Lessons From The Greensboro Massacre
Thirty eight years ago, on November 3, 1979, 35 heavily armed members of the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi party drove nine vehicles through the city of Greensboro, North Carolina, and opened fire on a multi-racial group of demonstrators who were gathering at a black housing project in preparation for an anti-Klan march.
Using semi automatic rifles, shotguns and pistols the Nazis and Kukluxers fired 1000 projectiles in 88 seconds killing five march leaders and wounding seven other demonstrators.
Most of the victims were associated with the Communist Workers Party, a multi racial group which had been organizing in the south for workers rights in the cotton mills and against the Ku Klux Klan.
The Greensboro police, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation were all aware of the planned attack. Four TV stations captured the massacre on video. A reluctant local district Attorney obtained six indictments under pressure from the Greensboro Justice Fund which had been organized by the windows of the victims, and the public outcry. A six-month trial resulted in the acquittal of all six defendants.
Then a reluctant Reagan administration Department of Justice tried nine of the Klansmen and Nazis on civil rights conspiracy charges. After a three-month trial all nine were acquitted.
A year after the massacre a civil rights suit was brought on behalf of the 16 victims. It expose d the depth and contours of official involvement.
After an extraordinary dramatic 10 weeks civil trial a southern jury finally convicted a good number of the actors in the massacre. The verdict was national news.
Guest ” Attorney G.Flint Taylor, a graduate of Brown University and Northwestern Law School, is a founding partner of the Peoples Law Office in Chicago, an office which has been dedicated to litigating civil rights, police violence, government misconduct, and death penalty cases for more than 40 years.
Lawyers Youll Like: Anne O’Berry
As part of our Lawyers You’ll Like series were joined by attorney Anne O’Berry, shes the Vice President of the Southern Region of the National Lawyers Guild and the author of The Law Only As An Enemy: The Legitimization of Racial Powerlessness Through the Colonial and Antebellum Criminal Laws of Virginia. While in law school, she served as Director of the Women in Prison Project at Rikers Island, where she taught incarcerated women how to prevent termination of their parental rights.
Anne clerked for federal judges in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, including Judge A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr. of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia, with whom she co-authored an article on the law as a tool of oppression against slaves and free blacks in pre-Civil War Virginia and taught civil rights and South African apartheid law at the University of Pennsylvania. She later taught Race and the Law at St. Thomas University Law School in Miami, Florida.
In the last 12 years, Anne has served as counsel at a Florida law firm that specializes in class action litigation, particularly in the areas of securities, consumer and economic fraud, as well as some environmental and privacy rights litigation.
Attorney Anne OBerry:
We did a lot of historical research in terms of racism and the law back in pre-civil war Virginia.
We focused on Virginia because it was a paradigm for slavery basically in the slave laws that were in place.
We wrote an article for publication, it was published in the University of North Carolina law review. The Law Only As An Enemy: The Legitimization of Racial Powerlessness Through the Colonial and Antebellum Criminal Laws of Virginia.
Depending on your status, if you were a free white person or a slave, you were treated differently by the law.
As an overall theme, depending on the race of the victim was that would effect what your sentence would be.
For example, if a black woman was raped, that was not considered a crime. If you were a black person and you stole something, you would be put to death.
It was ironic for the slave owner because if their slave was put to death, they would have to be compensated by the state.
If the victim was black, the crime was treated less seriously than if the victim was white.
I started out working at a firm in New York, a large prominent, Wall Street type.
Among some people I was known as the pro-bono queen.
I was there for 2 and a half years and the first pro-bono case was a death penalty case.
The court ruled back then (1990s) that it was ok to execute the mentally retarded.
I was so moved by that experience that I gave up my cushy job in New York and go do death penalty work full time.
I ended up at the Federal Resource Center doing death penalty work in Tallahassee Florida.
I worked for the Battered Womens Clemency Project in Florida.
More recently the Supreme Court did rule that it is unconstitutional to execute people who were juveniles at the time of the offense and unconstitutional to execute people who are mentally retarded.
I believe in my lifetime we will see the end of the death penalty in this country.
Its just an amazing system that we have where the courts will say ” yes youve got compelling evidence of innocence but were not going to hear your case.
I would say what got me through was the victories.
Presently, Im working with an attorney Jim Green, whos a prominent civil rights attorney in West Palm Beach, kind of a legend down here.
I also some volunteer work with El Sol. Its a day laborer center in Jupiter, Florida.
Guest ” Anne OBerry, National Lawyers Guilds Regional Vice President for the Southern Region and a member of the Guilds South Florida chapter. She obtained her undergraduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983 and her law degree from New York University Law School in 1986. While in law school, she served as Director of the Women in Prison Project at Rikers Island, where she taught incarcerated women how to prevent termination of their parental rights. She was a member of the law schools civil rights clinic and an editor on one of the law schools journals, and authored a law review article on prisoners rights. During and after law school, she clerked for federal judges in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, including Judge A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr. of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia, with whom she co-authored an article on the law as a tool of oppression against slaves and free blacks in pre-Civil War Virginia and taught civil rights and South African apartheid law at the University of Pennsylvania. She later taught Race and the Law at St. Thomas University Law School in Miami, Florida.