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Truth and Reconciliation in Greensboro

Truth and Reconciliation Commissions have been convened to address human rights atrocities in several countries. The commissions document what happened and the harms that resulted, and when they work well, they point the way toward reconciliation. One community in the United States, Greensboro, North Carolina, is using this model to address the continuing effects of killings that took place during a 1979 civil rights rally. In this article, Joya Wesley, a freelance journalist working with the Greensboro Truth and Community Reconciliation Project (GTCRP) describes the work of the project.

The Greensboro Truth & Community Reconciliation Project (GTCRP) is an effort to apply restorative justice to one of American history’s most tragic true police dramas.

At the very least, the Greensboro Police Department was guilty of a grievous failure to protect citizens on Nov. 3, 1979, when five were killed and 10 others wounded – in the middle of the street in the middle of the day.

There is evidence, however, that police were actually guilty of much more. With the quiet payment of a $350,000 civil judgment, the city acknowledged police liability in at least one of the deaths.  

Twenty-five years after the tragedy, well over 1,000 people gathered for a post-election anniversary march supporting the GTCRP’s historic experiment in bringing out truth and restoring a community. 

With $100,000 worth of police officers on overtime marching congenially alongside in a symbolic show of protection, the march also inspired hope for engaging those police officers, white politicians and business leaders who have resisted the GTCRP. 

Police Chief David Wray, whose department has actively used restorative justice, is unsure whether applying it to a whole community through the GTCRP is appropriate or necessary.

“It would be my hope if there are misunderstandings or wounds to be healed that this will heal them,” he says. “Whether or not that will happen, I don’t know.”  

The wounds are deep, but the healing already has begun. Greensboro took a major step toward recovery on June 12, when 500 people witnessed the swearing-in ceremony for the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  

Modeled on truth-seeking efforts in South Africa, Peru and elsewhere, the GTCRP hopes to become a model that other American communities can use to address unresolved injustice in their own histories.  

The Beloved Community Center of Greensboro and the Greensboro Justice Fund – both founded by survivors of the shooting, initiated the effort. The former is the local social action hub led by the Rev. Nelson Johnson, his wife, Joyce, and other local activists. The latter was formed to fight racism nationwide with funds from the civil judgment by Dr. Martha Nathan, who lost her husband in the shootings.   

Although initiated by survivors, the GTCRP quickly grew a broad community base. The Local Task Force that guides the work is a diverse group of dozens of residents who believe this unhealed wound is hurting the city’s human relations.   

The co-chairs are former Greensboro Mayor Carolyn Allen, retired Presbyterian pastor Rev. Zeb Holler, and the Rev. Gregory Headen, a Baptist pastor and secretary of the Pulpit Forum, a local alliance of African American clergy. 

Bearing the theme “Transforming Tragedy into Triumph,” the 25th Anniversary March for Justice, Democracy, Truth and Reconciliation was part of a series of cultural, religious, educational and social events.  

Participants included Naomi Tutu, daughter of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, veteran social activists Vincent Harding and Elizabeth McAlister, and acclaimed playwright Emily Mann, who chronicled the events in her play, “Greensboro, A Requiem.”  

A 25th Anniversary March Coalition including a broad array of labor, community, religious and other organizations planned the events. Honorary co-chairs included civil rights activist Ann Braden and the UNITE-HERE union’s president, Bruce Raynor.  

The events energized local activists, especially students at four Greensboro colleges who formed a Greensboro Student Action Network that plans to continue related work. A post-march meeting for the entire coalition has been scheduled for Jan. 22, 2005.  

Organizers are counting these as signs of triumph over the unresolved tragedy. 

On Nov. 3, 1979, members of the Ku Klux Klan and American Nazi Party arrived in a caravan and opened fire on activists gathered for an anti-Klan rally and conference for racial, social and economic justice organized by the Worker’s Viewpoint Organization (later known as the Communist Worker’s Party).  

Killed were Sandi Smith, a graduate and former student government president at Bennett College for Women; Dr. Jim Waller a Greensboro activist physician; Dr. Michael Nathan, a Durham-based activist physician; Cesar Cauce, a Cuban immigrant who had been organizing workers in Durham; and Bill Sampson, who had been organizing workers at a plant in Alamance County. 

Although four TV crews captured the killings on film, two all-white juries acquitted the shooters of any wrongdoing. In a third trial, a federal civil trial, Klansmen, Nazis and members of the GPD were found jointly liable for one of the deaths.  

Although the City of Greensboro paid the civil judgment on behalf of all three defendant groups, it has never apologized or publicly acknowledged any wrongdoing.

The GTCRP’s intent is for the entire community to have an impartial story to replace widespread lies and confusion once the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission completes its work and issues its report, which is expected by the end of 2005.

The Commissioners, selected for their integrity and operating independently of the people who launched it, are mandated to review documents and hear testimony to determine the truth, causes and consequences of what happened. They also will suggest ways the individuals involved and the entire community can reconcile and move forward.

The individuals who agreed to take on this task are:

  • Cynthia Brown of Durham, N.C., a grassroots organizer and leader, former city councilwoman and one-time candidate for the U.S. Senate

  • Patricia Clark of Nyack, N.Y., director of the Fellowship for Reconciliation

  • Muktha Jost of Greensboro, an assistant professor in the school of education at N.C. A&T State University

  • Angela Lawrence of Greensboro, a community activist with a long history of work focusing on education and neighborhood development

  • Bob Peters of Greensboro, a retired corporate attorney with extensive experience in arbitration and dispute resolution

  • Rev. Mark Sills of Randleman, N.C., executive director of Greensboro’s Faith Action International House

  • Barbara Walker of Greensboro, a retired manager with Wrangler Corp. and former board president of the YWCA of Greensboro.

The International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) is serving as a consultant to the GTCRP, as it has in similar efforts in nations including Peru, Colombia, Guatemala and Sierra Leone.

For more information see

December 2004

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