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Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission Releases Report

  • Larry Schooler

Members of Truth and Reconciliation Commissions from around the world gathered in Greensboro, North Carolina this weekend. They were here to witness the concluding session of what is believed to be the first such commission in the United States. The non-governmental, privately-funded Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission formed two years ago to review a tragic event in the city's history-the 1979 shooting deaths of five labor organizers. The Commission modeled itself after similar bodies in South Africa, Peru, and 30 other countries.

It took nearly two years for the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission to review 88 seconds in the city's history. That's how long it took on November 3rd, 1979 for armed members of the Ku Klux Klan to infiltrate a Death to the Klan demonstration in front of an East Greensboro housing project called Morningside Homes. The Klansmen shot and killed five labor organizers from the Communist Workers Party, amidst much gunfire from both sides and without significant police intervention.

But you won't learn much about what happened that November day by visiting the scene, at the corner of Everett and Carver streets in East Greensboro. The closest Greensboro has come to a memorial for the November 3rd, 1979 incident is an oversized tombstone with the names of the five members of the Communist Workers Party who died.

Many people who now live in Greensboro didn't live here in November of 1979. Others who did would just as soon forget the whole thing happened. But people like Jackie Clapp can't forget it. Clapp was living in the Morningside housing project near where the shootings took place. She was 12 at the time. "As the kids, we didn't have anyone to talk to," she recalls. "We wanted to know why this happened, why wasn't anyone coming to ask us what our needs [were], how did this affect us, were we involved? No questions, no answers."

Organizers of Greensboro's Truth and Reconciliation Commission had people like Clapp in mind. The members of the Commission included three African-American women, two Caucasian men, one Caucasian woman, and one South Asian woman. The commission included a lawyer, a minister, a businesswoman, a nurse, two consultants, and a professor, all of whom were at the middle or end of their careers. The seven commissioners were chosen by a grassroots group of local residents representing a cross section of Greensboro society. The Comissioners had no legal authority to conduct their investigation. They had no power to subpoena, no way to impose a punishment. All they could do was listen to what people would voluntarily say about what happened and then offer their own assessments. They heard from former Communists, former Klansmen, former residents of the Morningside neighborhood, police officers, and many others.

Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner Muktha Jost believes the commission has had a powerful impact on the community. "We have demonstrated that this process can, in the words of one attorney, begin to melt the ice within which many in this community have been frozen and unable to reach each other."

Commissioners believe both the Klan and the Communist Workers Party deserve blame for allowing the 1979 incident to escalate to violence. Commissioners also place particularly heavy blame on the Greensboro Police Department for inadequate patrols that the commissioners say failed to prevent the shooting deaths.

Commissioner Jost says she and the other members of the Greensboro panel paid close attention to what other commissions around the world had done as they produced their final reports. We were told there could be no comparison between November 3rd and the government-sanctioned cruelties in South Africa or Peru. We believe that although the scale is different, the underlying issues are somewhat the same: structural inequalities based on colonialism and racism, restraints on labor organizing, and a blind spirit of anti-Communism.

Reverend Peter Storey agrees. The South African minister helped select truth and reconciliation commissioners in his own country. He also served as an advisor to Greensboro's commission--along with Archbishop Desmond Tutu and several other South Africans. Storey says Greensboro's commission actually has some distinct advantages over its South African predecessor. The South African truth and reconciliation process is failing now because it's not coming down to the local level, he explains. It was a national process, and we're enormously grateful for it, but unless there are many truth and reconciliation events in small towns, we've missed the point; here, it started at a local level, and I think that's very promising.

But Eduardo Gonzalez says Greensboro still has work to do. Gonzalez was a staff member on Peru's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He told a meeting of commissioners from Greensboro and around the world that a successful commission must not only reconstruct what happened and why, but it must explain what the community should do now. If you don't do that question, then everything you're doing is only nostalgia, he stressed. If you just look into the past for the past's sake, that's nostalgia-that's a romantic feeling that will not transform itself into action. And that's why truth commissions are also important in the measure that they having studied the facts, having studied the reasons for the facts, issue concrete recommendations.

Among the recommendations of the Greensboro Commission is a call for responsible parties to apologize to each other and to erect a proper memorial to those who were killed on November 3rd. The commission also called for several community dialogues, sensitivity training for government employees, and even a living wage for those employees-a nod to the labor conditions that the demonstrators were working to improve before the violence.

Greensboro's mayor has said the city doesn't need another review of the 1979 killings - after three legal trials failed to yield a conviction. But the City Council, though initially cool to the commission, says it will meet next week to discuss the Commission's report. And over 40 groups, including the Greensboro Police Department and the Ku Klux Klan, agreed to receive the report officially and publicly. Commission organizers say that shows many are willing to consider what lessons they can learn from the shootings and their aftermath.