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November 3, 1979, Five People Murdered At "Death to the Klan" Protest - Today In Crime History

On this day, November 3, in the year 1979, five protesters were shot dead and eleven others wounded by a group of Klansmen and neo-Nazis during a “Death to the Klan” rally in Greensboro, North Carolina.  These tragic murders are often referred to as the “Greensboro massacre”.  The shootings took place in broad daylight, some of which was taped by local television news crews.

In the late 1970s the Workers Viewpoint Organization (which would become the Communist Workers Party) had members who worked in the textile mills of North Carolina. This group and other prolabor groups organized workers and communities to fight racial and workplace injustice.

One of the activities that was chosen to assist in both community organizing and anti-racism was a "Death to the Klan" parade and rally in Greensboro. In planning the rally and march, members posted flyers around Greensboro and sent an open letter to the leaders of the Ku Klux Klan. The letter stated that the Ku Klux Klan’s cowardice would be exposed by their unwillingness to show up at a “Death to the Klan” rally.

The public march was duly permitted by the Greensboro Police. The “Death to the Klan” rally began in the predominantly black housing project called Morningside Homes. During the march, a caravan of cars containing Klansmen and members of the American Nazi Party drove by the housing projects where the anti-Klan activists were congregating. According to white supremacist Frazier Glenn Miller, the first shots were fired from a handgun by an anti-Klan demonstrator.  Several witnesses, however, reported a Klansman fired the first shot. Multiple Klansmen and Nazis fired with shotguns, rifles and pistols, some of which was captured on video tape.  In approximately eighty-eight seconds five protesters were shot and killed. No Klansmen or Nazis were shot or wounded.

One of the most questioned and disputed aspects of the shoot-out was the role of law enforcement.  Law enforcement would normally have been present at such a rally, however, no police officers were actually present in the area when the shootings occurred.  All of the Klansmen and Nazis that had fired guns during the rally escaped detention and arrest that day.  A police detective and a police photographer did follow the Klan and neo-Nazi caravan to the site, but did not attempt to intervene.  Edward Dawson, a Klansmen turned paid law enforcement informant, was in the lead car of the caravan.  Two days prior to the march, one of the Klansmen went to the Greensboro Police Department and obtained a map of the parade route.  Bernard Butkovich, an undercover informant for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives later testified that he was aware that Klansmen and members of the American Nazi Party he had infiltrated would confront the demonstrators.  In testimony, the neo-Nazis claimed the agent actually encouraged them to carry firearms to the anti-Klan demonstration.

Of the estimated forty Klansmen and Nazis allegedly involved in the shooting, only five were charged with the murders by North Carolina prosecutors.  The spring of 1980 brought the beginning of the criminal trial of those defendants, some of whom where seen on video tape recordings shooting at protesters.  On June 16, 1980 jury selection began. Two-thousand Guilford County, North Carolina, residents were summonsed to appear.  Most of the prospective jurors were excused for hardship reasons or because they believed the defendants were guilty.  As jury selection proceeded only ninety-four African Americans were in the pool.  Seventy-eight were dismissed for cause by the presiding Judge because they stated that “they were unable to judge a Klan member objectively.”  The criminal defense attorneys for the accused men ruled out the remaining sixteen African Americans through questioning and legal challenges, creating an all-white jury for the trial.

The state criminal trial began August 4, 1980.  Community activist who had participated in the anti-Klan rally refused to testify, not wanting to participate in the system they believed targeted them, and believing there was enough evidence to convict without their testimony.  Experts in sound analysis who had examined the media footage of shots fired testified, but the evidence did not clearly indicate whether initial shots were fired by Klansmen or protesters. The prosecution team had also planned to call police informant Eddie Dawson as a witness, but after meeting with him they decided it would be in their best interest not to.  Jury deliberations began on November 10, 1980.  On November 17, after a week-long deadlock, the jury returned a not-guilty verdict on all five murder counts, finding that the prosecution had failed to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

The Greensboro community responded to the verdict with outrage and disbelief.  Soon thereafter, many individuals and organizations called for federal prosecutors to investigate the possibility of initiating criminal charges for violations of federal law.  In February 1982, a federal grand jury was convened to investigate and decide if federal charges could be filed regarding the shootings.  Approximately one year later, indictments were filed against nine men.  All nine of the men were charged with conspiracy to violate the civil rights of a person because of their race or religion, and conspiracy to violate the civil rights of a person participating in an integrated activity.  Four men were also charged for a violation of civil rights that resulted in the injury or death of persons.

On January 9, 1984, jury selection began on the federal indictment.  Once again, through the efforts of criminal defense lawyers on behalf of the accused defendants, all blacks were excused from the jury pool, resulting again in an all-white, predominately middle-class and middle-aged jury.  In the federal trial, witnesses were called from the Klan, Nazis, and those connected to the anti-Klan rally.  Once again evidence was produced regarding the sound and video recordings of the media footage of the shooting.  Expert witnesses were called by both the prosecution and criminal defense lawyers, providing contradicting explanations as to which side had initiated the gun fire.  Jury deliberations began on April 13, 1984. Three days later the jury rendered another not-guilty verdict on all charges, finding, through it’s verdict, that federal prosecutors had also failed to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt.

To this day, not one person has ever been held criminally liable for the deaths of those five protesters in Greensboro, North Carolina, on November 3, 1979.

View Media Coverage of the shootings below:


Sources and further information can be found below:

Civil Rights Greensboro: The Greensboro Massacre

Washington Post: Seeking Closure on 'Greensboro Massacre'

The Prism: Chronology of the November 3, 1979 Greensboro Massacre and its Aftermath

Wikipedia: Greensboro Massacre

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