Learning from Greensboro

An insider's look at the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission's process, strategic choices, challenges, and context, Learning from Greensboro tells the story of how one U.S. community struggled to come to terms with events in its past and model truth-seeking as a tool for addressing the country's legacy of racist violence.

Learning from Greensboro
Truth and Reconciliation in the United States

Lisa Magarrell and Joya Wesley. Foreword by Bongani Finca

2008 | 304 pages | Cloth $49.95 | Paper $26.50
American History / Political Science
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Table of Contents

Foreword, by Bongani Finca
List of Abbreviations

Chapter One. The Truth about Greensboro
Chapter Two. Remembering Victims and Survivors
Chapter Three. Individual Truths
Chapter Four. The Truth Commission Idea

Chapter Five. Building the Framework
Chapter Six. Seating the Commission
Chapter Seven. Starting up, Establishing Independence
Chapter Eight. Research and the Complexity of Truth
Chapter Nine. Engaging the Public
Chapter Ten. The Report
Chapter Eleven. Next Steps and Response

Chapter Twelve. The Project and the Commission
Chapter Thirteen. The Media and Official Greensboro
Chapter Fourteen. Opposition and Critiques
Chapter Fifteen. Interest and Support from Outside
Chapter Sixteen. Lessons from the Process
Chapter Seventeen. An Early Assessment
Chapter Eighteen. Comparing Greensboro
Chapter Nineteen. Greensboro's Legacy


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

Dr. Bongani Finca, Commissioner, South African TRC

Though conflicts end and guns are silenced, the memories of pain persist. Victims and survivors of gross human rights violations continue to carry scars on their bodies or wounds in their souls. Their agony is intensified when perpetrators deny their guilt or try to trivialize the severity of the violation that they have inflicted. It is further aggravated when the depth of the suffering is cheapened by financial settlements that are grudgingly awarded, with a view to procure the silence of the victims or to shield the perpetrators from confronting their moral guilt.

The story of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission speaks to this reality. It echoes the experiences that are fairly familiar to many a victim of gross human rights violations throughout the world. It resonates with the painful stories that truth commissions have grappled with in my own country, South Africa, and also in Uganda, Chile, Haiti, Peru, Rwanda, etc. Like many commissions before it, the GTRC tells yet another story of these appalling crimes and atrocious deeds of inhumane women and men. Although it unfolds at a community level, it deals with the same theme of individuals who violate others and systems of authority and power that fail the victims. When such systems refuse to confront the truth both the victim and the perpetrator miss an opportunity for healing.

The authors of this book, Learning from Greensboro: Truth and Reconciliation in the United States, capture the genesis of the GTRC with meticulous care and thus give a reader a glimpse into every detail. They portray with compassion, sensitivity and understanding the deep issues that the survivors of November 3, 1979 wrestled with, starting from the end of the eighty-eight seconds of that fatal shooting, moving through those twenty-six frustrating years of silence and denial, and culminating in the ultimate triumph of truth over lies through the GTRC process. The authors draw from the depth of their personal experiences of walking through the GTRC journey with the Commission and survivors, side by side and step by step. They draw insight from Wesley's knowledge of Greensboro and Magarrell's knowledge of transitional justice and study of similar cases from other parts of the world, including my country, South Africa.

A number of books have been written in the past few years on the young subject of truth commissions. What makes Learning from Greensboro unique is that it raises several issues on the concept and practice of transitional justice. For instance, it questions the assumption that truth commissions are instruments that are designed for emergent or fragile states of the Third World, coming out of conflict to peace, dictatorship to democracy, or a breakdown of the rule of law to civility. When I spoke to the Greensboro community on the occasion of the induction of the commissioners, I congratulated them on breaking the myth that there are countries that are simply "too good" for a truth commission. Many so-called stable democracies have a number of skeletons in their cupboards. There are several historical acts of national shame which will not go away until the those wounds are cut open and addressed, not to seek vengeance but understanding, not for retaliation but for reparation, not to victimize perpetrators but to heal wounded memories.

The second fundamental assumption that is challenged by the GTRC story is the supremacy of prosecutions in dealing with human rights violations. It is argued by students of transitional justice that the most appropriate means of dealing with these violations is through the criminal justice system. I agree strongly, but would also suggest that there is no tension between a truth commission process and the criminal justice system. The two ought not to be arranged hierarchically, with prosecutions as the first prize and truth commission as the second prize. They are both instruments for dealing with impunity. They both have with their advantages and disadvantages. The human rights movement must confront and challenge the rampant impunity that disguises itself in transitional deals, sunset clauses and amnesty settlements signed between outgoing and incoming regimes. They rob the victims of justice and encourage present and would-be perpetrators of gross human rights violations to continue with ghastly evil and hope for cheap grace. The Greensboro experience, however, tells a story of the failure of the criminal justice system itself to provide the victims with justice, healing and restoration of their human dignity, even in a stable democracy. Greensboro reminds us that rather than bow to the limits of justice, one can at least challenge the justice system's failings through the truth-seeking process itself.

