Truth and Reconciliation

In Greensboro, North Carolina, on Nov. 3, 1979, Ku Klux Klan and American Nazi Party members attacked a "Death to the Klan" march organized by the Communist Workers' Party, shooting five marchers to death and wounding ten. Greensboro police had been escorting the march, but left for lunch shortly before the killings. More than a dozen men were arrested and charged with murder, but, stunningly, both a 1980 state murder trial and a 1984 federal civil rights trial resulted in acquittals.

The Nazis, Klansmen, and the city of Greensboro were finally found liable for one of the deaths in a civil lawsuit; but a sense of injustice and unfinished business and suspicions of police involvement have roiled the community ever since.

Now activists and community members have established the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission to try to bring to light what happened and help the city heal. Inspired in part by the post-apartheid South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the Greensboro project is not (unlike in South Africa) an operation of the government, and doesn't have any formal legal powers.

It seems like a good idea for the South in general, no? Would such a thing work?

In looking at truth commissions around the world, there are two generalizations you can make about them:

1) They tend to happen soon after the events they're concerned with, within a few years, while memories are still fresh and the future still uncertain;
2) There are genuinely (at least) two sides involved in the process, both of which believe that it is in their best interests to come to some kind of accommodation or understanding. If one side, especially the side that's more associated with atrocities or oppression, doesn't feel it necessary to deal with the other on some footing of equality-a truth commission is simply not going to work.
Is the Greensboro project likely to effect any true reconciliation? What would that look like, exactly? Or will it be mostly a matter of exposing and publicizing the truth and (just maybe) finally getting the perpetrators? If it's the latter, it's certainly worth doing; but it should also be pointed out that justice is not exactly the same as reconciliation.

Leaving aside the specific situation of Greensboro, I have to wonder whether the time for an effective truth and reconciliation project in the South has passed: political lines have been drawn, attitudes have hardened, the past seems embalmed, entombed in museums and monuments. The people in charge now have little to gain. Plus, in typical American fashion, there's a pervasive sense among white people that we're through with all that, that we live in a post-racist society, so why dredge up all this stuff that'll just make us feel bad?

We could have used a Truth and Reconciliation commission in the 1960s, after passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act; or, even more importantly, a century earlier in the 1860s, during Reconstruction.

Of course, there was no nineteenth-century precedent, even remotely, for such a thing, although the U.S. did spend the next century concentrating on reconciliation -- between Northern and Southern whites. Beginning with Decoration Day (now Memorial Day) observances, which mourned both Union and Confederate dead, national reconciliation came to be defined as the bonding of white people, with virtually no reference to slavery or racial injustice. Eventually, the Civil War was lamented, nationwide, as a useless fratricidal struggle orchestrated by meddling Northeastern abolitionists (who probably sipped nineteenth-century lattés and drove horse-and-buggy Volvos). That would be reconciliation without the pesky "truth" part.

NOTE: Minor edit to remove typo 5:03 p.m. 3-3-2005