Truth & Reconciliation Still Possible

Edward Cone
News & Record


As the Greensboro Truth & Reconciliation Commission heads toward its third and final round of public hearings at the end of September, it's clear to anyone who has been paying attention that the much-maligned project has demonstrated the potential to create something positive and useful for this city.


For those who have ignored the process, including the six white members of the City Council who voted to oppose it before it even started, well, it's happening without you. Maybe the Truth & Reconciliation panel will blow it, maybe the final report will be a propaganda piece instead of a people's history, and your fears will be validated. But if the report turns out to be as interesting and powerful as the public testimony has been, you will look timid and clueless and deserve the scorn you get for missing this chance at knitting together your community.


Here's what we've learned so far: First, no report that honors the public testimony can whitewash history by absolving members of the Communist Workers Party of their share of responsibility for the events of November 3, 1979, when five people were shot dead in the streets of Greensboro at a rally organized by the CWP. Such a rewrite was feared by critics of this process, an understandable concern given the role of CWP survivors in setting the history project in motion, and the subsequent inability of Nelson Johnson's group to distance itself from the process once an independent panel was established. But the facts on the record explode the myth of a peaceful labor rally set upon unexpectedly by the Klan and its allies.


To that extent, the process has confirmed the popular narrative of events: this was a face-off between two extremist groups spoiling for a fight. But the public hearings have made devastatingly clear that the popular narrative falls short in two key areas. One is the idea the killings happened in Greensboro, but were somehow not of Greensboro, because the Klansmen and the Nazis and many of the marchers weren't from here. The painful testimony of Greensboro residents traumatized by the shootings gives the lie to that story, just as surely as the support for the process by our three black City Council members showed that saying nobody cares about this piece of our history is a blinkered and arrogant way of defining what matters.


The other false note exposed by the hearings is the conclusion that November 3, 1979 was about just those two groups already mentioned, the Communists and the Klan. The fact is that a third group played a critical role that day: law enforcement, which should have known what was happening, and which by any definition failed in its mission of keeping the peace. That's not to say there was a conspiracy on the part of the cops or the City or the Feds to let the mayhem happen -- none has been proved in the hearings -- but any history that ignores the law enforcement angle is incomplete to the point of inaccuracy.


And this is where I see a chance for reconciliation, which is to me the most important outcome of this whole long process. People ask me who this is supposed to reconcile. One suggestion: the black community and the police. There is a huge rift in this country between black people and cops. We saw it in the OJ Simpson case and with the Rodney King tape. We saw it after Hurricane Katrina on the bridge to Gretna, when suburban police refused to let a mostly-black crowd cross from New Orleans to safety, and we've seen it locally, too.


This is not about bashing the cops, it's about creating an environment where some of the bad feelings and mistrust built up over the years can be put to rest. The Greensboro Police Department has done an excellent job of ensuring a safe and secure space for these hearings, which shows something about how far we have come, and the hearings themselves should be a catalyst for further progress.


The final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, expected to be delivered next year, will be critical to perceptions of the entire effort. Meanwhile, the public statements and other testimony are available for everyone to see and hear on the web. Yes, some of it is butt-covering and propaganda from various interested parties, but there is so much more than that on the record. This is a remarkably transparent process, and it's worth asking people who opposed it if they're actually paying it any heed -- and if they are willing to join in if they see something that exceeds their expectations.


History matters, and a politicized version of Greensboro's history will not serve the common good. But what if, despite the fears and reservations, this process ends up with a history that is worth reading? What if this really is a chance for reconciliation, and we miss it? 


[links to previous Truth & Rec coverage here]

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

See details of all the day's news in tomorrow's News & Record  

   Subscribe today | Electronic archives