April, 2007 I went to North Carolina on a legal case,
and was reminded of a great period in my life. I’d spent two
years at UNC-Greensboro in the early 1970s getting a Masters of Fine
Arts, a soul-enhancing experience I wouldn’t trade for
anything. As the decade waned, I returned to the tarheel state for
the four years of my first marriage. It was there, in 1982, that I
made another fundamental life decision: to go to law school. This is
how it happened.
dreamed of being an attorney since my first viewing of To Kill a
Mockingbird at 13. That year I’d won a speech contest at
my junior high school reciting a great closing argument from Final
Verdict. But a teaching assistant at UC Berkeley – tall,
gorgeous, sweet, blonde – convinced me to try academia, a
brilliant writing teacher (and several supportive SF professionals)
mesmerized me into thinking I could write fiction, and lawyering
became something I used to want to do. Until I moved back to North
Carolina. Until 1979. Until I attended the “Klan/Nazi”
trial in Greensboro.
North Carolina is socio-economically remarkable. To begin with, it’s
a major textile center; the denim in your jeans may have been dyed
there, beneath a huge smokestack emblazoned with the name of the
city is a mere 550 miles from New York City. Its non-union mills
have always been a beacon for the Big Apple’s old left. In the
late ‘70s the Workers Viewpoint Organization, a.k.a the
Communist Workers’ Party, found it an irresistible target.
Young professionals, they'd moved to Greensboro to try to organize
the non-unionized mill workers, put their names and rhetoric on
broadsheets, and generally play the revolutionary game. Bright
people – doctors, many of them – but narrow and fixed.
Their rhetoric was strident, their style bombastic, their paranoia
intense. William Butler Yeats wrote a poem for such people ...
to one purpose alone
summer and winter seem
to a stone
trouble the living stream.
living stream of Greensboro is also an agricultural hub. Within half
an hour’s drive of the textile mills, farm women still wear
split bonnets and you can still intoxicate yourself on the heavenly
aroma of curing tobacco. As a student, I used to see the indigenous
population driving their pickup trucks around the UNC-Greensboro
campus, bird-dogging girls and picking fights. These were men who
worked in factories, fields, and sawmills. Within them they carried
the bitterness, anger, and capacity for terror that the poor have
always harbored, and feeding on their frustration like some dinosaur
surviving unseen in the wilderness, the Ku Klux Klan was said to
prosper out in the countryside.
two absolutely antithetical groups orbited within the city of
Greensboro. On November 3, 1979, they met.
that day the WVO/CWP held a "Death to the Klan" rally in
the middle of a black housing project. To the crowd of the curious
hanging out at the corner of Everitt and Carver Streets, the WVO must
have seemed as alien as squids ... more funny than anything else.
But while the lefties played guitars and sang old movement songs,
another meeting was underway out in tobacco country. They weren’t
amused. To this gathering people brought not guitars, but guns:
shotguns, pistols, and at least one semiautomatic weapon. They passed
this latter piece around as they prepped for what they later claimed
was to be a mere counter-demonstration. They called themselves Nazis
… and the Ku Klux Klan.
loaded the weapons into the trunk of a blue Fairlane, in which some
rode. Others lounged on lawn chairs set up in the back of a yellow
van. They left in a caravan. They stopped at the overpass leading
into the city from the rural lands where they'd gathered, and then
proceeded to Everitt and Carver.
eventually, to courtroom 3-C of the Guilford County Courthouse.
