Through Survivors' Eyes: From the Sixties to the Greensboro Massacre
By Sally Avery Bermanzohn
Vanderbilt University Press (Nashville, 2003)
On November 3, 1979, in Greensboro North Carolina, members of the Ku Klux Klan, joined by several members of the American Nazi party in what the media later called the United Racist Front, gunned down a group of unarmed anti-Klan demonstrators in what the survivors have memorialized as the “Greensboro Massacre.” Five demonstrators – four of whom were white and one black -- died in the incident, while nine others were injured.
The incident began and ended in eighty-eight seconds at the start of a widely publicized and press-attended march, which as captured on videotape. It’s designation as a massacre – as in “massacre of innocents” -- has an air of plausibility to one unfamiliar with the facts. In reality, the demonstration was also a provocation by self-styled “revolutionaries” who had intruded themselves into a region and situation, which they clearly misjudged, and who had declared a war for which they were unprepared. The organizers of the demonstration had billed their event in advance as a “Death to the Klan” rally, but the Klan took them more seriously than they did themselves. The unfortunate consequences were the result. The organizers were all members of a group called the Communist Workers' Party (CWP), a Maoist sect created in the Sixties. Sally Avery Bermanzohn is the wife of the leader of these American Bolsheviks, Paul Bermanzohn -- a medical doctor who was wounded in the fray. Bermanzohn’s is one of several books by the survivors of this self-generated tragedy who have remained faithful to their radical illusions, glossing over their roles as reckless provocateurs and portraying themselves simply as victims and martyrs.
The Greensboro massacre was in fact foreshadowed and prepared by an incident which the Communist Workers Party staged the preceding July when the Klan held a rally in the small town of China Grove, not far from Greensboro. At that rally the Klan showed "Birth of a Nation," D.W. Griffth’s epic glorification of the Klan. Members of the Communist Workers Party burst into showing in the middle of the film. Paul Bermanzohn led the group, which was armed with canes and two-by-fours. It was the Communists’ opening salvo in a revolutionary war modeled, in their imagination, on the Communist-led "liberation" insurgencies in the Third World whose dramas they aspired to enter. The Communist Workers Party members brandished guns and set a Confederate flag on fire, yelling "Death to the Klan," in anticipation of the provocation to come. A gunfight nearly broke out, and the Klansmen loudly vowed revenge. The CWP were tremendously excited by the near-violence, and typically hungered for more, perceiving their ability to foment violence to be a validation of their cause.
The subsequent organization of the fateful November 3 march and the decision to announce the march as a "Death to the Klan" rally in press releases guaranteed there would be more violence, and sealed the fate of the victims. One “open letter” to the Klan read, "The KKK is one of the most treacherous scum elements produced by the dying system of capitalism. We challenge you to attend our rally in Greensboro."
One is hard-pressed to understand how, in issuing this challenge, such well-educated people could have so cavalierly disregarded the proven volatility and gratuitously violent history of the enemy they had baited. In bringing their suicidal march to Greensboro the Communist Workers Party members hoped to make themselves the target of Klan hatred so as to evoke the sympathy of poor blacks and enlist them in their Communist cause. In the end they accomplished only their first objective, miscalculating how explosively the hatred they incited would actually prove. Here their middle class roots ironically took hold. When the police issued an order that they were not to carry guns, these anti-bourgeois revolutionaries obeyed the order like law-abiding citizens and came to their gunfight at the OK Corral unarmed.
The Bermanzohns and their comrades were also in thrall to the New York leadership of the Communist Workers Party, who urged them towards the violence called for by their Maoist doctrines. After the shooting, one member said, "There [had] to be some bloodshed. We want as many comrades and friends alive as possible, but some will be killed." At press conferences and a later funeral march, survivors spoke in ideological platitudes. Observers commented that none of the revolutionaries cried at the funeral of their dead comrades.
The rationalizations of the organizers of the Greensboro confrontation have now been gathered together in one volume by the wife of their leader. In Through Survivors' Eyes: From the Sixties to the Greensboro Massacre, Sally Avery Bermanzohn presents the lives of six survivors, including herself, from the childhood experiences that led them to radical causes to the day of the fatal march and the personal and political aftermath of event.
After a long sojourn in a post-traumatic wilderness of poverty, self-examination and dogged reinvention, Sally Avery Bermanzohn is today – what else? -- an associate professor of politics at Brooklyn College. This book evolved from her doctoral thesis. It is an interesting, informative (albeit in an ideologically blindered way), sometimes rambling blend of transcribed oral narratives told in the voices of the six. Bermanzohn rounds out the narrative with detailed accounts of the two jury trials that failed to convict the killers (one widow was ultimately awarded a cash settlement in a civil trial), and provides her perspective on the historical context of events.
