IN TWO MINUTES on Saturday morning, Nov. 3, 1979, a gang of Ku Klux Klanners shot and killed five self-styled Communists of the Workers' Viewpoint Organization and wounded 12 others in a low-income, black neighborhood in Greensboro, N.C.

Within a few hours the shootout had become a major news story around the world: Greensboro was seen as a target for a resurgent Klan, a city with a police force willing to turn its back when armed Klansmen rode into a black neighborhood with intent to kill.

By Sunday night, reporters from the wire services, many major newspapers and all the major networks were in Greensboro. Some stayed briefly, others stayed for a while and then left. Of these who remained, a few seemed to know much about the South and, in particular, Greensboro. They seemed confused because their preconceptions of Greensboro and the shootout were not borne out as they examined the facts.

The drama of the shootout had a prologue. It was a copy of a letter dated Oct. 22, 1980, that began with the salutation: "An open letter to Joe Grady, Gorrell Pierce, and all KKK members and sympathizers," and went on to say, "The KKK is one of the most treacherous scum elements produced by the dying system of capitalism . . . Yes, we challenged you to attend our Nov. 3 rally in Greensboro. We publicly renew that challenge," the letter stated, and ended with, "We take you seriously and we will show you no mercy. DEATH TO THE KLAN, Workers' Viewpoint Organization."

The reverse side, under large letters saying "DEATH TO THE KLAN," supplied this information: An anti-Klan march and conference would be held on Nov. 3; the assembly point for the march would be the parking lot at the Windsor Community Center; the time, 11 a.m.

After circulating their letter, the Workers held a press conference outside the Greensboro Governmental Center to promote their anti-Klan rally.

From the challenge and the press conference, it is clear that the Workers' Viewpoint Organization was not, as many thought, secretly ambushed or assassinated. The Workers knew that those in the Klan, mostly poorly educated, country-boy fanatics, don't like their bravery questioned, especially by the people they consider the chief menace to our nation, "a racially mixed bunch of Commies." And in order to make any confrontation appear racial, the Workers set their parade in a black section of Greensboro.

An assortment of Klansmen and Nazis, mostly from the western part of the state, arose early on Nov. 3, and began arriving at 4:30 at a small house a few miles from Greensboro. Some 30 or 40 men drove off to take up the Workers' challenge. One of the Klansmen had earlier gone to the Greensboro Governmental Center to look at the Workers' parade permit, which stated that the marchers would assemble at the corner of Everitt and Carver Streets in front of the Morningside Homes housing project. Thus the Klan headed for Everitt Street instead of the Windsor Community Center, the assembly point printed on their invitations.

When four television crews and a team from the Greensboro Daily News arrived at the Windsor Community Center, they were told the parade would assemble at the Everitt Street location. There they found the Workers -- some armed -- beginning to form a group of about 100, including spectators and children. But police were not told about the new assembly point. They had been told to stay away by the Workers' leadership. Indeed, the police, unlike the Klan, still thought the parade was to assemble at Windsor Community Center.

At 11:20 the caravan of Klansmen drove without warning down Everitt Street toward the 100 or so still-unassembled marchers. The two groups began yelling obscenities at each other. Some of the marchers laughed and began to pound the Klansmen's cars with fists and sticks. The Klansmen stopped and got out of their cars. Someone (no one is now sure whether it was a Worker or a Klansman) began firing shots in the air. Suddenly it was all a whirling chaos of fists, sticks and shouts.

Klansmen, with calm precision, removed rifles and semiautomatic weapons from car trunks and began shooting, reloading and shooting again. Communists shot back. Quickly the Klansmen returned to their vehicles and drove off. Most of the killers were captured within minutes by the police. Blood-spurting bodies were everywhere. The survivors instantly began shouting Communist slogans and "Where were the pigs?" ignoring the fact that they had asked the police to stay away.

The local television crews and newsmen were so stunned that they could not immediately comprehend what had happened. One cameraman received a load of buckshot in his knee and had a dying man fall into his camera. Jim Waters, at local Channel 2, said he felt as though he were photographing a Vietnam war scene, but he also said, "I think the Klansmen had picked their targets, the white leaders. I think the black woman was caught in a crossfire. I'm not sure, it was so confusing and lasted such a short time." A CBS television crew was dispatched from Atlanta and within one hour had set up in Greensboro.

