Mar. 15, 2005 – On November 3, 1979, in Greensboro, North Carolina, members of the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party attacked a protest march organized by communist labor activists who were trying to unionize black workers. In just 88 seconds, assailants gunned down five of the workers and wounded ten others. The dead included three white men, one African American woman and a young man who had fled Cuba when he was a child, and suspicion reached as far as the local police department. Nevertheless, despite overwhelming evidence, no criminal court has convicted anyone accused of involvement, and many locals long for closure.
More than 25 years later, local community members have organized an independent group called the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission (GTRC) to determine the truth, causes and consequences of what has become known as the "Greensboro Massacre."
"Whatâ€™s happening in Greensboro is an innovative approach to setting up a truth commission," said Lisa Magarell, a senior associate with the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) in New York City. "Unlike the truth commissions in Peru and South Africa and other countries, the GTRC is focused on just one event. Itâ€™s also a grassroots effort, meaning that the GTRC hasnâ€™t been created by a government." Established in 2001, the ICTJ has assisted in putting together truth commissions in twelve countries and helped the GTRC develop its action plan.
No one has ever been convicted of the killings, though cameramen from four local television stations filmed the event.
The GTRCâ€™s seven members were chosen through a public selection process, and they were sworn in at a formal ceremony held at the refurbished Southern Railway Depot in downtown Greensboro on June 12, 2004. The commissioners then spent the six months hiring staff, finding workspace and looking for financial support. The Commission hired an executive director, research director and communications director and has enlisted the help of an intern and volunteers. By December 2004, they had raised more than $230,000 from private foundations and residents of Greensboro and surrounding communities.
"Weâ€™ve really just begun the process," said Cynthia Brown, the GTRCâ€™s co-chair. "We have been developing the infrastructure for a project that will be both complex and challenging to complete." Brown is a community activist, a former Durham, North Carolina city councilwoman and ran for the US Senate in 2002.
The genesis for the truth commission came from a meeting held in 1999 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the massacre. "Attendees were very conscious of the fact that the event remained unresolved," Joya Wesley, the GTRCâ€™s communications director recalled. "The South African Truth Commission was in the news, and they were conscious of how hard South Africa was working to unchain itself from its past and move forward in the spirit of openness and forgiveness."
Representatives from more than a dozen community groups, including the local Democratic and Republican Parties, helped impanel the Commission.
The massacre continues to affect the quality of life in Greensboro
In the view of some Greensboro business leaders, however, the project is unnecessary, and they fear it will bring negative publicity to a community that is working hard to promote itself as a progressive southern city. The Business Journal, which is distributed in the Greensboro area, noted that the local business community was invited to participate in the process of nominating commission members, but chose to stay away. David Jameson, president of the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce, told the Business Journal, "It just didnâ€™t seem like [the GTRC] had a business perspective, and we just need to stay focused on what weâ€™re doing."
GTRC officials believe that the Greensboro business community is passing up a golden opportunity to heal the divisive wounds of its past and to show that the city is as progressive as it claims to be. "They [the business community] are really missing a chance to build healthier relations within its community and with the outside world," said Wesley. "Helping to build a community thatâ€™s at peace with itself is the best way to attract business."
But the GTRC knows that its biggest challenge in making its mission a success is to convince all groups that its process will be fair and impartial. So to guide their operations, the commissioners have developed a set of protocols that they hope will reassure the public as well as potential participants that the their work is independent and transparent.
One of the Commissionâ€™s guiding principles states: "We commit ourselves to the ideal of restorative justice, freed from the need to exact revenge or make recriminations. The work that we do, and the report we will ultimately issue will be inspired by the belief that divisions can be bridged, trust restored and hope rekindled."
Achieving such a lofty goal will pose a challenge, given the bitter legacy of the massacre. As Wesley noted, no one was ever convicted of the killings, though several newspaper reporters were on the scene, and cameramen from four local television stations filmed the event.
On two occasions, all white juries acquitted the suspects in federal and state criminal trials. Eventually, five of the attackers and two police officers were found liable in a civil case, and the Greensboro city government paid the victims and family members $350,000. Many believe the police were complicit in the attack or were at least negligent in their duty to defend the protesters.
"The way the Greensboro incident was handled judicially created a lot of distrust of the system," Magarell said. "After all, the system is supposed to protect everyoneâ€™s rights -- even [those of] communists."
In the projectâ€™s preliminary stage, the Commission learned some important lessons that it believes will help in fulfilling its mandate. "There are many differing perspectives within the Greensboro community about the cause and consequences of November 3, 1979, and even differing perspectives on what actually happened on November 3rd," Brown explained. "There are a number of issues that contributed to the tragedy on that day, and as commissioners it is not just our job to look at the events of that day but to look at the factors that contributed to causing that tragedy."
She continued: "It appears from the data we have gathered thus far that there are issues related to labor, workersâ€™ rights, race and race relations, and other issues that are emerging as themes or issues that contributed to causing November 3. If indeed these issues are causal factors in November 3, our examination is relevant in the current context because these are still issues impacting the Greensboro and other communities today."
Brown said others have told her that the massacre continues to affect the quality of life in Greensboro. When asked to elaborate, she replied: "That could be a reference to strained relationships between police and residents -- particularly African American and low income residents -- that could be about the continuing disparity between racial groups who have basic needs and education and those who continue to struggle with issues of survival because of low-wage jobs, poor working conditions, racism and racial discrimination, et cetera. Our ongoing work is to conduct research with a cross section of the community to determine what people feel are the consequences of that tragic day."
In its research, the Commission is gathering and analyzing a variety of documentation, including court records, newspaper articles and police reports. In January of this year, it began taking testimonial statements from individuals directly or indirectly involved with the Greensboro Massacre.
By March 2006, the Commission expects to release a report identifying steps that the local community can take to help heal the wounds caused by the massacre. "The [Greensboro] community is ultimately responsible for bringing about reconciliation, and, hopefully, in our recommendations, we will give people throughout the community some steps toward that goal," Brown said. "By keeping the process as open and transparent as possible, we hope to have everyone involved in our process who has relevant information about November 3, including the police, survivors, and Klan/Nazi members."
Activists in a number of other cities are following the activities of the Greensboro Commission closely. For instance, members of some Philadelphia, Pennsylvania area religious communities suggested to Knight Ridder in June 2004 that a similar commission could perhaps help that city come to terms with the 1985 bombing of MOVE headquarters by local law enforcement. MOVE was a group of African American radicals who believed uncompromisingly in black self-determination and self-defense and had a long-running dispute with the Philadelphia establishment. Eleven people -- five of them children died in a raging fire sparked by the police assault. The bombing also destroyed a city block, leaving hundreds homeless.
"I think there is much to be healed here in Philadelphia," John Meyer, a Quaker and Philadelphia religious leader, told the Knight Ridder. "We will be watching [Greensboro] with interest and concern."