Sometimes justice has this funny way of disappearing when you need it most.
It can leave the worst taste in your mouth.
Like the funerals of innocents.
The Workers Viewpoint Organization was gaining steam.
The textile mills that dotted the North Carolina cotton belt had run a tight ship for nearly two centuries. In their earliest incarnations, they had utilized slave labor, and the conditions of 1979 were only mild improvements over that situation. Overcrowded, unbearably hot, and with cotton dust everywhere, respiratory diseases were always a problem - well, a problem for the workers. The companies would just send their ailing employee on their merry way, replaced by the next quick industrious pair of hands in line.
But the Workers Viewpoint Organization was gaining steam.
They had formed three unions already, and were actively passing out pamphlets, flyers, petitions, and whatever else information they could disseminate. They had held a few assemblies in a few of the smaller cities - Ashville, Fayeteville, and of course their home town of Greensboro - and they had even gained some minor concessions from some of the larger textile companies, eager to avoid any negative publicity. They had also expanded their mission drive, and were now actively campaigning against the Ku Klux Klan, who had set up recruitment drives in Greensboro.
You can't gain steam without gaining a bit of pressure.
Did the Greensboro Police Department illegally spy on the activities of the WVO? Files released to the public in 2002 suggest that the police chief and several higher ups within the department had ordered surveillance of the "communist element" (this claim was not unfounded - by 1980 the WVO had become the Communist Worker's Party) in Greensboro, led by officer Jerry Cooper. When Cooper received word that the WVO was going to hold a protest in the black community of the town, he called an informant of his, Eddie Dawson, who also happened to be a member of the KKK.
And as we all know, pressure can turn into heat.
On November 3, 1979, the day of the planned protest, Dawson and his cronies called Cooper twice to confirm the details of the event. One officer, April Wise, was called into the area of the protest in response to a domestic dispute. As she approached the target, however, she was given a call to leave the area immediately - an unusual order, but not so unusual that she didn't obey it. A slow cavalcade of cars approached the site of the protest, where roughly twenty-five members of the organization had gathered with signs, pamphlets, and a megaphone.
Given enough pressure and enough heat, it will all explode in the end.
A dozen Klansmen leapt from the cars, guns in hand, and began firing on the protesters. They immediately hit one of the leaders, Paul Bermanzohn in the spine, leaving him paralyzed for life. As his wife dropped down and placed herself over her wounded husband, two more rank-and-file members, William Sampson and Michael Nathan were shot. Sampson died immediately; Nathan was gravely wounded and died three days later in a local hospital. The Klansmen continued to calmly fire at the group, as many of the members fled for cover. James Waller, president of the local WVO chapter, was shot in the back four times as he ran away from the scene. He died at the scene. Sandra Smith sat terrified behind a building wall, watching as shots whizzed by at her compatriots. Her best friend Sally Bermahzon was still out there. Sandra peeked around the corner to see if she could help Sally. A shot rang out, and Sandra slumped over, shot between the eyes, gone forever. Eight others lay wounded. By now, both the sheer futility and horror of the scene had sunk in to the group - and Cesar Cauce had had enough. He grabbed one of the picket signs the group had made and charged the shooters, ready to take them on. He never got within 100 feet of them, taken down by a hail of gunfire. And with that, the men jumped back in their cars and sped off.
And when it explodes, you will feel its fury.
Why are the details of that day so painfully clear and uncluttered? Because there were four television stations at the scene filming the protest. Four separate videotapes of evidence of the carnage. Undeniable evidence that the WVO was ambushed and gunned down by a group of hostile and well-armed criminals. The Greensboro police were practically dragged into an investigation of the event due to the national outrage over the heinousness of the videos. By early 1980, twelve Klansmen had been arrested and were put on trial for murder and assault with a deadly weapon.
After the explosion, you try your best to pick up the pieces.
Before the case, the prosecutor said on live television, "Most of the people in Greensboro think the communists got what they deserved." The jury selection process was exasperating: all white and led by a noted member of the Ku Klux Klan. It took the jury two hours to bring back their verdict - not guilty by reason of self-defense. It seems one of the organization members had had a .38 in his pocket, unfired. This was enough to convince the deliberators of the truth, visual evidence notwithstanding. In 1985, a civil court awarded the victims of the attack $385,000. Part of the restitution was to be paid by the Greensboro Police Department, for their "pernicious and questionable actions" the day of the massacre. This money was used to form the Greensboro Justice Fund, a legal fund for other victims of violence due to labor disputes and beliefs.
Sometimes the pieces just aren't there.