The Second Greensboro Verdict
By James Reston, Jr.
Vol. 6, No. 3, 1984, pp. 1-3
During the filming of “88 Seconds in Greensboro,” the PBS Frontline treatment of the 1979 Greensboro, North Carolina killings by Ku Klux Klansmen, I was standing behind the lights, chatting casually with one of our willing extras. He was known simply as “Big Man” for obvious reasons, and he towered over me, as he waited to shoot a sequence on the breath machine that we were using to visualize how cotton mills test for brown lung disease. The disease, so widespread in the cotton industry, was the grievance that had attracted the young Communist doctors to the cotton mills of Greensboro, an attraction which eventually led to their death. Big Man’s role in the documentary was simply to blow as hard as he could into a tube, while a gauge measured his lung power. The sequence is what is known affectionately in the television business as “wallpaper,” for narration on the cotton mills would eventually be laid over it.
As we watched another mill worker huff and blow into the tube under the instructions of Marty Nathan, the widow of Dr. Michael Nathan, who was slain on November 3, 1979, and Dr. Paul Bermanzohn, who had miraculously survived a bullet in the brain, Big Man observed offhandedly how everyone had cleaned up their story in the three years since the shooting. Since his friends were the victims, I was intrigued, and I asked him what he meant. He proceeded, through my insistent prodding, to reveal a startling new detail about the Communist Workers Party (COOP) planning for November 3, for he had been present in the important strategy sessions in the days before the “Death to the Klan” march.
With speed, our filming schedule was restructured for the following morning, and braving a driving rain, we took Big Man to the corner of Everitt and Carver in Greensboro, the site of the televised killings. There, with slow and deliberate precision, he pointed to the apartments in the seedy Morningside Homes project where in the days before the March, the CWP had stashed weapons including rifles and shotguns, presumably in anticipation of a blazing showdown with the Klan.
Because “88 Seconds in Greensboro” was an exploration of the role of Edward Dawson, the police informer who led the Klan to the point of confrontation, rather than a reconstruction of the event itself, the Big Man sequence did not make the final cut of the film. It was, however, there in spirit. The narration had characterized the five dead as “far from innocent victims.”
As the second Greensboro trial drew near and after I received a call from a defense lawyer about the “outtakes” of the film, I worried about the protection of the Big Man segment and sought assurance from WGBH in Boston that no outtakes would be turned over to the trial. It was not so much that the Big Man interview altered the essential facts of the case. It did not. Those essential facts remained: A peaceful demonstration had been underway. Klansmen drove into the neighborhood, led by Dawson. No police were present. After a few sticks rained down on Klan cars, a stick fight broke out. Moments later, the Klansmen strode back to their cars, removed their weapons, and in the most public killings in memory, captured by three local television crews, they mowed down five people. None of this was altered by Big Man’s information. In the brutal eighty-eight seconds, the Communist arsenal had never been retrieved.
Rather, the essential facts of who did what to whom were in jeopardy of being overwhelmed by image. The center of justice had come unstuck. The easiest way to digest this event had become to think of it as a shootout of two equally despicable groups, each equally culpable. The lawyers for the Klansmen, of course, played upon that public perception. My Big Man sequence was sure to be waved like a bloody shirt as “proof” that the Communists were just as blood-thirsty as the Klansmen.
In relating the Big Man story to a few trusted friends in the past year, I have been struck by its ability to shock. It is as if even progressive minded people, perhaps particularly that type, must have a pure image of heroes and villains, before they will rally to the cause of the victimized. But heroes and villains in real life are seldom pure. The victims of Greensboro were “far from innocent,” and perhaps that denies them the status of martyrs that they coveted. But they remain victims of a vicious murder, and to me, the fact that they might have been unsavory makes the principle of their protection all the more important to uphold. When a democracy can let violence occur against its unsavory elements, it is in trouble. Whatever their beliefs or manners, the Communists were murdered in exercise of their constitutional rights as Americans.