The book is as revealing for what it leaves out as for what it puts in. For example, Bermanzohn's introduction to the section on the KKK identifies the group thusly: "The KKK is best understood not as an organization, but as a terrorist social movement for white supremacy; it uses violence and the threat of violence to achieve its political goals." Fair enough. Now here is the author's introduction to Communism: "Socialism developed in the nineteenth century as a vision that would offer an alternative to capitalist exploitation. Communist parties developed in many countries around the world, including the United States. The Communist Party USA.faced intense repression during the McCarthy era of the 1950s. In 1949, Mao Zedong's Communist Party began to build a socialist society in China."
You will find no mention of a Cold War, nor of Stalin, nor of the Soviet purges, Communist gulags, millions of starvation deaths, Pol Pot genocide, the fifty million casualities of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, or any negative deed by people who also called themselves “communists.” Like the Greensboro survivors, Communists can only be victims – and never victims of their own political agendas. Since Bermanzohn's book concerns people who have been slavishly devoted to Communist ideology their entire lives, the account of the Sixties and Seventies in this book is as distorted as it would be in the pages of Pravda or the Peking Review. Communism is totally detached from the tragedies it engendered in this account. Throughout it is presented as a benign and uplifting liberation movement. When Sally and her husband Paul eventually quit the Communist Workers Party, it wasn't because they had forsaken its lethal dogmas, but because they realized that America would never accept Communism as a vehicle for social justice.
Bermanzohn seems never to have met a radical movement she didn’t like, or a mainstream American institution she does (except for leftwing trade unions). She pours scorn on the American media, the legal system and the government. But she has not a bad word to say about leftwing institutions like the Black Panther Party, about whose gangster activities and multiple murders she has nothing to say.
The oral histories provide intimate glimpses into the minds of six rather unusual people in terms of the general population, yet in many ways remarkably similar to each other because their paths converged around the common cause of Marxism at a formative stage of adulthood (One of the six voices, Kwame Cannon's, stands apart from this template, as he is the son of a survivor).
Sally's own post-massacre lot was harsh. That she struggled back to a life of normalcy and academic achievement is a testimony to her determination and strength (although a leftist dominated academy certainly helped). Her recorded testimony is more nuanced than the others, because she seems to have suffered more ambivalence about the lack of autonomy Communist doctrine imposes on its followers. Alternatively, she may deliberately have opted for psychological revisionism in writing the book to win reader sympathy and/or purge her guilt for having supported the ill-fated adventure. As radical-turned-conservative David Horowitz has so often pointed out in his several deconstructions of the radical mindset, that accountability and candor in dealing with their own failures are insurmountable problems for true believers on the Left. So it can be difficult to say how much of any of these retrospective self-analyses is truth, how much is wishful thinking, and how much has been left unsaid (Again, I must exempt Kwame Cannon from this equivocation: whose every word seems credible to this reader.)
Sally herself was unharmed in the march, but her husband, Paul Bermanzohn, one of the group's most zealous and articulate leaders, was shot in the head and arm. He narrowly survived death, only to endure permanent semi-paralysis and years of tortured adaptation before resuming a normal professional life as a psychiatrist. With Paul virtually helpless, the entire economic and caretaking burden of her family fell to Sally. You will find yourself beguiled by Sally's intelligence and spirit, and her pluck in the face of the appalling adversity Paul's injuries entailed (Paul had never bothered to take out health insurance, a truly irresponsible lapse in judgment. As a result his family was mired in poverty for years).
Like most of the others, Paul's childhood was dominated by a sense of the world's injustice. As the only child of embittered Holocaust survivors, he felt a burning need to redress the suffering that broke his parents ' spirit and ruined their lives. Only extreme radicalism gave him a feeling of usefulness. He is still engaged in fighting “the system,” but these days he is canvassing Park Slope Brooklyn for support against bio-engineered food instead of penning press releases entitled "Death to the Klan" (Paul was the foolhardy writer of the text that sealed the fate of his dead comrades).
Like Paul, African-American CWP leader Nelson Johnson was driven by his childhood memories of victimized family members. Johnson was the great grandchild of slaves; the iniquities imposed on Blacks by Whites was a constant theme in his home. Another survivor, Willena Cannon, also African-American, had witnessed a black man being burnt alive in a barn when she was nine years old. She became an ardent radical and never wavered in her commitment to the CWP. After the shootings, she lost her job. But a good opportunity presented itself elsewhere, and she stayed in Greensboro, living in poverty in order to help the Party. However idealistic she regards her commitments, she wound up sacrificing her son to the Communist Party. Her decision to be a Communist pursuing fantasies of a Bolshevik future effectively ceded her son's adolescence to criminal influences that landed him in jail for many years.