Where I, at that point jobless, fascinated by court but without a
conscious thought of ever working there, found myself, day after day
watched six of the Klansman stand trial for murder.
was a large, well-lit, modern courtroom. Until November 3, 1980, a
year after Everitt and Carver became a site historic and horrible,
four folding tables sat in its center, boxes stacked below marked
with the code number 79-145368, the surfaces heaped high with
evidence. The evidence was eclectic: photographs, affidavits, video
tapes, a guitar, its strings cut and curling, shotguns, pistols,
two-by-two-inch wooden clubs, an AR-180 semi-automatic rifle, and an
outrageous straw cowboy hat complete with jaunty red feather. On
this day, the anniversary of the massacre and the day on which final
arguments would begin, the boxes of stuff were replaced by a podium,
and a table. On it, guns. On the wall behind the witness stand was
a diagram of the killing ground at Everitt and Carver, showing the
location and relative size of buildings, cars, people. An easel
held a massive aerial photograph of that intersection: a "bandbox,"
in the words of the assistant district attorney. All the death on
11-3-79 was dealt in an area smaller than the average front lawn.
lawyers entered. Cahoon, the defense’s big gun. Jennings,
hook-nosed, very bright. Bald and sour, Gleason, President of the
Greensboro Jaycees; his father sat behind me almost every day,
whispering to his cronies that his son would win the case. Across
from them sat Coman and Lester, the short, pugnacious ADAs. Coman
handled most of the examinations, and on this day gave the closing
argument for the state. The district attorney himself, Mike
Schlosser, had once given me one of his campaign bumper stickers, a
gift for my friend Dave Schlosser. He’d asked me how the trial
looked to a layman. I told him he'd be lucky to get 2nd degree
convictions, even though the defendants were blatantly guilty. He
defendants came in. Jack Fowler, always neatly attired and groomed,
was brought out from the back, cheerful, carrying thick files. Alone
of the 6, he had been denied bail, because after firing that AR-180
on 11-3-79 the huge, red-haired, mustached killer lit out for
Chicago, dyeing and then trimming the long flowing red hair that
shone above his denim as he stood in the middle of Everitt Street and
fired, and fired. Wandering in through the front door, like us
spectators and the few press, came the other five. Coleman Pridmore,
a short, pudgy guy, nattily dressed, his hair slicked back like
Elvis’, leaned back against the rail and tapped his toe on his
chair. Lawrence Morgan was youngish, with the beginning of a paunch,
long black hair, a full black beard, and mean narrow eyes. He lacked
a finger on his right hand. I overheard him sharing a josh with
their lawyer at the expense of "our main man" Roland Wayne
Woods, who had dozed off during court.
bothered me, because in every way except intelligence, he could
have been Gordon R. Dickson’s twin. He was tall,
redheaded, cheerful, constantly joking around with the deputies, even
the black girl at the gate. His hobby was clothes-making; he lacked
several teeth in front along his bottom jaw. He called himself a
Nazi, even though his father-in-law was Jewish and he claimed that
they get along fine. The defense attorney made a big deal about how
Woods rose early every Saturday to watch cartoons with his kids. He
watched cartoons with them on the morning of November 3rd, 1979.
Guilty as hell, and dumb as a bolt, but I rather liked him,
and that bothered me.
Matthews bothered me, too, but it was another sort of bother. The
ex-Marine was a flagrant brute. "I only got three," he was
quoted as saying by several witnesses. He wore a heavy ring on his
right hand, and the back of his hand was adorned with a tattoo of an
Iron Cross. Behind his Clark Kent specs his face was sickly pale, and
his jaw was thick and heavy. His expression went nowhere and did not
change. On the witness stand, when D.A. Coman handed him one of the
2x2 clubs for identification, he held onto it after questioning and
after Coman sat down. Matthews stared down at Coman and held the
club up towards him. “What should I do with this?" he
asked. His expression told what he wanted to do with it. It was different being in the same room as David Matthews; like
Travis McGee described the way the FBIers looked at him after the
slaughter in The Green Ripper, it was like finding yourself in
a cage with one of the big cats, its trainer resting a hand on its
tawny back, saying It's all right, he won't hurt you, and you wonder
first day I attended the trial, Jerry Paul Smith was on the stand.
