- Learning from Greensboro: Truth and Reconciliation in the United States
On 3 November 1979 the Workers Viewpoint Organization, the Greensboro, North Carolina chapter of the Communist Workers Party, planned a statewide conference on racial, social, and economic justice. The conference was to commence with a rally in a low income neighborhood of Greensboro, followed by a march to the conference site. Because flyers for the event included the slogan "Death to the Klan" it attracted the attention of local Klan members who decided to disrupt the march. A confrontation followed in which gunfire from Klan members killed five marchers and wounded ten others. The Greensboro police were mysteriously not on site at the time, but the event was captured on film by news cameras. Trials at the state and federal levels followed with not guilty verdicts for the shooters reached by all white juries.
City officials in Greensboro consistently denied any responsibility for the events of the day. They instead placed the blame solely on instigation by the Workers Viewpoint Organization, and on the Klan. The participants in the march, especially the families of the individuals killed and wounded, saw things much differently, particularly with regard to the lack of protection from the police department. Unresolved feelings and perceptions of the 1979 events remained a point of contention between city officials and portions of the Greensboro community for more than twenty years.
As part of the twentieth commemoration of the shootings, the idea of a truth and reconciliation commission modeled on similar commissions in South Africa and other nations was suggested. After convening a national advisory commission and gaining support from other national and international organizations, the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Project emerged. The seven member interracial committee took on the task of examining the "context, causes, sequence and consequence" of the November events.
Learning from Greensboro: Truth and Reconciliation in the United States tells the story of the creation of the commission and the process it went through to investigate the shootings in November 1979. Both of the authors were involved in the work of the commission as advisors and as staff. Their goal is to chronicle the efforts of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation project and "peel back layers of lies and half-truths covering up this ugly piece of Greensboro's past." They also are interested in larger questions regarding truth and reconciliation [End Page 451] commissions namely whether these commissions can work in places beyond the Third World. They also critique the effectiveness of such a commission when it is opposed by local government officials and deprived of the legal leverage such support can provide. Finally, they look at the tension which exists between the truth commission process and the criminal justice system. The picture they develop of the commission process in Greensboro is in many ways a primer on the issues inherent in the creation, operation, and ultimate impact of these kinds of efforts.
The largest challenge facing the Greensboro Commission was convincing skeptical local residents that the commission truly sought truth and reconciliation rather than recrimination. Greensboro government officials, the police department, and the business community did not see a need for the commission and refused to support it. These opponents feared its activities would harm the image of the city as well as raise embarrassing questions about the lack of a police presence at the march and their stonewalling afterwards. Much of the African American community had little confidence that the efforts of the commission would make any difference. Poorer members of the community in particular did not believe that white Greensboro was interested in change or truth. The attitude of many whites who just wanted the incident to go away reinforced the feelings of African Americans. Pushing through this skepticism was the daunting challenge of the commission.
In the end the primary strategy used by the commission to generate support and trust was to make the process as open as possible and to convince enough people the commission sought truth, not blame. Guidelines were...