Willena's son Kwame's story is the most moving, because he is the only real victim amongst them. Kwame, like the children of all radicals, did not choose the ideology that governed--and wrecked--his life. But he understood that his mother would always choose the CWP over his needs. He lived by the strictures of the Party, but he wasn't educated about Communism in any real sense: when, as a child, he was asked by his friends what a Communist was, he says he would reply, "Somebody who's fighting for you, fool!" He continues, "But it was one of those points I could not argue. I was not informed about it. I was ashamed of it."
In the post-massacre slough of despondence that all the survivors passed through, each had to find his or her own road to recovery. After years of rigidly doctrinal atheism, Nelson Johnson found God and became a charismatic minister. Willena Cannon also found spirituality when Kwame was imprisoned. Marty Nathan, widow of victim Mike Nathan, took comfort in running the Greensboro Justice Fund that was founded by the civil trial settlement money, and organizing yearly commemorative events around the “massacre.”
One must give credit where credit is due: the Communists are extremely good at mythologizing their own past, and at organizing events that highlight and perpetuate the memory of their own victims. They equally good at forgetting the victims their ideology has created. The annual, commemorations of the Greensboro massacre eventually conquered the original public hostility to the movement, and the survivors are now bathed in a glow of heroism they came by dishonestly. The 25th anniversary commemoration this November will feature a “truth and reconciliation” meeting similar to the ones held in South Africa. Ironically, the true victims of the Ku Klux Klan --the black men lynched for smiling at white girls, or beaten to death for claiming the wrong seat on a bus -- are lost in obscurity, while these mainly white radicals of the Communist Workers Party who manipulated blacks for their own political ends are now assured of their permanent niche in the pantheon of “civil rights” heroes in Greensboro.
The Greensboro shootings were a fairly predictable and entirely avoidable tragedy. This was neither an isolated incident nor a page from the civil rights struggle for black equality. It was rather the climax of a campaign by political cultists, out of touch with reality, seeking glory in the melodramas of political correctness.
The Communist Workers Party was never more than a couple of hundred activists organized in chapters in New York, Los Angeles and Greensboro. Bermanzohn's group was one of several small Maoist groups that grew out of the disintegration of the campus group, Students for a Democratic Society, which itself became a terrorist cult in 1969. Although the various groups quarreled frequently on strategy and doctrinal niceties, they were united in their essential Marxist goal: to foment a workers' revolution inside the “belly of the beast” and bring the Great American Satan down.
Within the American Communist movement, the Greensboro CWP members were known to be extraordinarily dedicated to the cause to the point where they gave up lucrative professions to work in blue-collar jobs, the better to agitate amongst workers and facilitate union drives. All of them were fiercely committed to indoctrinating the working class in their historic mission of creating a dictatorship of the proletariat. Three of those killed were working and organizing in North Carolina textile mills. Near Greensboro and Durham, the ubiquitous mills' concentration of low-paid unskilled workers was a potential recruitment pool for the Communist movement. North Carolina was America's right-to-work heartland, ranking 49th among the states in per capita wages for all production workers, and 50th in the percentage of unionized non-agricultural workers. (The film "Norma Rae" took place in a NC textile mill).
The racial divide was a further attraction, because Marxists believe racism is a by-product of capitalism (in fact the reverse is quite obviously the case). Greensboro's one-third black population was relatively powerless. But racial equity was never the real agenda of Communist militancy; the assault on racism was just one sledgehammer with which to bludgeon the leaders of the status quo.
And the Communists needed that sledgehammer. They were continually frustrated in their organizing efforts because the workers of Greensboro remained stubbornly anti-union. It was out of the need to find a new strategy to advance the revolution that the decision emerged to raise their public profile by confronting the Klan. They picked the Klan as a symbolic target. Unfortunately for them, the symbol had a reality that was dangerous and armed.
The murderous Klansmen and supporting members of the American Nazi party were not more virtuous than the Communists who confronted them, and indeed not virtuous at all. But in Greensboro the Communists provided a symbol that persuaded them that a real war had been declared and that in this war they were the patriots fighting an anti-American threat that was global in scope. The Cold War had come to Greensboro, and Greensboro responded. Thus did two political melodramas converge in one terrible event. The Bolsheviks of the Communist Workers Party never appreciated that ordinary people, including many blacks, might prefer overt racists who were patriots to traitors who were not. The Klansmen were, ironically, the low end workers--machine operators, loggers, mill laborers--that the well-educated Communists were so eager to recruit in their union drives, the very people the Greensboro Bolsheviks were trying to save as capitalism fell into its death throes and the revolution took place.
Did the survivors of the Greensboro massacre actually learn from their humbling fiasco? The tombstone of the "CWP Five" reads: "Live like them. Dare to struggle. Dare to win."