The wrinkles in his face made him look twice his 33 years, but on
11-3-80, sauntering in, his big shoulders swinging, one got an
unmistakable impression of power and youth. His face sagged in a
jowly, hangdog way around his dark moustache. He won brownie points
on the stand for his country accent, which would stop a brick, by his
guilty flinch when he used the term "haul ass" (the whole
courtroom laughed at his discomfiture), with his difficulties with
long words like "depicted.” He used words like
"scrooched" and terms like "done went". He
claimed that he had been conked on the head during the initial fracas
and could remember nothing of the gunfire. It came out during the
trial that he had displayed morgue photos of the dead Reds at a KKK
rally. The prosecution had tried to introduce that fact to the jury,
but the judge ruled the information irrelevant.
Judge James Long – speaking of whom – was a quiet
presence on the bench. During doper days they called him a "hanging
judge,” used to meting out strong penalties. This trial he
handled calmly; I was impressed.
wasn’t impressed with the jury, though. I had the constant
impression of gum being chewed. This panel was so strongly cracker
that I based my grim evaluation to the D.A. entirely on its makeup.
The only one of its members with a college degree was a Cuban chemist
who (naturally) loathed Communists. One woman had attended a
cross-burning as a child. An alternate – who looked familiar –
was a Greensboro cop. Vacancy rode most of their faces. Once or
twice one nodded as if sleeping, and one guy twitched constantly. I
was told he’d laughed aloud at an anti-Red gibe assayed by a
defense witness. Several jurors had admitted to not knowing what
Nazis were. How could the prosecution have allowed such a collection
to be seated? How could they expect such a crew to convict "good
ol' boys" of murdering unpleasant if not downright repulsive
me in the front row of spectators artists sketched courtroom scenes
for local TV stations. I wondered where Howard Brodie, dean of the
profession, might be. The pews of local press were punctuated here
and there by representatives from Red journals. They all smiled
cynically; all the lefties seemed to think the trial a joke. The
party line was that it was all just for show.
young lady – pretty, smart, arch –explained why. No
local police were on hand during the initial CWP demonstration,
having been just let off “for lunch.” A police informant
had occupied the first car in the Klan caravan. No “higher-ups”
in the KKK had been brought to trial, just six turkeys who were, she
said, nothing but “trigger men.” That very day the Reds
filed suit against the country, state, county and city, etc. etc.
charging that all conspired to deprive the victims of their civil
rights. Another constant spectator was Joe Grady, big-gutted,
rather short, acne-scarred, missing teeth. His belt was emblazoned
with his title, GRAND DRAGON. He wasn’t allowed to pass out
Klan literature, but when I asked for a flyer, let me pick a pamphlet
from his pocket. (Its illo is atop this article.) The pretty Red
reporter sitting with me spotted him squinting into a Worker's
Viewpoint newspaper. "Oh, to have a camera," she
talk, talk ... 20 weeks of talk. I told myself I shouldn't be too
hard on the groggy jurors, because all that talk – FBI experts,
forensic experts, endless testimony about chain-of-evidence –
would weary anyone. But the best evidence, replayed for the
closings, was silent ... the video tapes.
local TV station had covered the anti-Klan rally, and most had film
of the killings. The DA ran it at about 1/20 speed. The 88-second
event unfolded, on the TV monitors, over half an hour. The jurors
chewed gum and stared at the screen. The ADAs hunched forward and
stared at the screen. Jerry Smith leaned on his hand and stared at
the screen. No one made a sound.
happens so slowly. Rhythmic clicks move the people forward, a clock
keeping time in the upper right hand corner. You cannot make out
anything at first; it is just blur. Then you see a pickup truck,
surrounded by a melee, sticks raised high as if jammed up by the
crush of people. There is a man wearing a silly straw hat – the
one on the evidence table – swinging wildly. The group
separates, half falling back to a blue Fairlane parked in the center
of the street, its trunk lid up ... and men gather around it, seizing
shaggy-haired Fow1er points his semi-automatic. Behind him Pridmore
and Matthews wield shotguns. Behind them, by the open door of the
van, Lawrence Morgan stands and stares. On the sidewalk, Roland Woods
aims a shotgun, advancing towards the demonstrators in a strange,
hopping step. Suddenly – or as suddenly as anything can happen
in this bizarre, molasses time – Jerry Paul Smith hurtles,
crouching, from behind a car, a pistol in either hand, runs up the
few feet of sidewalk to extend his arm and from the pistol muzzle at
its end spurts a puff of dirty blue smoke ... again ... again ...