Many Northerners hold that federal justice in the South should somehow be different from state justice, hence, the shock of the second acquittal in federal court. This is an outdated notion for the South is no longer like Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1964, where state justice was so unfair and racist that federal court was the only remedy to fix it. The question of this case is not so much the racism of the South, as the art of the courtroom. By perfectly legal, dignified procedures, two all white juries have now considered the Greensboro case, and that is wrong. By the strictures of the court, the federal prosecutor in the second trial was evidentally unable to prove a racial animus on the part of the Klansmen, and that is ridiculous. In the first trial, through a perfectly fair election, the jury chose a foreman who was a former member of an anti-Castro, CIA supported freedom fighting group. Could he completely suppress his anti-Communism in judging a crime against Communists? And after the first verdict, another juror confessed, as was his right, that to him, killing Reds was not the same as killing people.
In some ways, the second Greensboro verdict is irrelevant. In the 1980s, murder should be murder, not the denial of civil rights, and as this second verdict shows, the transfer to federal court of such a brutal crime brings with it a host of new and often restricting rules. It becomes an exercise of trying to shove a square peg into a round hole. The federal prosecution was a fixit job from the start, foisted upon Reagan’s justice department by the outrage of the first acquittal. The Justice Department was never enthusiastic about undertaking the job, not in an administration which has slackened the restrictions on covert surveillance nationally and covert provocation internationally.
The only new aspect of the Second Trial was the presence of Edward Dawson in the dock. To some, Dawson was the symbol of an official conspiracy, but the trial never aired that issue fully because Dawson never took the stand. His relation to the FBI and the Greensboro police department
has not been explored in a court of law. The extent to which he felt he was operating under official orders that day goes to the question of official complicity in the event. But that question must await yet another forum.
The forces behind the victims claimed after the second verdict that the formulation of the federal charges were too narrow. To blame failure on a technicality of legal regulations after a four-month trial and a four-year trauma for a city seems to get everyone off the hook…except the city of Greensboro. For as justice continues to be denied for whatever reason, new forums are found, and the case goes on and on. For after the second acquittal, many asked again in astonishment, how can it be that such a public, televised crime can happen in America, and no one be punished for it?
Now, the focus shifts to the third arena: the $49 million civil case of the victims against the city of Greensboro and the federal government. It is regrettable that it has taken this long to get around to the question of ultimate responsibility. The Greensboro citizens are sure to plead that they have suffered enough already from this case, but the fact is that the city’s role in the affair has been skirted through the first two major rounds.
For all the sophisticated evidence like the FBI acoustical tests on the video tape to determine the location of each of the thirty-nine shots fired in the eighty-eight seconds, there are several simple questions which finally will have to be addressed:
Would the Klan ever have found the gathering at Everitt and Carver Streets that morning, if they had not been led there by the agent of the city of Greensboro, Edward Dawson? All but Dawson in the Klan caravan were from towns far away from Greensboro.
In our documentary, “88 Seconds in Greensboro,” Dawson freely admits to a leadership role at every important moment on that fateful morning. To what extent, did he have guidance from his police contact? If there was no guidance, does this amount to official negligence? Or what does it say generally about the entire system of police undercover agents in America?
Why did Dawson, the agent of the city, hurl out the first provocative taunt at the curbside demonstrators from his lead truck, an act that began the chain of events?
Would the massacre ever have happened, if the police had been there in force at what was clearly a volatile and dangerous situation?
One can hope that the questions of ultimate responsibility for this troubling case will finally be laid to rest by the civil proceedings. But from hard experience–through the Joan Little case, through Nixon and Watergate and even the Jonestown disaster, all of which I have written about–I cease to expect from a court of law any clean consideration of moral or social or philosophical problems. We know that on November 3, 1979 in Greensboro a dastardly crime was committed. But if there was a conspiracy, it was more than a criminal conspiracy. The Greensboro disaster was the product of historical as well as criminal malfeasance. Secret societies within our government, we have learned, can be just as dangerous as secret societies without. Official omissions at the very least joined with racist commissions.
The Greensboro tragedy has a lot to do with the American South in the late 1970s, but it also has much to do with America itself in the mid-1980s.
James Reston, Jr. lives in Hume, Virginia. His film “88 Seconds in Greensboro” appeared in the Public Broadcasting System’s “Frontline” series. He is the author of Sherman’s March and Vietnam, forthcoming from MacMillan.