There it was, the two minutes of chaos and slaughter everyone in the country would see in a few hours on television. When I saw it on the CBS evening news at 6:30, correspondent Bruce Hall reported that Klansmen had shot into a predominantly black crowd at a Communist Workers' rally. Then a segment of film shot by local cameramen was shown: Klansmen shooting into the confused crowd and some people from the crowd apparently shooting back. End of report.

As usual, the network news left unanswered the more instructive questions, among them: Who belonged to each group? How many were on each side? Where did they come from?

Fifteen years ago the Klan had an estimated 80,000 nationally unified members, but today the B'nai B'rith Anti-Defamation League estimates a decimated national membership of 9,000, split into various factions with differing names and political points of views. About 800 of these are estimated to belong to a half-dozen factions in North Carolina.

Six of the 14 suspects in the Nov. 3 shootings told police they were Klansmen, and three said they were Nazis. None of the Klansmen were from Greensboro. The majority were in their late 20s and early 30s; one was an upholstery worker, two were self-employed loggers, one was a sheet-metal worker, others were mill workers.

No one I knew in Greensboro was aware that Communists of any variety were at work in the State until the shootout. And initially everyone thought the Workers were poor, ignorant people, much like the Klansmen, except, racially mixed. Just another gang -- the kind that starts fights in bars.

But they were wrong. They were, mostly northern whites, men and women in their late 20s and 30s, educated in some of the nations leading universities. Only one of the five dead was black: Sandra Smith, 29, a native of North Carolina who came to Greensboro in 1969 to attend Bennett College, a small, excellent black liberal-arts college for women, where she became president of the student government.

The other dead were all white and male. Cesar Cauce, 28, a refugee from Cuba, graduated magna cum laude from Duke in 1975 with a degree in political science and history. William Sampson, 31, from Richmond, attended the Sorbonne, Harvard Divinity School and the University of Virginia Medical School. Michael Nathan, 33, came from Washington and in 1973 graduated from the Duke Medical School. James Waller, 37, was a graduate of the University of Chicago Medical School.

The educational qualifications of the Workers, or of those known to have participated, were impressive. Paul Bermanzohn, a New Yorker who graduated from Duke Medical School in 1974, was severely wounded. James Waller's window, Signe, who some feel is one of the most militant and belligerent of the group, came to Greensboro from Rhode Island about a decade ago with her first husband, an art historian at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Signe Waller has a PhD in philosophy and had taught at Bennett College.

The spokesman for the group is Nelson Johnson, 35, a black native of Halifax County, N.C. In 1969, when he was student vice president at the state's Agricultural and Technical College in Greensboro, he came to the predominantly white University of North Carolina at Greensboro to urge the students to burn down the chancellor's house as a way of forcing a settlement in a workers' strike at the student cafeteria.

The curious little band of about 25 revolutionaries has over the past 10 years been trying to organize textile workers in Cone Mills in Greensboro and elsewhere in the state -- with no success.

Far from being disheartened by the massacre of their members, the local group of Workers responded with a kind of macabre elan. Everything that they had hoped for had come true. They had created a media event, with the eyes and ears of the world focused on them at last after the years of frustration at Cone Mills.

The script was successful; the "Death to the Klan" rally had really worked. Hadn't they, the downtrodden workers, been brutally assassinated by the most despicable organization in America? Wouldn't they now receive worldwide sympathy and acclaim?

The surviving Workers worked at high pitch to set the stage for the next act -- the great media funeral march on Sunday, Nov. 11, which they estimated would bring from 2,000 to 5,000 sympathetic marchers, with loads of fellow party members to arrive from all major cities.

The funeral march was scheduled to to begin at 1 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 11, on the corner of Edward R. Murrow Boulevard and West Market Street. The Workers carefully placed the beginning of the march well inside the black section at a small shopping center, and whites had even been buried. (The body of Sandra Smith, the black woman, would be sent later to South Carolina to be buried.) Why the black setting? It was chosen to inject once again the false issue of race.

Sunday morning it had turned cold and was raining hard with no sign of letting up. Nelson Johnson, early Sunday morning, had called the owner of the Cosmos II restaurant at the small shopping center asking him to serve the Workers brunch and to provide them a warm, dry place to wait. The owner complied cheerfuly, telling Johnson that as a capitalist he didn't mind making a few bucks from Communists.

By 12:30 the corner of Murrow and Market had been transformed into a movie director's dream for a war film setting. Lines of Greensboro police in shining riot gear, armed with rifles, stood at three-foot intervals on both sides of the street. At a nearby gasoline station the National Guard had parked armored personnel carriers and jeeps. Up the street and behind a church were busloads of guardsmen in battle regalia. Overhead two military helicopters chattered in the air. Sawhorses blocked streets and state police cars cut off all traffic into the area. Guardsmen frisked all entering pedestrians.

