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From the NS archive: Racism rides again

3 August 1984: Ku Klux Klan violence and state complicity in the southern states of the US.

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Forty years ago, the Ku Klux Klan and its affiliated groups were responsible for numerous murderous attacks on left-leaning organisations and black people in the US's southern states. This report of 1984 by Vron Ware, written in the language of earlier times, details some of the atrocities – drive-by shootings and bombings – and the failure of ensuing prosecutions. Ware addressed the problem of government collusion: FBI agents and other federal officials had infiltrated the KKK and Nazi groups but frequently played an active role in the violence rather than a preventative one. State authorities, keen to stop the extent of their complicity becoming known, ensured that the terms of prosecution against the perpetrators were limited and that juries were all-white.

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On 3 November 1979, five members of the Communist Workers Party were killed and seven wounded when a group of 40 Ku Klux Klan and American Nazi Party members fired at an anti-Klan rally organised by the CWP at Greensboro, North Carolina. Despite evidence on film that shows the racists methodically removing guns from their cars and shooting at the demonstration, a state trial in 1980 and a federal trial, which ended in April, resulted in acquittals. Both trials involved the familiar catalogue of all-white juries, unenthusiastic prosecution and allegations of a government cover-up.

After the second acquittal was announced on 16 April, Dale Sampson, widow of one of the murdered anti-racists, said: “this is a real go-ahead for the Klan and Nazis to kill people”. But while racists celebrated what Nazi leader Harold Covington called “a victory for White America”, the Greensboro Civil Rights Fund has been preparing for the next, and possibly most significant court case. Relatives and survivors have filed a $48m civil suit, due to be heard this week. They claim that federal state and local officials conspired with Klansmen and Nazis in planning and carrying out the attack.

The involvement of government undercover agents in the case came to light during the first trial, in which six men faced charges of murder and rioting. It was revealed that Bernard Butkovich had infiltrated the Klan while working for the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. He was alleged to have had advance knowledge of the Greensboro attack and done nothing about it. A police agent, Edward Dawson, was also said to have been involved in the conspiracy. He was sitting in the leading car when the convoy drove up to the rally. The first shot, said to have been the signal to open fire, was reported to have come from this car.

Lewis Pitts, a lawyer for the Greensboro Fund, believes that the government is actively concerned to conceal the involvement of police and federal agents. He argues that the April acquittals, which saw nine men cleared of civil rights violations, were a direct consequence of the way the charges were drawn up. At the trial the prosecution was put in the position of having to prove that the defendants were motivated “only” by racial hatred. The defence claimed that the men had gone to the rally in a spirit of patriotism and hostility to communism. With an all-white jury (selected from an area with a 25 per cent black population) the defendants were able to evade charges of racism by appealing to anti-communism. Pitts said: “We’re not saying that racism was not part of their motivation, but when you create a false distinction between racism and politics, you allow this to happen.”

The involvement of government informers in Klan-organised violence against black people and civil rights campaigners has its own history. The most notorious case came to light in 1980, when a report leaked to the New York Times revealed that, originally on the order of J Edgar Hoover himself, the FBI blocked an investigation into a 1963 church bombing in Alabama for 14 years in order to protect trusted agents. The report gave details of what many had suspected all along, that the FBI systematically covered up attacks on black people in which their paid informers had played an active part.

One agent, Gary Rowe, was paid over $22,000 for his services. A fellow Klan member, Robert Chambliss, said of him: “You can trust Rowe to kill a n***** and never talk.” Rowe remained on the FBI payroll for four years after leading an attack on civil rights campaigners. He is now living in Georgia and fighting attempts to extradite him to Alabama, where he faces charges relating to the murder of Viola Liuzzo, a civil rights worker shot by Klansmen in 1965. Chambliss was the only man to be convicted of the Alabama church bombing, which resulted in the death of four black girls. Four other Klansmen whose identities were known to the FBI never faced trial and the case is now considered closed.

The defendants so far acquitted in the Greensboro case were all leading officers in their respective organisations at the time of the shooting. The attack was planned by the United Racist Front, a Nazi-Klan alliance linking the National Socialist Party of America with two local Klan factions and other racist organisations. Virgil L Griffin, acquitted in the federal trial, was a Klan leader as well as the head of the Front. Roland Wood, cleared in both trials, was local leader of the NSPA.

In August 1979 black and civil rights activists formed the Anti-Klan Network in response to an upsurge in Klan violence in northern Alabama and northern Mississippi. Last year the Atlanta-based Network announced a national campaign to press for swift federal prosecution of members of the Klan and other far-right groups who commit acts of racial violence. Lyn Wells, Network coordinator, claims that this campaign was partly responsible for the recent federal prosecution in Greensboro. She said that they had received details of about 200 known Klan attacks in the last year and many more documented incidents where the perpetrators were not identified. The length of time it can take to get a prosecution after a racist attack is shown by the case of J B Stoner, leader of the far-right National States Rights Party. In 1983 he began a minimum ten-year jail sentence for his part in bombing the Rev Fred Shuttlesworth’s church in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1958.

Black people are still waiting to see justice in Chattanooga, Tennessee. In 1980 five women were shot and wounded by three Klansmen who drove into a black district after a Klan rally and cross-burning. The three faced charges of assault with intent to commit murder: two were acquitted by an all-white jury, and one found guilty just of assault. He served only three months of his nine-month sentence before being released.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)