Article Thumbnail

Nazis, the KKK and Murder in Broad Daylight: The Greensboro Massacre of 1979

For 40 years, the North Carolina city has tried to forget about the role it — and its corrupt police department — played in a mid-day shootout in a Black neighborhood that took the lives of five people

The people of Greensboro, North Carolina, knew the Communist Workers’ Party was planning a rally in November 1979 called “Death to the Klan.” They had seen the fliers that said the Klansmen “should be physically beaten and chased out of town.” The communist organization had also sent an open letter to the Grand Dragons of the Klan and Nazi party leaders that promised “to physically smash the racist KKK wherever it rears its ugly head,” challenging them to attend the rally. 

The Nazis and the Klan were regional rivals in North Carolina in the 1970s, but they now united under a banner of hate and accepted the invitation to violence. They also had a big advantage: One of the Klansmen, Eddie Dawson, was an informant for the local police. Dawson also helped fuel the tension by posting KKK fliers over the Communist Workers’ Party fliers that warned, “Traitors beware. Even now the cross-hairs are on the back of YOUR necks. It’s time for old-fashioned American Justice.” 

Two days before the “Death to the Klan” march, the Greensboro Police gave a copy of the march permit to the Nazis and Klansmen via Dawson, and on the morning of the march, Dawson called Detective Jerry Cooper and updated the Greensboro cops that the Nazis and Klansmen were gathering at a Klansman’s home and getting ready for the planned violence. 

At around 10:30 a.m., an hour before the march was to begin, members of the Community Workers’ Party, protesters and activists gathered at a predominantly Black, low-income public housing complex called Morningside Homes. The media was already on-site, cameras ready for the spectacle. The demonstrators sang songs and finished their protest signs as their charismatic, young Black civil rights leader Nelson Johnson kept a watchful eye for the arrival of the Klan and the Nazis. 

Cooper was in his car doing the same (for very different reasons, of course). By 11:20 a.m., he spotted the first cars in the Nazi/Klan caravan approach. He picked up his radio and narrated what he witnessed: “Okay, we got nine or ten cars… now at the parade formation point… they are driving through and heckling… they’re scattering.” The anti-Klan protesters waved their signs and shouted at the hate-mongers driving past. In response, the Nazis and Klansmen shouted racial slurs and anti-Communist taunts. News cameras filmed it all. 

The first shots were fired from the lead cars in the caravan. Then the caravan stopped, and six Nazis and Klansmen spilled out of a Ford Fairlane, armed and ready for a shootout. Some protesters grabbed the hands of children and fled, while others ducked behind parked cars. A number of them also fought back via their fists and the wooden handles of their protest signs, but they were overpowered by all the bullets. 

One of the first to be killed was Sandi Smith, a member of the Communist Workers’ Party who’d taken children to safety; she was shot in the head as she looked out of a window to check on the scene. Jim Waller, meanwhile, was cut down by a bullet in the back as he tried to run for his life. Cesar Cauce was knocked to the ground by a blow to the head. Before he could get up, he was fatally shot in the back of the neck. Paul Bermanzohn was shot in his arm and head. 

Some of the Communists who had brought guns fetched them from the trunks of their cars and returned fire. Bill Sampson stood tall as he shot back at the Nazis and Klansmen. He was hit in the heart and collapsed on the street, dead. A pediatrician on the scene in support of the protesters was also shot twice in the head and died. Jim Wrenn saw the doctor gunned down and ran over to help him, only to be shot nine times himself. 

Eighty-eight seconds after the gunfire began, the Greensboro streets fell silent. In all, five people were killed. Police officers, who had been instructed to be somewhere else at the time, spotted a yellow van speeding away from Morningside Homes. They stopped the van and found 12 Klansmen and Nazis inside. There were 10 vehicles total in the murderous caravan, but only the yellow van was apprehended, everyone else was allowed to get away.

A month later, 14 Klansmen and Nazis each faced four counts of first-degree murder, one count of conspiracy and one count of felony riot. Not surprisingly, an all-white jury acquitted them on all charges. The same thing happened with the federal charges against them. They weren’t so lucky in civil court, however, eventually being found financially responsible for damages (along with the Greensboro police officers named in the lawsuit). The City of Greensboro, named as a defendant, paid the fines and awarded amounts for all the other named defendants, essentially covering the Nazis and Klansmen’s legal debts. 

The Greensboro Massacre as it became to be known has mostly been lost to history because the day after it took place — November 4, 1979 — the Iran Hostage Crisis began, which held a worldwide audience captive for the next 444 days and obscured almost every other event in its wake. Those in power in Greensboro also did everything they could to keep it in the dustbin of history. And many locals simply wanted to move on from the tragedy.

Sadly, that hasn’t changed much today either. Last year, the City of Greensboro did formally recognize its involvement in this ugly chapter of racial violence, with the city council voting 7-2 to pass a resolution approving a formal apology to the survivors and families whose lives were irrevocably changed by the Greensboro Massacre. But Mayor Nancy Vaughan said that while the apology is meant to “recognize the shortcomings of our past,” it’s not meant as commentary on the George Floyd protests or the ongoing protests of systemic racism and police violence in the U.S. She added that it “does not mean that we are criticizing the police department of today.”

Which says everything, without saying much at all.