Bermazohn catches the bullet that will paralyze him for life, his
last step on his own legs a slow, almost elegant pirouette to the
ground. A brown-clad figure with a beard lurches out into the
center of the Carver/Everitt lawn: Cesar Cauce. He falls, like the
toppling of a tall, tall tree, so slowly he falls, onto his side,
then rolls onto his face ... and as the camera lingers upon him, he
lies there, and lies there, and lies there.
watched in silence. Smith dropped his eyes. The jurors just stared.
Maybe one or two jaws stopped working their gum.
and folksy, Cahoon began the defense’s closing arguments.
Amidst funny anecdotes and jokes about lawyers and sleepy jurors, he
laid out their basic premise: self-defense. The WVO–slash-CWP
had ambushed the KKK caravan, provoked the fight, and the
defendants were simply fighting for their lives. To show the
despicability of the dead, Cahoon quoted at length from CWP
propaganda, the usual bloated Red nonsense. He claimed that the Reds
had brought “an arsenal" to wage a bloody fight, which
would end in the deaths of innocents (“black children,”
said Cahoon), and provide the Communist cause with martyrs. The Klan
intended a peaceable counter-demonstration, he said, and countered
the prosecution's film of the murders with allegations that the
victims had positioned the TV cameras so they could not pick up
images of the CWP's gunplay. Why did the Klansmen carry guns? They
were country-bred dove-hunters (he actually said that). The
Klansmen, he said, had merely gotten the better of a "contest.”
“Thank God they prevailed,” he said. “Thank God
they won the contest.” Finally, he slapped his hand onto a
Bible and claimed the politeness the killers showed to the
arresting police proved their patriotic nature. The defendants, he
declared, “have shown that they love their country."
was too much for me. I split. Cahoon noticed. The next day he came
up, said hello, and shook my hand.
from every human face;
the seas of pity lie
and frozen in each eye.
Auden, from “A Farewell to W.B. Yeats”. )
just over a week of deliberation, the “dirty dozen,” as I
called the jury, announced their verdict. It was a stormy day. I
wondered if they’d been told to wait for inclement weather, the
better to discourage angry public reaction. The defendants were
Cuban chemist – an active anti-Communist back in Castro country
– was foreman, and claimed that all political considerations
were completely swept aside when they evaluated the evidence and
testimony. A fireman who sat on the panel also claimed that there
had been no bias one way or the other, indeed that the verdict had
been reached through calm and prayer … and then declared that
“no group has the right to thrust their political beliefs on
other people.” No one pointed out to this guy how
antithetical that sentiment was to freedom of speech.
was offended head to foot, of course. The defendants belonged in
prison, and one or two in the gas chamber. No competent human being
with half a brain, I told myself, would have believed the
sanctimonious claptrap spouted by the defense attorneys –
proposals that because the Klansmen claimed to love their country,
and the Communists did not, the killings were not a crime but an act
of social heroism. My rose-colored vision of North Carolina was
forever sullied, and I never felt nor spoke of the tarheel state with
as much affection as before.
the verdict, most of the killers disappeared from public view. Rumor
had it that Jerry Paul Smith had been invited to appear on Donahue.
