At a distance, the not-guilty verdict from Greensboro conjured up the Old South at its worst: A white jury acquits Ku Klux Klansmen of killing five people.

But from the jury box, it didn't look that way at all. After a five-month murder trial and seven days of "agonizing" deliberations, the jury of six men and six women concluded that -- whether or not they like the KKK or an acquittal might besmirch their town -- the defendants were innocent of murder and felonious rioting.

Four Klansmen and two Nazis, the jurors decided, acted in self-defense when they gunned down five members of the Communist Workers Party at a CWP-staged "Death to the Klan" rally here on Nov. 3, 1979 in Greensboro's black ghetto.

"Both sides were guilty," said juror Robert Lackey, a diesel mechanic and 22-year Marine Corps veteran who held out to the end for a guilty verdict, then gave in. Lackey was among five jurors who initially felt the men were guilty of at least second-degree murder or voluntary manslaughter, both noncapital offenses. "But," he concluded, 'how can you say one side is guilty when everyone is guilty?"

"This just wasn't a group of 12 right-wing, redneck jurors letting a bunch of murderers go scot-free," said a Greensboro newspaper editor. "It wasn't that simple."

Indeed, the evidence -- from dramatic videotapes of the shootout filmed by TV crews at the scene and testimony from 132 witnesses, including FBI acoustics experts -- clearly showed that both sides were firing "at each other," said Lackey. He felt the defendants acted in self-defense.

However, an editorial in the Greensboro Daily News expressed the skepticism which is widely shared among citizens who were not in the jury box: "We must count ourselves among those who were taken aback by the wholesale acquittal on all charges." The verdict "does not conform to our understanding of what happened," the editorial said.

But Lackey insists: "Those folks who watched [the videotapes] on TV at home didn't see all the evidence I saw, that we all saw. . . I don't like the Communists and I don't like the Nazis or the Klan. They're despicable, all of them. The only thing we based our verdict on was the facts, the evidence."

And the evidence, he said, showed there "were aggressive actions by both sides."

"I feel about the verdict," said jury foreman Octavio Manduley, 46, who fled communist Cuba 20 years ago, worked hard, and supervises a tobacco company laboratory. "I can live with it."

For Lackey, a Vietnam veteran and father of two, there was no doubt the Klan fired the first two shots -- warning shots, the defense contended -- only after their nine-car caravan was attacked by Communist marchers armed with sticks. The Nazis and Klansmen planned to disrupt the rally, not kill anyone, said their lawyers. But they were taunted as they drove through the Morningside Manor housing project, the backdrop the Communists had chosen for the showdown.

"Ku Klux Klan, scum of the land," shouted marchers, setting upon the cars with sticks.

"Out of the way, niggers," the driver yelled back. Engines raced. A fight broke out. A white man got out of the car and fired a pistol into the air. The Communists went for their guns, two pistols in all.

The Klansmen and Nazis reached into trunks packed with awesome fire power -- three pistols, four 12-gauge shotguns, a semiautomatic rifle -- and opened fire. Within 88 seconds, 39 shots were fired in all, and five Communists lay dead or dying. No Klansmen were hurt. All this came out at the trial.

"The CWP struck the cars with sticks first," said Lackey. "Then the first shot was fired, the Communists produced weapons and the Klan [and Nazis started shooting.]They [Communists] went hunting bears with a switch."

The "bears" had been fretting to get even for months, after black and white protestors -- including members of a communist group which evolved into the CWP -- disrupted a July 1979 shindig in China Grove, N.C. Klansmen had gathered to show "The Birth of a Nation," a movie that casts the KKK as saviors of the Reconstruction South. Come out and fight, taunted the protesters. But the Klansmen refused, a tail-tucking humiliation many felt they had to atone for.

"It was a riot waiting to happen," said prosecutor Rick Greeson, who argued that the defendants murdered with premeditation when they loaded their cars with guns and set out for Greensboro. "We had a conflict between two mortal enemies. It was like putting a mongoose and a snake together."

Attorneys on both sides say the jury was influenced by the patriotic image the defense painted of Klansmen and Nazis fighting Communists in the streets. In court, the defendants were polite, wore neckties and a demeanor that contrasted sharply with the strident CWP members in the spectator seats who disrupted the trial and refused to provide any testimony that might have altered the verdict, say prosecutors.

"What can you say to a jury when they [CWP] won't even come into court and identify their dead friends' bodies?" said prosecutor Jim Coman.

"The CWP really missed the boat," said juror Robert Williams, a fire prevention specialist. "They should have testified. They would have helped us understand . . . it would have made it much easier for me to say, 'They are innocent,' or 'They are guilty.'"

Only CWP demonstrators could have rebutted defense claims that James Waller, a victim, forced the right-wing extremists to go for their guns when he stuck a gun to the throat of a Klansman during a vicious stick fight. Seconds later, the defendants began blasting away after shotgun-wielding demonstrators rushed them, they testified.

A pickup truck hid that alleged drama from the TV cameras. Only CWP members in the fray could have enlightened the jury, but they refused. What the jury did hear, however, was a city employe's testimony that days before the showdown Waller had confided that the CWP needed a martyr to spur a sagging recruitment drive and planned to change its tactics from nonviolence to violence.

That testimony and the FBI analysis of the 39 shots fired were keys to raising reasonable doubt in the minds of jurors, say defense attorneys. The acoustics tests, they claimed, established that the gunfight was an even battle, even though only Communists were killed.

Nevertheless, Greensboro, a quiet textile, college and tobacco town of 160,000 and home of the original 1960 lunch counter sit-in that launched civil rights protests across the South, is troubled by the fallout and bad publicity from the verdict.

"Some feel justice was done, some feel it wasn't," said the city's beleaguered mayor, Jim Melvin. "The community is in shock. We're saddened by the whole tragic affair. It's been a drawn-out ordeal, a media event. Greensboro just wants to be left alone."

Both sides got what they wanted in the end, says Charles Wittenstein, Atlanta-based southern counsel of the Anti-Defamation League. Klansmen and Nazis can now trot out their new "heroes" who gunned down five "dirty commies" and went free to brag about it. The Communists, well-educated radicals who continued their college protest ways, can be expected to tout their five dead "martyrs" as proof that there is no such thing as justice under capitalism, a recruiting aid to enlist fellow revolutionaries.

And while the confrontation itself was not racial, freeing Klansmen and Nazis after five people were killed has fueled fears among blacks -- still shocked by racial violence against their own in Miami, Buffalo and Atlanta -- that racial persecution in America is on the rise.

Greensboro NAACP Director George Simkins interprets the verdict as "tantamount to a license for Klan and Nazis to kill anyone they want," including blacks. The black community is afraid, he says, and many are talking about "arming themselves for their own protection."

Far beyond Greensboro, Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson, Operation Push Director Jesse Jackson, and other black leaders are alarmed. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference president, Joseph Lowery, dispatched a telegram demanding that President-elect Ronald Reagan denounced violence and assure the American people that minorities and the poor can expect equal justice under his administration.

Federal prosecutors say they are investigating the possibility of charging the six Klansmen and Nazis with civil rights violations. But U.S. Attorney H. N. Michaux said he was unsure if the evidence would justify such charges. Sources in the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division are pessimistic. And Greensboro District Attorney Michael Schlosser says he hasn't decided whether to proceed against the remaining Klansmen and CWP members awaiting trial from the incident.

"Politically, it's the worst verdict we could have delivered," said one juror who requested anonymity. "We agonized over it. More than anything else, I worried about the community effect, but we couldn't let that be a swaying factor. We didn't mean for the verdict to hurt black people and poor people whose these organizations used for pawns.