The walkways of the small shopping center were thronged with photographers, television crews and reporters. Estimates of their numbers ranged from 150 to 400. An ABC cameraman said that well over $1 million worth of television cameras and equipment was being rained on. Wet newsmen walked back and forth trying to find spectators to interview. They were hard to find and were apt to be plainclothes policemen. They finally settled on interviewing one another, or reading the pamphlets on sale, which offered a new explanation of the shootout:

"On November 3, 1979, under the direction and aid of the FBI and the rest of the overt repressive machinery of the capitalistic state, the KKK and Nazis with military precision assassinated five members of the Communist Workers' Party . . ." Readers were welcome to join their party, except those who were "revisionists," or, in other words, Soviet imperialists, the government in China and the Vietnamese "revisionist scum." Followers of Pol Pot (Cambodia's former hangman), though, were especially welcome to join the Workers, although one wonders how many admirers of Pol Pot there are in Greensboro.

At 3 o'clock, two hours late, a group who called themselves "The May Day Singers" climbed onto the truck to sing a ballard over the loudspeaker. Then the Workers' procession began to file out of the Cosmos II restaurant.

The coffins were unloaded from the waiting hearses and set on wheeled contraptions that looked like oversized shopping carts. The last words from the second truck before the procession began to move were: "There will be a Communist Workers' Party press conference after the funeral at Signe Waller's house at 6 p.m."

The final stage business was arranged: The unloaded rifles, examined by National Guardsmen, were returned to the honor guard. These prop rifles were critical to the melodrama. The Workers' wanted to look as militant and powerful and dangerous as possible for the world media photographs -- a strategy of terror and violence on display developed in the 1930s by none other than the Brown Shirts as a recruitment gimmick.

For the most part the marchers wore old army jackets and raincoats left over from the Sixties, and berets seemed popular among the men. Signe Waller in the vanguard looked like a female Ernest Hemingway on safari. All the marchers wore red armbands and carried placards with photographs of their slain comrades. Someone on the sound truck shouted, "Long live the invincible Communist Workers' Party," black banners were raised and they were off. The 300 marchers, of whom two-thirds were black, waded through the press and started up East Market Street between the protective ranks of police and National Guardsmen, pushing the red-draped coffins toward the cemetery and shouting into the television cameras, "The world is watching, avenge the CWP."

Not many people were along the parade route. Even when the marchers passed A&T, Nelson Johnson's alma mater, few students came to watch. At the service at Maplewood Cemetery perhaps 200 more curious onlookers or sympathizers joined to listen to long speeches of propaganda. No prayers for the dead were offered. The Workers had turned them into props in their drama, had cut off sympathy for the dead by not showing sorrow themselves. One of the few spectators during the long wait outside the Cosmos II, an elderly black man, said to another elderly black man, "I'll tell you what this all amounts to: three fleas on a dog, three fleas on a dog."

The Workers' Viewpoint Organization -- a tiny, mostly white group of inhabitants of the area -- is estranged from almost all of life in Greensboro, or anyplace in America. Full of hatred because of their failures, the members reduced their lives to cliches, and five of them died in an event rigged for self-destruction. But because the Workers managed to parade against symbols of popular dread -- fascism and racism -- before the glittering, indiscriminate eye of the television camera, they were watched with the rapt attention normally reserved for presidential campaigns.

Unable to distinguish between an authentic political conflict and one that displays violence to attract a following, the media reduced their role to that of convenient stooges, and in their confusion fell back on the stereotype of the Klan-dominated South to fill up a few minutes on the evening news. The event was not racial or even political, although it did have the fascination of shock and horror. It was, to use an old-fashioned word, evil.

In "Paradise Lost" Milton writes the basic dramatic formula for inciting crowds to evil behavior in his description of Satan exhorting his fallen angels to rise up as one mighty army and overthrow God by force or guile. All the props are there in Milton's description: the banners, the weapons, the music, the shouting, the marching and the rhetoric of lies. We see Hitler in the old film clips following Milton's formula when he addresses jampacked, banner-waving Nazis. We see Stalin in Lenin Square following the same Miltonic formula, just as we saw an attempt at the formula just as we saw an attempt at the formula televised in Greensboro, in a shabby little shopping-center version, where without the massed police and media it would have seemed like an attaction in a small carnival's midway on a cold, wet afternoon.