In a neat, white, frame house with blooming hydrangeas out front, the Communist Workers Party is showing a videotape.
Several dozen members of the CWP are shown gathering on the morning of Nov. 3, 1979, in a dusty, forlorn black housing project on the east side of Greensboro to hold a "Death to the Klan" rally. A CWP leader, Nelson Johnson, explains to a television reporter that "the klan is just a tiny bunch of cowards that can be smashed."
A caravan of nine cars drives up, with members of the Ku Klux Klan and Nazi Party. The communists begin chanting "death to the klan" and crowding around the cars. The cars stop. The klansmen get out. They and the communists start to beat each other with sticks and clubs.
Then the videotape begins to become confused and out of focus, but some things can be seen. The klansmen go back to their cars, and pull rifles, shotguns and pistols out of the trunks. They methodically gun down the communists.
One other scene on the tape is particularly clear. It shows the woman who owns the pleasant house, Signe Waller, bent over the dead body of a man with a bushy black beard -- her husband, Jim. His eyes are open. She stares up for a moment, a wild look in her eyes, and then gets up and starts to walk. "Long live the Communist Party," she shouts. "Long live the working class."
In Signe Waller's house, a half-dozen intimate friends of the five communists who were fatally wounded that day sit watching calmly, occasionally pointing out one detail or another. Waller's 12-year-old son watches, too, though someone kids him about having seen the tape too often.
The first-degree murder trial of six of the klansmen and Nazis began with four days of preliminary jury selection in Greensboro last week. It will last for several months, and will be followed by trials of five more klansmen for murder and of three klansmen and six communists for felonious rioting.
The communists who died that day were, like those who survive, strong, intelligent, loving people. Two of the five were doctors. One was a medical school dropout. Another was an honors graduate of Duke University, and another student leader at Bennett College here. All had given up promising careers to dedicate themselves to bringing about a violent revolution in America. Their main day-to-day activity was organizing textile mill workers here.
The men who killed them are mostly high school dropouts. Most have wives and children. They have held various manual labor jobs, but most are textile mill workers.
The members of each group think they represent the true beliefs of a majority of working class Americans. Each sees the other not as an isolated group of extremists, but as the shock troops of a well-organized conspiracy. Their separate passions and obsessions seem to have driven them inexorably together, first to occupy the center of each other's hatred and then to shed blood.
Greensboro is a pleasant, relaxed city of 160,000, the battleground for the two groups but not the wellspring of their political activities. Just a block from the courthouse where the klan murder trial is going on is the Woolworth's lunch counter where four black students started the sit-in movement in 1960; today, blacks and whites eat there together as if they had been doing so forever.
"We're still asking the question, why us?" Greensboro Major Jim Melvin says. "We've analyzed it so much we're kinda dizzy from thinking about it. Thanks to the media, I guess a lot of people feel we're the national headquarters of the klan and Nazis. We're certainly not. This is a good, clean, strong city."
Most of the communists who were killed lived here, but were born and reared elsewhere. They moved to North Carolina mainly to study and teach at universities, joined the anti-Vietnam war community and gradually turned to revolutionary Marxism and then focused on the area's dominant industry, textiles.
Signe Waller grew up in Brooklyn, the daughter of what she calls "a petty bourgeois small proprietor." She graduated from Brooklyn College and then got a PhD, in philosophy from Columbia. By the time she moved to Greensboro in 1971 to teach at Bennett College, she was already deeply involved in the antiwar movement.
She helped found the Greensboro Peace Center. She petitioned her congressman. She marched in antiwar rallies. Friends in the movement introduced her to Jim Waller, a doctor from Chicago who was teaching at Duke Medical School. Like her, he was from a middle-class background (his father is a shopkeeper) and like her he had just gone through a divorce.
When the Wallers married, Jim was the more radical. "He did his internship at Lincoln Hospital in New York," says his widow. "It was like a part of the Third World. He was beginning to see that the whole system of capitalism was creating injuries faster than he could put on Bandaids." In the meantime, Signe was becoming disillusioned with the antiwar movement, and more interested in the study of Marxism.
In May 1976, the Wallers went to Durham to hear a speech by Jerry Tung, the general secretary of the Workers Viewpoint Organization, a Maoist, anti-Soviet group that in 1979 changed its name to the Communist Workers Party. They and many of their friends joined.
Over the next few years, the people in the WVO circle began to quit their jobs and go to work for Cone Mills with the idea of organizing workers there, in line with their view that a revolution will come from communist organization in the working class.
Like most of the textile companies in North Carolina, Cone was founded after the Civil War. Two brothers from Baltimore, Moses and Ceasar Cone, started the company in 1895; it went public in 1951; now it owns 21 mills, employing 12,500 people, including 3,500 in Greensboro. Only five of the plants are unionized.
