Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Friday, March 5, 2021 11:34 am

The truth about truth and reconciliation?

A new article implies that Greensboro’s 2004 Truth & Reconciliation initiative was less a well-intentioned failure than grift.

Mother Jones magazine has published an interesting take on the 1979 Greensboro Massacre, the city’s 2004 Truth and Reconciliation Commission convened to investigate the massacre, and T&R processes generally. I think the writers’ conclusion is generally correct: Such processes can be long on truth but usually are short on reconciliation. I had that same impression of Greensboro’s process when I covered it almost two decades ago.

That said, the writers depict the T&R process less as a well-intentioned failure than as a grift of some sort (they refer derogatorily to the so-called “Truth and Reconciliation Complex”), which I don’t think is accurate, let alone appropriate. I think that in part because the piece basically ignored that many of the former CWP members did indeed acknowledge and apologize for the fact that their intemperate language helped raise the temperature of the times and might even have prompted the violence. The writers convey the impression that the CWP members in general, and the Rev. Nelson Johnson in particular, were using the process as a means of squeezing out from under any responsibility for the incident and the deaths. I have no idea what was in Johnson’s mind at the beginning of the T&R process, but I was there and can tell you what resulted from it: Johnson and many of his colleagues apologized, publicly and unreservedly, for their roles. And while the writers acknowledged that the city was found liable for its role, they generally whitewash by omission the Greensboro Police Department’s involvement via informant.

As with all parachute journalism, it gets a few other things wrong that locals would spot easily: Greensboro hasn’t been a “mill city” for decades. It is located west, not north, of the “university-heavy” Research Triangle. And Greensboro is pretty university-heavy itself — between UNCG, N.C. A&T, Bennett College, Greensboro College, Guilford College, GTCC, and Elon Law, it is a bigger college town than Columbus, Ohio.

I’ll be particularly interested in the response of Jill Williams, then the executive director of the GTRC, who is quoted in the piece but described as if she somehow benefited personally from what the article implies is the grift of T&R work by getting jobs at, first, the Andrus Family Fund, which funded Greensboro’s T&R Commission, and then the International Center for Transitional Justice, another nonprofit.

The writers apparently are involved in a larger project examining T&R processes generally, which is fine. And they certainly are correct that Greensboro’s T&R process didn’t result in much reconciliation. But they fail in examining why.

I’ve lived in Greensboro for almost 35 years. I was a journalist here for 22 years. In particular, I was the journalist who patiently nursed along a Freedom of Information Act request to the FBI for years during the 1990s, seeking declassification and disclosure of that agency’s records on the massacre and subsequent investigation. (Those records were released in time for the News & Record to report on them around the 20th anniversary of the massacre; my colleague and friend Lorraine Ahearn wrote the articles, which you can still find on the N&R’s website.)

My impression as someone who didn’t grow up here but has lived here a long time is that part of the reason there hasn’t been reconciliation is not just that people had a pox-on-both-their-houses attitude toward both the Klan/Nazis and the CWP. No, a lot of white folks in this town still believe that it’s perfectly OK for rightists to kill leftists in the streets — that the victims had it coming. (That attitude has been reflected nationally in the rise of Donald Trump as a political figure, with its apotheosis being the Jan. 6 seditious attack on the U.S. Capitol by Trump followers.) That attitude is morally stillborn, but it still prevails.

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