I was talking recently with my friend Jayne Thompson, who's writing a novel that touches on the November 3, 1979, Greensboro massacre. That inspired a trip out to Greensboro to visit the site of the massacre and, a few blocks away, the cemetery where four of the five people who were killed are buried.
The massacre was a day before the Iran Hostage crisis began, so I think that goes a long way to explain why you've probably never heard of it. The short version is that Klansmen showed up at an anti-Klan rally (run largely by the Communist Workers Party) in an African American neighborhood in Greensboro known as Morningside Homes and started killing demonstrators. Even though there is extensive video evidence, no one was ever convicted in either the state or federal prosecutions that followed. More recently the Greensboro truth and reconciliation commission revisited those events and their aftermath.
I am interested in the motivations, politics, and possibilities of TRCs, though I am also skeptical of them. Someone commenting about Greensboro a few years back said something like, it's the usual crowd coming together -- Nuns, Reconstruction Rabbis, Unitarian and UCC ministers, some Quakers, and social workers. (And one might add community activists and perhaps even a law professor or two.) My sense from a distance is that the people on the TRC did a very good job of gathering the evidence and shifting through what happened and of making some serious efforts towards reconciliation. There was -- quite unsurprisingly -- little engagement from the crowd who committed the attrocities, though at least one of them expressed remorse. If you're interested in this, Lisa Magarrel and Joya Wesley wrote a very good book on the Greensboro TRC, which I think has the potential to get other communities to follow in the wake of Greensboro.
Yet -- and this is what's motivating this post -- I'm not sure that we have even the most basic issue for a TRC: truth. For as I was trying to figure out where the massacre occured so I could go visit it, I turned to my usual starting point for research: wikipedia. The wikipedia entry for the Greensboro massacre makes it almost sound like the demonstrators were to blame for starting the violence that day. Nor does it portray in detail the complicity of the city. What for me is perhaps the most harrowering of many disturbing stories, though, is the breakdown of the rule of law in the aftermath of the massacre. The local prosecutor seems to have suffered from a lack of resolve in the prosecutions, though I have no sense that mattered to the outcome of the trial. So I am bothered that even now we do not have an accurate public history of the massacre. I hope to return to several issues here down the road, including the case for making a moral claim on the city by the victims' family members, perhaps even now; the difficulty of telling an accurate history of racial crimes; and whether anything else should or could be done now.
The photo is the tombstone in Greensboro's Maplewood Cemetery. If you're interested in visiting the site of the massacre or the cemetery, here is UNC-G's tour. (But note that you go RIGHT, not left, at the first intersection in the cemetery to get to the tombstone.)