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Through Survivors’ Eyes

From the Sixties to the Greensboro Massacre

Sally Avery Bermanzohn

Publication Year: 2003

On the morning of November 3, 1979, a group of black and white demonstrators were preparing to march against the Ku Klux Klan through the streets of Greensboro, North Carolina, when a caravan of Klansmen and Nazis opened fire on them. Eighty-eight seconds later, five demonstrators lay dead and ten others were wounded. Four TV stations recorded their deaths by Klan gunfire. Yet, after two criminal trials, not a single gunman spent a day in prison. Despite this outrage, the survivors won an unprecedented civil-court victory in 1985 when a North Carolina jury held the Greensboro police jointly liable with the KKK for wrongful death. In passionate first-person accounts, Through Survivors' Eyes tells the story of six remarkable people who set out to change the world. The survivors came of age as the "protest generation," joining the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s. They marched for civil rights, against war, for textile and healthcare workers, and for black power and women’s liberation. As the mass mobilizations waned in the mid-1970s, they searched for a way to continue their activism, studied Marxism, and became communists. Nelson Johnson, who grew up on a farm in eastern North Carolina in a family proud of its African American heritage, settled in Greensboro in the 1960s and became a leader of the Black Liberation Movement and a decade later the founder of the Faith Community Church. Willena Cannon, the daughter of black sharecroppers, witnessed a KKK murder as a child and was spurred to a life of activism. Her son, Kwame Cannon, was only ten when he saw the Greensboro killings. Marty Nathan, who grew up the daughter of a Midwestern union organizer and came to the South to attend medical school, lost her husband to the Klan/Nazi gunfire. Paul Bermanzohn, the son of Jewish Holocaust survivors, was permanently injured during the shootings. Sally Bermanzohn, a child of the New York suburbs who came south to join the Civil Rights Movement, watched in horror as her friends were killed and her husband was wounded. Through Survivors' Eyes is the story of people who abandoned conventional lives to become civil rights activists and then revolutionaries. It is about blacks and whites who united against Klan/Nazi terror, and then had to overcome unbearable hardship, and persist in seeking justice. It is also a story of one divided southern community, from the protests of black college students of the late 1960s to the convening this January of a Truth and Community Reconciliation Project (on the South African model) intended to reassess the Massacre.

Published by: Vanderbilt University Press

Table of Contents

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pp. xi

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pp. xiii-xvi

November 3, 1979, 11:23 A.M. ■ At the corner of Carver and Everitt Streets, black and white demonstrators gather to march through Greensboro, North Carolina, a legal demonstration against the Ku Klux Klan. A caravan of Klansmen and Nazis pull up to the protesters and open fire. ...

Part I

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pp. 1

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1. Growing Up [Includes Image Plates]

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pp. 3-46

Willena Cannon and Nelson Johnson were born to African American families in the rural South in the early 1940s. In Europe, the United States waged war against the Nazis and their theory of Aryan supremacy. On this side of the Atlantic, the United States maintained segregation—politically, economically, socially—based on a theory of racial superiority and inferiority. ...

Image Plates: Gallery I: Growing Up and the Sixties

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pp. 47-49

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2. The Sixties

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pp. 50-87

In the mid–twentieth century, the United States portrayed itself as the leader of the free world at the same time it segregated its own citizens. In the 1950s, a grassroots civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. challenged the social order. In 1960, four black Greensboro college students sat down and asked for service at a Woolworth’s lunch counter. ...

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3. Movement Peak

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pp. 88-118

After Martin Luther King’s assassination, the energy of the growing movement continued to take a more radical direction. In 1969, students took over campus buildings in both North and South. Black nationalism, the belief that African Americans had to build their own movement for empowerment, grew from coast to coast, leading to massive demonstrations in support of African liberation struggles. ...

Part II

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pp. 119

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4. The Seventies

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pp. 121-135

Socialism developed in the nineteenth century as a vision that would offer an alternative to capitalist exploitation. Karl Marx laid out one of its most famous versions in the Communist Manifesto, published in 1848. When V. I. Lenin led the Russian Revolution in 1917, the theory of Marxism-Leninism arose, stressing the role of a communist party as central to building socialism. ...

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5. Party Life [Includes Image Plates]

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pp. 136-168

In 1976, the Workers Viewpoint Organization recruited communist collectives from a variety of places around the country, including Greensboro and Durham, with the goal of building a new communist party. For the next three years, the North Carolina branch of the WVO dug into union organizing and community campaigns; at the same time, we built families and raised children. ...

Image Plates: Gallery II: Party Life

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pp. 169-178

Part III

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pp. 179

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6. We Back Down the KKK

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pp. 181-192

The Ku Klux Klan was born just after the South surrendered in the Civil War. Made up of ex-soldiers and Confederate officers, it helped defeat Reconstruction. 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. ...

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7. Countdown of a Death Squad

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pp. 193-207

Death squads are secret, often paramilitary, organizations that carry out extralegal executions and other violent acts against clearly defined individuals or groups. Murder is their primary reason for being. They operate with the overt support, complicity, or acquiescence of government, or at least some parts of it. But death squads are clandestine groups, so that government officials can deny connection to them. ...

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8. The Massacre [Includes Image Plates]

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pp. 208-227

In the rainy predawn darkness, Klansman/police informant Eddie Dawson, Imperial Wizard Virgil Griffin, and two other Klansmen finished driving the route of the anti-Klan march scheduled for that day. ...

Image Plates: Gallery III: Greensboro Massacre, November 3, 1979

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pp. 228-233

Part IV

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pp. 235

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9. Aftermath

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pp. 237-264

On November 3, the Klan and Nazis had fired their guns for eighty-eight seconds.They killed four demonstrators at the corner of Everitt and Carver: Sandi Smith, Bill Sampson, C

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10. Trials

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pp. 265-310

People who commit violent crimes are usually tried in state criminal courts, prosecuted under state statutes. If their victims are not satisfied with the results, they can petition the federal government to examine the crime under the lens of a federal statute, as in the case of constitutional violations of civil rights law. ...

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11. Tribulations

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pp. 311-330

Ronald Reagan became president in 1980, accelerating the U.S. political shift to the right. From 1980 to 1985, the Greensboro massacre survivors not only contended with the three trials but also worked at rebuilding their shattered lives. ...

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12. Healing [Includes Image Plates]

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pp. 331-360

Healing from the massacre was a long journey that stretched through the 1980s and1990s into the millennium. During these decades, the plight of the poor grew worse in the United States, even as the country’s economy boomed. Inequality increased as most of the economic gains went to the small fraction of the nation’s wealthiest people. ...

Images Plates: Gallery IV: Since the Murders

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pp. 361-368

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pp. 369-372

What does it mean for a community when five people are killed at a well publicized, legally planned march and no one is held criminally accountable? More than two decades after November 3, 1979, profound questions remain unanswered: What was the role of the Greensboro Police Department? ...


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pp. 373-379


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pp. 381-397

E-ISBN-13: 9780826591753
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826514387
Print-ISBN-10: 0826514383

Page Count: 400
Publication Year: 2003

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Riots -- North Carolina -- Greensboro -- History -- 20th century.
  • Massacres -- North Carolina -- Greensboro -- History -- 20th century.
  • Ku Klux Klan (1915- ) -- North Carolina -- Greensboro -- History -- 20th century.
  • Civil rights workers -- North Carolina -- Greensboro -- Interviews.
  • Greensboro (N.C.) -- Race relations.
  • Greensboro (N.C.) -- History -- 20th century.
  • Political activists -- North Carolina -- Greensboro -- Interviews.
  • Greensboro (N.C.) -- Biography.
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