He had organized non-academic workers at Duke and workers at chicken factories. When the shooting began, I saw him just standing there with a stick in his hand, as he’d been about to put a sign on it. The next time I saw him, he was slumped on the ground after being shot through the heart.”
Then there was Sandi Smith.
“Sandi lived with my family while she was at Bennett College, where she became the student government president. My children called her Auntie Sandi, and I called her sister. She was a bold young woman, but a very pleasant one, never afraid to take a stand, and always challenging those around her to do the same. You couldn’t be elected an SGA president at Bennet without being a pretty good person. She died getting my children to safety.”
“All of these were good people, but they were also good organizers.”
Johnson said that’s what he believes got them killed, their dedication to organizing the textile mills, and the workers they were attracting.
“There were two textile mills in Virginia that we were working in. One was in Martinsville, and the other was in Danville, and workers were coming from both of those. Workers were also coming from Haw River halfway between Goldsboro and Durham. People were coming from Durham, some of whom worked at Duke. We had worked with the sanitation workers in Rocky Mount, and many of them were coming. That’s what the GPD wanted to stop.”
“I had been active in Greensboro organizing in the black community for about 13 years before ’79, and we had won some victories, and built good relationships with the NAAC and the ministers who had helped us win those victories. So now we had black and white workers coming from the textile mills and beginning to merge with the historically black community, which had a real grassroots base called the Greensboro Poor People’s Organization. That was linked to the middle-class black community. That was the target; the massacre was meant to arrest that movement.”