Sun, Oct 26, 2003 - Page 6 News List

The day the Maoists took on the Ku Klux Klan

TRAGEDY Twenty-four years ago a young couple lead a group of communists on a march in North Carolina, only to walk into a fatal gun battle with white supremacists


The Bermanzohns are in their 50s now, and the old chants and slogans do not come so readily to mind. The couple blended years ago into the middle-class anonymity of Park Slope, where they raised two daughters and joined the local food co-op. On weekends their thoughts turn to that modest upstate getaway.

But if they ever forget their past, Paul's left hand is always there to remind them. It sits in his lap; limp, useless.

Besides their place upstate, the couple share a bitter claim to a forgotten moment in history. Many people recall that on Nov. 4, 1979, militants seized the US Embassy in Iran and took 66 Americans hostage. But who remembers what happened the day before, in Greensboro, North Carolina?

The Bermanzohns do. Sally and Paul Bermanzohn were members of a Maoist group back then, organizing textile workers and advocating the replacement of capitalism with a "dictatorship" of workers -- by violence if necessary.

"But there was no sense that we were taking up arms," recalled Bermanzohn, sipping tea in their apartment. "We just felt connected to revolutionary movements around the world."

The group had just dropped the benign name of the Workers Viewpoint Organization in favor of the Communist Workers Party.

In hindsight, Bermanzohn said, "It was a big mistake to use the word."

By 1979, the country was weary of the Vietnam War era protest and turmoil. But a local resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan presented the Communist Workers Party with a chance for some traction. One of the party's leaders taunted the Klan while announcing a "Death to the Klan" rally in Greensboro.

"We invite you and your two-bit punks to come out and face the wrath of the people," said the leader, a doctor named Paul Bermanzohn.

The other day that doctor sat in an armchair, his hand dead in his lap. "I think we were too brash," he said. "It was a mistake to call them out that way."

But the Bermanzohns emphasized that the response to those words -- and to the rally -- were beyond their imagination, beyond the pale.

Late on the morning of Nov. 3, they mustered with other demonstrators, for a noon march. Most of them had no weapons.

Sally Bermanzohn, who was three months pregnant, remembers the regret of leaving their infant to attend the rally. Dr. Bermanzohn remembers a friend remarking on the absence of the police. They both remember the car caravan announcing that the Klan had accepted the invitation.

After a brief confrontation, a few white supremacists removed guns from a car trunk and opened fire. A couple of demonstrators fired back, but that did not make it a fair fight. And just like that, four demonstrators were dead, a fifth was dying and 10 were wounded -- including Dr. Bermanzohn, shot in the head and arm. A newspaper photographer captured one of the many jarring scenes: Sally Bermanzohn kneeling over her crumpled husband and looking back, as if expecting more gunfire.

"I remember Sally telling me to lie still," Dr. Bermanzohn said.

Hostages were taken in Iran the next day, and the Greensboro shooting fell off the front page. The Bermanzohns believe that the country could not get past that word -- communist -- to see the horror: five people shot dead in daylight, while television cameras whirred away.

The supremacists claimed self-defense and were acquitted in two trials by all-white juries. The demonstrators received modest vindication when a civil suit ended in 1985 with the awarding of nearly US$400,000 in damages. But by then the Bermanzohns had left for sanctuary in Brooklyn.

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