In the early days the mills were a mixture of the old South and an industrial society. The workers lived in company-owned houses. Blacks were allowed to work only menial jobs. Most of the workforce was drawn from the poor whites, who came down from the Appalachian Mountains to work in the mills.
In the middle decades of this century, the mills' paternalism and racism faded -- Cone finally sold off its workers' villages in the '50s -- to be replaced by a tough, raw brand of capitalism. "Management doesn't care if they're black or white or yellow any more," says Cesar Cone, the gruff 72-year-old son of the company's founder and a retired chief executive. They're looking for the most productive people at the lowest cost. Hell, business can't afford to discriminate. You don't want to stir up the pot if you don't have to."
Average wages in the North Carolina textile industry today are $4.95 an hour. The communists in Greensboro became convinced that the mill workers, were ripe for socialist revolution and that they had in fact embraced it. The communists don't get along with Cone or with the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, but they believe they have the support of most Cone workers and of what Signe waller calls, "the multinational working class' as well.
There is no evidence this is true. The Communists also believe that under their leadership, the working class is on the verge of rising up in a bloody revolution. "It's an immediate possibility," says Signe Waller. "It's not 50 years. It's the '80s. It's the next two, three years."
Gradually the communists' attention began to turn to the Ku Klux Klan, the secret racist terriorists group that has plagued the South and other parts of the country for more than a century.
The CWP believes that racism and violence are the inevitable results of capaitalism; hence; the klan members are the capitalist class," says Waller. "The bosses could not drive in and shoot our people down. The police couldn't. Who was gonna do this job for the capitalists? Their surrogates, right?"
Last July, about 60 CWP members drove to a rally and showing of the film "Birth of a Nation" that the klan was holding in China Grove southwest of here. The communists chanted "kill the klan."
Then, in October, the CWP announced it weould hold a "Death to the Klan" rally the following month in the poorest, blackest part of greensboro. They challenged the Klan to come. The Klan came. Someone fired a shot -- there's dispute about who -- and the killing began. The Greensboro police didn't arrive until after the massacre was over.
A week later, the CWP, bearing rifles, held a funeral march for their dead. The party headquarters in New York announced a "CWP 5 Enrollment Drive." The party newspaper said those who died "would have loved the idea of being buried in the face of fixed bayonets" and that "their murder has whiped up a political storm that will sweep the country, turning it upside down." It hasn't.
When the klansmen were arrested, they sang "God Bless America." The two Nazis who are on trial say that since Nov. 3 they have given up hatred and embraced Jesus Christ. All of the accused who have talked to the press say they killed the communists in self-defense. They sit in court and watch the proceedings impassively, exchanging a whispered comment or a joke now and then, hard and rough men who look old before their time.
A hundred miles southwest of the courtroom, outside the tiny hamlet of Stanley, Virgil Griffin, the grand dragon of the North Carolina chapter of the Invisible Knights of the Ku Klux Klun, spends his days pumping gas in a faded Amoco station with sprung furniture and profuse flies, and his nights in prison for cross-burning.
Griffin organized the klan caravan to Greensboro on Nov. 3, and all but two of the murder defendants come from the area west of Charlotte where he lives, a klan stronghold for a century.
Griffin is a lean, tanned man with a creased face, a blond pompadour, deep blue eyes, a hawk's nose and several missing teeth. He is 36 years old. He is married and has five children. He dropped out of high school in eleventh grade. His father and mother were textile mill workers and he worked in the J. P. Stevens mill in Stanley until he was fired for absenteeism in the wake of the massacre.
He joined the klan in 1963, and by the mid-70s, he was going to klan meetings every Sunday and wednesday night in secret "klavern halls" around Stanley. He says he is active in the klan because "I have five kids, I'm a taxpayer, and I don't like what's going on in the schools. They're takin' prayer and Bible out and puttin' niggers and sex education in."
Griffin says he loves his country (he tried three times to enlist to fight in the Vietnam war but was rejected because of asthma), likes working in the mills ("If I had of been exploited I wouldn't have been there"), and hates communism. "One morning," he says, "we gonna wake up and be under the bondage of Russia."
In October Griffin saw an article in the Charlotte Observer about the CWP's "Death to the Klan" rally and decided to meet the challenge -- non-violently, he insists. "We went down to Greensboro to fly the American flag and say we believed in America and believed in God," he says. That's all."
Why, then, did they bring dozens of firearms? He shrugs. "People had guns," he says. "Before I went to prison I carried a gun out here. I wore a .38 or a .357 magnum." He smiles wanly.
What can that smile mean? That Griffin's disciples really intend all along to have a gun battle? That they are accustomed to a berserker, violent sort of life in which men always carry guns and shoot to kill whenever provoked? It is impossible to say. Virgil Griffin doesn't say. He walks out into the thick North Carolina sunlight to fill up someone's pickup truck. o