Four myths of the Greensboro Massacre
When a tragedy polarizes a community, counterfactual claims become part of the narrative. Here are four persistent but false beliefs about the deadly attack by members of the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi party on a rally held by the Communist Workers Party on Nov. 3, 1979. The final report of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Committee, which Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson supports and has been urging her fellow council members to read (who has and who has not will be the subject of a future article), debunks all of these.
Myth: When the violence began, activist and rally organizer Nelson Johnson hid under a news van.
Johnson saw Klansman Mark Sherer fire the shots that began the violent encounter. Sherer, riding in the pickup truck that was fourth in the nine-vehicle caravan led by former KKK Grand Wizard turned GPD informant Eddie Dawson, yelled “shoot the [n-word]” and began firing a .44 black powder pistol. The first two bullets were, according to Sherer, “warning shots,” then he fired into the ground and a parked car.
Several marchers and white supremacists had already begun fighting, using sticks the Communists Workers Party had brought to make protest signs. Both sides quickly seized a pile of these stored in the bed of a parked pickup truck as weapons.
Johnson was charged by a man wielding, not a stick, but a large knife, and wearing clothing that suggested the attacker as a member of the American Nazi Party. In the quote below, Johnson called the weapon a butcher knife, but a large and blood-stained hunting knife was found in the only vehicle stopped by the police when they arrived after the rest of the Klan/Nazi caravan had already departed. A CWP member named Lacy Russel threw Johnson a stick.
“The throwing of that stick by Lacy saved my life,” Johnson is quoted as saying on page 180 of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission Final Report. “The man with the long knife attempted to stab me in an uppercut motion, he dropped low and came at me. I threw my arm out and blocked the butcher knife, and the knife came through my arm.”
Soon after the police arrived at the scene, Johnson was arrested, with more force than was used on any of the shooters in the one Klan/ Nazi vehicle that didn’t get away. The charge was inciting a riot, and GPD attorney Maurice Cawn would later testify that Johnson had told the crowd, “go get your guns and let’s kill some cops.”
However, as noted in the GTRC Final Report, Johnson angrily accused the GPD and Melvin of a “set-up,” but did not call for violence against the police. He was thrown to the ground and arrested, and in photos of Major P. J. Colvard standing over Johnson with his foot on his neck, blood can be seen running down his arm. (The scar on Johnson’s arm can be seen in the photo that accompanies this article.)
Myth: The marchers were “outside agitators.”
Johnson was also the reason the Greensboro police were most suspicious of it. The final report of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission alleged that these suspicions caused the GPD to fail in its duty to protect the marchers.
“The GTRC finds strong evidence that there were those in the GPD who had strong negative feelings toward Communists in general, and Nelson Johnson in particular,” stated the report, which attributed “the GPD’s demonization of Johnson” to “his abrasive outspokenness on unpopular causes of black advocacy in the late 1960s.”
Born in Airlie, North Carolina, in 1943, Johnson enrolled at A&T in 1965 after a stint in the Air Force and has lived in Greensboro ever since. At the time of the massacre, he’d been here for 14 years. The five activists murdered by white supremacist bullets or buckshot had varied backgrounds. Several were graduates of Duke, who then became labor organizers in Greensboro textile mills, and most had lived in Guilford County for years.
Sandra Neely Smith was the only African-American killed in the massacre. Smith was Bennett College student body president 1972-73, became a nurse, and also worked to organize Greensboro textile workers. Joyce Johnson, Nelson’s wife, was the matron of honor at her wedding.
James Waller was a former Duke professor and co-founder of the Carolina Brown Lung Association, who gave up his medical practice to organize Triad textile workers. His widow, Signe Waller, was an assistant professor of philosophy at Bennett College from 1971 to 1975 and worked at Cone Hospital after that.
Dr. Michael Nathan, the only massacre victim who was not a member of the Communist Workers Party, earned his medical degree from Duke in 1972, then became chief of pediatrics at Lincoln Community health center in Durham. Cesar Cauce was a Cuban émigré who graduated magna cum laude from Duke and became a union organizer in Triad textile mills. William Sampson was Harvard Divinity School grad who became a labor organizer at the Cone Mills White Oak plant in Greensboro.
None of these people were any more “outsiders” than someone who lives in the Triangle and commutes to the Triad for school, work, or recreation.
Myth: The GPD was not present when the Klan/Nazi caravan attacked because the CWP gave false information about the location.
The Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Final Report call this claim “simply untrue.” The CWP’s original posters incorrectly announced the march would begin at Windsor Center. When Johnson applied for a parade permit, his application stated that the origin point would be Morningside Homes at the intersection of Everett and Carver Streets. As reported in YES! Weekly’s Oct. 30 article on the 40th anniversary of the massacre, the GPD then gave a copy of this permit to their informant Eddie Dawson, who, in turn, gave it to the Klansmen and Nazis already gathered in Greensboro and planning to attack the march.
“Indeed, internal police records show that the discrepancy was repeatedly discussed in several police planning meetings and that it was repeatedly emphasized that the starting point was to be at Everett and Carver” and that “the GPD’s own records demonstrate that the police were well aware of the situation.”
Myth: It was a “shootout” rather than a “massacre.”
This may be a matter of semantics, in that there is no single agreed-upon definition of “massacre.” The word is generally understood to mean an attack by a larger, more brutal, or simply better-armed party against one less able to defend itself. It does not necessarily indicate that the victims bear no responsibility, were unarmed, or were wiped out.
The Boston Massacre of 1770, the most famous use of the term in American history, began when a mob of angry colonists surrounded a single British sentry, whom they cursed at, shoved, pelted with snowballs, and then with rocks. More British soldiers arrived, and the situation escalated, ending with five colonists killed.
According to the report, the Klan and Nazi arsenal included two 22-caliber rifles, three 12-gauge pump shotguns, a 12-gauge single-action shotgun, an AR 180 semi-automatic rifle, two .25-caliber semi-automatic handgun, a .357-caliber Magnum handgun, a .44-caliber handgun, and a 32-caliber handgun.
The CWP members were armed with a 12-gauge pump shotgun (which was taken away from Tom Clark by a KKK member in the initial scuffle), two two-shot Derringers, and a .357-caliber Magnum handgun.
“We find that the CWP did not fire until the Klan already had fired a minimum of two shots and perhaps as many as five shots first,” the GTRC Final Report concluded. “The FBI evidence indicated that 18 shots were fired from locations occupied by the CWP and demonstrators and 21 were fired from locations occupied by the Nazi-Klan. However, we find the multiple revisions by the FBI of its own testimony make it unreliable evidence.”
Five marchers were killed, but no Klansmen or Nazis were. Eleven marchers were wounded; these included Paul Bermanzohn and Jim Wrenn, both of whom required brain surgery, with Bermanzohn suffering permanent paralysis of his left hand. Harold Flowers was the only KKK member to be wounded, with non-critical injuries in the arm and left leg. It was never determined if this was from CWP or “friendly fire.”
This list is by no means comprehensive but is representative of the misinformation that began with the 1979 GPD Internal Affairs investigation. The most crucial failure of transparency and accountability, stated page 302 of the overall conclusions and recommendations of the GTRC final report, was the GPD’s refusal to acknowledge the role of its employee Eddie Dawson.
“Informants are by definition party to criminal activity, but we find that the decision to pay an informant and fail to intervene when he takes a leadership role to provoke and orchestrate a criminal act, with the full knowledge of police handlers, is negligent and unconscionably bad policing.”