I have no idea if he did. Roland Wayne Woods, the genial and –
I do admit – likable boob who looked like Gordon Dickson, went
on TV some time later, touting plans to attend Bible college and
"eliminate all the ideologies of hate."
itself was both ambivalent and embarrassed. The District Attorney,
Mike Schlosser, lost his re-election bid to a lawyer who said he
shouldn’t have charged the Klansmen with first degree murder. Saturday Night Live aired a leaden-handed skit mocking the
city for the verdict, prompting protest from the city fathers. When
CWP survivors erected a huge monument with an angry inscription over
the graves of their comrades, the Greensboro city council squawked
about it, but tolerance, no matter how reluctant, prevailed.
for the CWP, every once in awhile one of the survivors would surface
to raise a ruckus at a rally or throw an egg at a politician –
including the liberal independent, John Anderson. As ever, they
seemed out of touch with reality, living an obsolete dream ... but I
remained hippy enough to give the Reds credit that their angry,
pompous posturing had – beneath it all – a benevolent and
admirable purpose. That what they wanted, beyond all the stunted
rhetoric, was the triumph of human value.
know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
write it out in a verse -
MacDonagh and MacBride
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
the names of the Irish dead in Yeats’ poem, could we not
substitute the CWP dreamers: Waller, Cauce, Sampson, Nathan, Sandy
Smith? Could we not afford that much charity?
course, I had to separate the Klansmen from my general view of North
Carolinians. Beth and her friends were just as upset about the
verdict as I was, and I could also take faith from the writing class
I was teaching at Guilford Community College. Of these, I
particularly noted one smart and sassy tarheel named Frances. She
came from the same rural background as Fowler, Mathews and the
others, but wouldn’t have had truck with such thugs and their
racism on the last day of the world. “They are the
aberration,” I wrote in a SFPAzine. “She is the
credited my writing class with inspiring her to go to college. I’m
proud that it had a positive impact on her life. The trial changed
credit my dear mother. When I told her about the trial, she wondered
if it might revive my old ambition to become a lawyer. That annoyed
me at the time … but the time passed.
my anger over the trial mutated. I was – I remain –
convinced that justice had not been done. The Klansmen went to that
rally with murder on their minds – their arsenal proved that.
The violence that erupted that day was in every respect provoked by
them. They were guilty, and escaped the punishment they deserved. I
was outraged. But with the passage of time, I began to see another
point of view. I began to appreciate what it meant to be their
later, I spotted the ADAs who’d tried the case sitting in a
local joint, still hashing over the trial – and why they’d
lost. To me it was obvious: they’d put on a strong case –
their case was complete, professional, and compelling – but
they’d blown it in voir dire. Allowing that jury to be
seated – a jury that laughed along with defense witnesses, that
often dozed, that watched trial proceedings with looks of placid,
bovine boredom – was the prosecution’s pivotal mistake.
a jury is as vital a trial function as introducing evidence. The
defense packed the jury with pinheads who would spin on said heads to
free the KKKers – and won before the first witness was called.
I had thought this cynical chicanery – but now I saw it as strategy. (The country would see it played out years later,
as “the race card” in the O.J. Simpson trial.) The
tactic worked. The prosecution blew it. And that is what
the government prosecutes someone, they can’t blow it.
That’s the American social contract. The power of the state is
balanced by its responsibility to prove its case cleanly and
decisively. The defense lawyer’s responsibilities are but two:
the welfare of his client, and legal process. The defender must put
the defendant’s benefit above everything but that. Even
above his own idea of what is just. The truth of the charges?
Not his to judge. That’s the rule. I learned it
during the Klan/Nazi trial, and I didn’t like it – but
eventually, I got it.
so, while watching the 1982 Super Bowl, and reading a Newsweek article about the quarterbacks, I chanced on a photo of the Bengals’
Kenny Anderson. He was studying a law book. I learned that like me,
he was 34. He didn’t think that was so old. So, I
signed up for the LSAT. In August of that year, I left Greensboro
and began law school.
all I know the CWP and its ilk are still there, hammering their heads
against the mills in the name of revolution. The Klan? I’m
told the trial broke its power in North Carolina, and I hope that’s
so. But God help America, it seems the disease represented by those
pointy hats and white sheets, those flying clubs, those puffs of
dirty smoke will always fester in our wounds.