The third intriguing area about the GTRC is on the question of legitimacy. Our South African TRC placed a lot of emphasis on the legal authority that it derived from the legislation that created our commission. The fact that it was a creature of statute and it had been given a lot of legal authority to subpoena, search and seize was lifted to a position of principle by some commentators. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights suggests that the active support of government and political will of the state are critical preconditions for holding a truth commission. The GTRC experience shows that victims are not helpless by-standers who depend on the mercy of political authority, the media, or the benevolent and significant other in order to break the silence about their suffering and confront the truth. Although the GTRC was limited by financial constraints and lack of statutory power to summon witnesses, it nonetheless established an important principle that a morally legitimate truth commission is possible even if the legal authority opposes it. This can give hope to many victims of human rights violations who have waited in vain for their governments to show the political will to address past injustices.

As a South African, I drew a lot of inspiration and insight from the Greensboro survivors and their experiences. The GTRC truly belongs to the survivors and the community that embraced them. I really do hope that the study of their work will summon those who read this book to continue the fight against racism and economic exploitation, which is the backdrop against which November 3, 1979 happened. There are a number of communities in the United States of America, in the African continent to which I belong, and in the other parts of the world who will see their faces mirrored through these pages. Hopefully, they will be inspired to take action, as the Greensboro survivors did, and triumph.

* * * * *


In December of 2001, Lisa went to Greensboro to meet with an extraordinary group of people gathered around a small table at The Beloved Community Center, in Greensboro, North Carolina. They were looking for a way to reframe the city's narrative; they wanted Greensboro's story to include a true account of what happened there on November 3, 1979 and how that related to other parts of the city's history and future. They wanted to pierce through the civility and denial of mainstream Greensboro's version of the events of that day, which told the story of a clash between two outside radical groups that had nothing to do with the city's good people. The participants at the meeting had a different story to tell and thought that if they found a new, inclusive way to account for November 3 and its aftermath, things in the city could change for the better.

On that December day, Lisa heard about these events for the first time, in a setting as unfamiliar in some ways as those she'd first encountered as a human rights lawyer in El Salvador, or in the work she was doing to provide technical assistance to the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission. And yet, it was familiar too, because like her work in other parts of the world, this was a story of injustice, where authorities meant to protect the rights and safety of all seemed to have turned a blind eye, where the law failed to guarantee justice in the aftermath of violence, and where a legacy of denial bred distrust and division. When she went back to her office in New York and reported on the meeting and the potential for a truth and reconciliation process in the United States, the ICTJ decided to add this initiative to a list of truth recovery and justice projects it supported worldwide through critical advice, comparative information, and networking.

Joya already was living in Greensboro, though she arrived well after November 1979, via Los Angeles where she grew up. With stops in the Midwest and New York, she developed her career as a journalist and writer. As a one-time editor of The Carolina Peacemaker, Greensboro's African American weekly paper, host of a call-in radio show on a local university station, and supporter of peace and justice work in the city, she was a logical choice to become the media liaison for the organizers of this truth and reconciliation effort a couple years after Lisa's first visit. Some months after the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission (GTRC) was actually in place, in 2005, she was hired as the Commission's part-time communications director.

Because of her history with the media, Joya was able to relate to what journalists would be looking for; she knew local media's strengths and weaknesses. This didn't keep her from being thrown out of the editor's office at the conservative Rhinoceros Times, however, prior to joining the GTRC staff. During her work as the media liaison for the Project, she visited Editor John Hammer to follow up on e-mails inviting him to cover the swearing-in ceremony. During that meeting, which began amicably enough, she miscalculated how his hatred for Nelson Johnson, the leader of the truth commission initiative, outweighed his oft-stated interest in the city's responsible use of tax dollars. He got offended and abruptly ended the meeting when she suggested the city's payment of a civil settlement on behalf of the police officers as well as Klansmen and Nazis found liable for wrongful death implied city friendship with white supremacists. Hammer thrust her pretty white press packet back into her hands and hustled her out the door. Joya became a bit more diplomatic after that, and her own story of what happened in 1979 became more nuanced with the unfolding of the GTRC process and report.

We decided to write this book to chronicle the moving and illuminating effort of the initiating Project and the eventual GTRC to peel back layers of lies and half-truths covering up this ugly piece of Greensboro's past. Our involvement in the process - Joya in her media role and Lisa as an advisor to both groups from the beginning - means that neither of us has an objective view. We were in the middle of it in one way or another, and we believed and still do believe in this process. Our privileged access as things unfolded gave us not only a look at the successes and public face of the Project and the Commission but also a view into the humanity of the participants and challenges of this work in community. We've tried to capture all of that here, and do it fairly and objectively, but recognize that like most history retold, this one is stamped with our own perspectives and experience.

