Racial Reconciliation: Across the South, Communities Are Creating Truth and Reconciliation Commissions to Address a Past of Deadly Violence

Article excerpt

ON JUNE 12, 2004, 500 PEOPLE gathered in downtown Greensboro, North Carolina, to witness the swearing in of the seven members of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Greensboro TRC is the first TRC created in the United States. Its mandate is to examine the murder of five activists and the wounding of ten other people by Klan and Klan-affiliated individuals on the morning of November 3, 1979. Despite the fact that the murders were caught on videotape, after two trials no one has been convicted of the murders.

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The Greensboro TRC is one of a growing set of initiatives in communities throughout the United States where residents are undertaking the project of racial reconciliation that starts with acknowledging historic incidents of racial violence. The Greensboro TRC's final report was released on May 25, 2006. Its recommendations included a call on individuals involved in the 1979 murders to "reflect on their role and apologize ... to those harmed," as well as institutional reforms such as antiracism training for all city and county employees, the creation of a community justice court to handle misdemeanor cases, the development of a curriculum for the county's public schools that would include the events surrounding the murders, and the issuance of annual reports on race relations in the city. The impetuses for the projects are as diverse as the initiatives themselves. The Greensboro TRC was born from discussions surrounding the 20th anniversary of the Greensboro killings. The exhibit of lynching photos, Without Sanctuary, helped renew and reinvigorate conversations about lynching in Georgia, including the lynching of Leo Frank. The reopening of investigations into civil rights-era murders in Mississippi has contributed to a period of reflection and reconciliation in that state. Even the Senate's apology for failing to pass antilynching legislation inspired a community in Abbeville, South Carolina, to open a conversation about the lynching of Anthony Crawford in 1916.

Perhaps the most ambitious effort to date is that of Southern Truth and Reconciliation (STAR). STAR is a regional network of individuals and organizations focused on examining the history of lynching in the South and working toward reconciliation in communities where lynchings have occurred. The creation of STAR, ironically, derives from a challenge issued by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the chair of the South African TRC, during his two-year visiting professorship at Emory University in Atlanta. After listening to academics and community leaders offer critiques of the South African TRC, Tutu issued a challenge: "Stop studying our TRC and begin your own reconciliation process." Community leaders and academics took up the challenge and began to formulate what became STAR in 2003. STAR held its first annual conference, "Racial Violence and Reconciliation," at the University of Mississippi in March 2006.

What is most compelling about these reconciliation initiatives is their sheer diversity. Some have sought merely to open dialogue, others have focused on reopening old cases, and still others have created commemorative sites where lynchings took place. Leaders in Duluth, Minnesota, for example, commissioned the creation of a memorial to commemorate the 1920 lynching of three young Black men in that city. The bronze sculptures, unveiled in October 2003, have formed the centerpiece of a three-year effort to, as one leader said, "tell the truth ... [and] make history right." On the day designated to commemorate the lynching victims, 2,500 residents walked from a downtown site to the memorial. …