Putting Greensboro on the Map
The annual report of an organization called the International Center for Transitional Justice contains a map of the world marked by places where truth commissions of the type made famous in post-apartheid South Africa are at work. These are places where very bad things have been done and covered up. Examples include the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and Greensboro, North Carolina.
On November 3, 1979, five people were killed in broad daylight on the streets of Greensboro by an organized group of men. As they shot into the crowd the killers were filmed by TV news crews and were easily identified by the police. Yet nobody was convicted of a crime for the killings.
Those bare facts demand explanation. But truth is hard to come by in this situation. There are many truths, perceived truths, and contradictions at work when people remember and explain the Greensboro killings.
On the day of the shootings I was a senior in high school, spending time with a ten-year-old kid as part of a Big Brother program. I knew nothing about what was going on when I picked him up in a rough white neighborhood called Pomona. He said, "The niggers are marching today but the Klan is going to get them."
The killers were Klansmen and Nazis. The victims were leftist labor organizers with militant rhetoric. Many people in Greensboro are happy to say that both sides were outside agitators, and so it wasnít Greensboroís fault, and to leave it at that.
Questions about the failure of the police to prevent the widely-anticipated confrontation, about the role of informants who knew what was going down, about the political context of the event and the subsequent court proceedings, were not widely discussed. Down the memory hole they went.
By 1999, the twentieth anniversary of the shootings, this veil over the wider truth was growing tattered. A play called Greensboro: A Requiem, written by Emily Mann, was performed here. (Agitprop, but useful.) I was one of many to write [no link--column archived at pay site] that it was time to take a serious look at what really happened near Morningside Homes that day. Plenty of people still disagreed, but it felt that some things had changed with time.
Now this group, ICTJ, which has a high-powered board and seems to do good and serious work, is interested in Greensboro. Perhaps if a commission was to be formed here something good could come of it. But it would have to be a very good group, brave and hard-working, to really do the job right.
This event is part of our history. So far, we can't even agree on what to call it. The mainstream terminology was until recently "shootout," but the shooting was too one-sided for that to remain current. The survivors and their allies refer to it as a "massacre," but I am not allowed by the editors of the News & Record to call it that, even though I am expressing my own opinions in a column on the opinion page; politics and fear trump the dictionary.
What would a truth and reconciliation commission find? I donít think they are going to sell the general public on the idea that the Klansmen (or Klanspersons, as I heard one local minister say at lunch today) were a right-wing death squad just like the ones used in Central America, although this idea is discussed on the left side of the aisle. But a commission could do a lot by just humanizing the victims, and getting Greensboro and the whole country to think about how those people died and why nobody did anything about it.