The GTRC process and the report it produced were conceived of as tools for social change and for reconciliation premised on first confronting the unvarnished truth. This book summarizes the Commission's findings, but does not presume to substitute for that document's detailed reporting and thoughtful contextualization of what happened. Instead, our focus is the story of the truth-seeking process, the politics and people involved, and the ongoing work in the community to put the report to meaningful use.

We examine, in the concrete case of Greensboro, the idea that truth recovery can be an important tool for justice. The book provides an insider's look at the major pieces of the TRC process: how it worked, the strategic choices made, challenges faced, and the local context in which it evolved. We supplement this material with a comparative view that brings international truth commission experience to bear on specific topics such as creating a mandate, selecting commissioners, holding public hearings, and drafting a report. We turned to the views of four individuals close to the process to personalize the challenges faced by the community and the Commission and to broaden our own perspectives: the Rev. Mark Sills, one of the Commissioners; Ed Whitfield, who helped to develop the mandate and to lead the selection process; Claudette Burroughs-White, a lifelong advocate for black children who, as a city councilwoman, supported the TRC process; and Terry Austin, a local white activist who observed and supported the process from outside.

In Part I we summarize the process and the "truth about Greensboro" that came out of the Commission's work. We remember the victims and survivors, and introduce Mark, Ed, Claudette, and Terry. We briefly explain the concept of truth commissions, so the reader has a reference to the model that formed that basis of the Greensboro process, though that model was adapted and recreated at each stage.

Part II follows the arc of the process from its inception at that meeting in Greensboro at the end of 2001, to the hand-over of the Commission's report over four years later in May 2006. One of the pieces of truth commission work that often goes unnoticed is the diligent and often long-suffering effort to seek justice and to lay the foundations for a truth commission. We detail the process of envisioning, organizing and creating political space for the Greensboro TRC, and then we take the reader through the work of the truth commission itself, from start to finish, and the first steps following the report's release.

In Part III we take a closer look at the people, politics, and lessons of the process and assess the potential legacy of the GTRC. This book is not meant to be a recipe or a model to simply reproduce elsewhere, but a rich, descriptive and analytical view of how this process worked, occasionally stumbled, and in most respects prevailed. The Commission's charge was simple: to "look humbly and seriously into [the community's] past in order to provide the best possible foundation for moving into a future based on healing and hope." We explore the complexities hidden in that aspiration, and the first tentative steps toward acknowledgment and learning in the months following the report's release.

The overall picture of the Commission's work, even the discussion of the strategic choices that were made along the way, would be incomplete without unpacking some of the politics around it and examining the interaction of various actors with the process. So we look at the activists who brought the TRC to life, the journalists who reported on it, the city leaders who opposed it, the voices that criticized it, and the "outsiders" who recognized its merit and potential.

Lessons distilled from the challenges faced by participants are highlighted, but with enough context that others can make their own judgments about how, in a different setting, similar challenges might best be overcome. We discuss some of the ways the Greensboro process was similar to others around the world and how it differed, and we look more closely at the assertion that the GTRC was, in fact, a truth commission and the first of its kind in the United States. Throughout, we draw on experience with truth commissions elsewhere; not just the iconic South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but a wealth of information found within the ICTJ and its diverse staff and experience around the globe.

Like any truth-seeking endeavor, the Greensboro process raises much larger questions about its effectiveness as a vehicle for social change and its utility as an inspiration to further truth-seeking efforts in the United States. We believe that the examination of the Greensboro case takes us further toward adding truth-seeking as a legitimate tool for social justice work in this country. We hope that the book will motivate others to uncover and acknowledge the truth about racist violence, class differences, and other systemic problems that persist in the United States. We believe doing so is a way to promote real change, deepen democracy, and work for justice in the fullest sense of the word. We do not doubt that this work has direct relevance to present-day politics and the carefully cultivated fears about different identities, faiths, and experiences that often motivate policies and attitudes today.

The story of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission illustrates that seeking the truth is a political endeavor; one that is threatening, enlightening, contradictory, and undeniably messy and imperfect. Exposing lies and myths about racist violence, political idealism, and white privilege can be uncomfortable not only in terms of results but also as a process. Yet it is a process that offers enormous potential for new understanding and foundations for dialogue and eventual trust. This book is a testimony to the possibility that denial, indifference, and hidden histories can be made to yield to a deeper and truer justice. That, we hope, is the future that awaits Greensboro, and one that is long overdue for many communities in the United States and our body politic as a whole.