Reconciliation is point of Truth commission

Edward Cone
News & Record


Maybe Greensboro should consider the second part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's name before we start proclaiming on the first.

The commission has begun compiling a history of the events of Nov. 3, 1979, when five people were shot dead in the streets of Greensboro. The City Council is being asked to pass a resolution in support of the project but seems likely to reject the proposal by a margin of 6-3, with all its black members in favor and all the white ones against it.

This racial divide alone suggests that Greensboro has reconciling to do.

Some white council members say they hear no support for the project beyond its organizers, even as their own colleagues speak out. But the council also ignores the broad-based group of citizens, white and black, involved in bringing the Truth and Reconciliation process to this point. Personally, I'm a well-connected, middle-aged white male native of this town who would like to see this report done and done well. I am not reconciled to a present in which we can't examine our past.

Truth can be tricky, involving more than a simple recitation of facts. There are opposing truths and truths that are hard to handle. But truth is essential, and reconciliation may be a precondition for its acceptance, and the acceptance that not every truth can be shared. To reconcile the past with the present, our history with our self-image, "our self-image" with the selves who feel excluded from it -- these things are not just the goal, they are essential to the journey.

There are concentric circles of truth when it comes to the Greensboro killings. At the core are incontrovertible elements of fact: Five people were gunned down on Nov. 3, 1979. Their killers were caught on tape but not convicted in a pair of jury trials. Those are data points. This is truth: Nobody should be shot dead in the street and have their killers go unpunished.

Now sketch in the next circle of facts, where things start getting more complex. Those killed were marching in what was billed as a "Death to the Klan" rally. Their killers were Klansmen and neo-Nazis. The victims were members of a radical group that called itself the Communist Workers Party and advocated violent social change. The two sides had confronted each other in the past. The truth around these facts grows murkier as people weave in their own politics and make their own judgments about the relative responsibility of the marchers and their attackers. But nothing changes the truth that in America you are supposed to be allowed to express unpopular opinions without getting shot.

More facts: The survivors of the attack did not cooperate with prosecutors during the first trial, so the truth around the lack of criminal convictions is obscured. Law enforcement had informants among the killers but was not present to prevent the attack, and the City of Greensboro paid a $350,000 civil settlement for its negligence, so the truth of official blamelessness is compromised.

And around these facts and shadowy truths ring still larger issues, some of them tangled across centuries, none of them likely to be reduced to simple truths in a report: race relations, then and now; relations between police and minorities; economic opportunity and economic justice under American capitalism.

A fact: Some people, including council members, say they can't get past the involvement of Nelson Johnson in the Truth and Reconciliation process because Johnson was a march leader and is seen as inherently biased. Another fact: Johnson is not on the commission that will write the report. Those facts need to be reconciled.

Any report worth reading will concentrate on the central core of facts -- five people were killed in Greensboro and their killers went unpunished -- and then move outward to explore the concentric rings of truth and argument around them. It will recognize the dead and their killers as individuals and recognize the communities of which they were products. It will involve skeptics on all sides. It won't proclaim truth when it speaks of opinion, conjecture or belief, but it will try to tell us what went wrong and what good might still come out of it. And it will demonstrate that this is a city where people acknowledge problems instead of just trying to look away from them, and acknowledge each other even when they disagree.

A document won't do all those things, but the process behind it could do a lot. The City Council should do some homework to decide whether or not to endorse the idea of the commission now, relying on facts rather than its own preconceived truths. It should reserve the right to judge the report on its merits, and it should set the bar high when doing so.

But above all it should focus on that second word, reconciliation, and consider what it could mean for Greensboro, instead of just declaring there is nothing for us to reconcile.

Edward Cone (, writes a column for the News & Record most Sundays.

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