U.S. communities seeking healing from racism try truth and reconciliation commissions
By Maggie Lee
Joyce Johnson had written out her testimony about the Klan, Nazis, the police and the deaths of five anti-racist demonstrators in 1979 Greensboro, North Carolina.
But nearly 30 years later, she wept anyway giving that testimony in public. She wasn’t the only one. Some cried with relief, some with shame at telling or hearing the past.
Anti-racist labor organizer Nelson Johnson said he’d done 20 days in jail for yelling a swear word in front of the courthouse before the Nov. 3, 1979 protest (misdemeanor incitement to riot, according to the charges.)
But for five deaths, no one went to prison. TV news crews captured footage of Klan and Nazi members firing into a crowd. Two all-white juries returned acquittals.
The Johnsons, though, are at the front of the process to bring healing and repair to the community harmed by those events. The spouses co-founded the Beloved Community Center of Greensboro, North Carolina and helped organize the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was set up to examine the context, causes, sequence and consequences of the events of Nov. 3, 1979.
Getting people on the record was tough but a necessary part of a process of trying to heal a community from racist practices and beliefs of a kind all too familiar across the world, including Atlanta.
“We had a strengthening of those who had been active freedom fighters in our community for years, since we were children ourselves. It really did strengthen us to carry on the fight,” Joyce Johnson said, talking about her work during an online panel last week hosted by the National Center for Civil and Human Rights.
The truth and reconciliation process is happening now in at least 14 communities and 40 college campuses nationwide, with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which is supporting what it calls a Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation process.
Whatever the specific name, the process involves including victims’ voices on the record instead of leaving victims out. It involves recognizing victims’ rights and humanity and the harms done. It involves throwing out racist ideas and assumptions, throwing out the often unconscious belief that some humans are better than others. The ultimate goal is racial healing and societial transformation.
In Maine, the process looked a little different, as it may from place to place.
The Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission gathered decades of statistics, facts and personal stories about what happened when prejudice-driven white state leaders removed Native children from their homes much more often than white children.
Besides other forms of abuse in foster care, Native former foster children told of things like having mouths washed out with soap for speaking a Wabanaki language, or being told to be glad if their skin was light-colored.
Esther Anne helped establish that commission and is a board member of board member of Maine-Wabanaki REACH (Restoration-Engagement-Advocacy-Change-Healing.)
State commission statement-gatherers came first to her Passamaquoddy community — one of the four tribes who make up the Wabanaki — and some testimony was filmed at first.
“I can’t tell you how difficult that moment was,” Anne said. “I kept thinking I had flames coming out of my head and I was yelling at people.”
Documentary film footage showed Anne wasn’t yelling at anyone. But for some survivors, public speaking was too traumatic or too difficult. So the process was adjusted to allow time for private testimony, without note-takers. Even the Commission’s final report omits names from most comments.
“You can’t get over the truth,” Anne said. “You have to sit with it. You have to grieve, if you’re going to heal from it. We have to stop people from erasing it and twisting it.”
The reconciliation part is what happens next, said Jill Savitt, CEO of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. It’s supposed to lead to healing and moving forward in a different way.
“Reconciliation can include holding perpetrators accountable,” Savitt said. “It can be reparations to victims, individually or through investment in communities harmed and a variety of other ways to reconcile.”
The Maine report has a white state worker recounting the “powerful learning” for him when a Native woman pointed out that he seemed about like other white men who had been showing up for 300 years with trinkets and promises that would never be fulfilled.
He may (or may not) have been a person of good will — but for the process to work, white people have to hear and learn and have to be part of the solution.
The Greensboro commission’s report recommended public apologies and a monument to those shot and other remedies specific to 1979, but also it called for more funding for social services, a living wage for county workers and other things that speak to equalizing opportunity in the community. In Maine, besides state-specific legal suggestions, the report recommended honor, respect, cultural awareness.
That is, hear people, hear the truth, and use those to build human minds and human institutions that treat people with equal dignity.
As for Georgia, none of the experts on the panel knew of any for truth and reconciliation processes underway here. But that doesn’t mean one can’t happen.
“Before we were able to empanel a citizen-led panel, we had no governmental support for what we did,” Joyce Johnson said. “In fact, we had governmental opposition … and no money.”
She said before there was a Greensboro truth commission, there were conversations, lots of conversations, at peoples’ homes, over dinner, across class lines. Sometimes they were difficult conversations about race, gender and class.
“So don’t just think you’ve got to pop up and have a formal commission … build off what ever traditions that there are in your community.”
National Center for Civil and Human Rights public discussion, “What are Truth Commissions?” Oct. 3, 2020. Video via Facebook.