Even though Greensboro, N.C. long prided itself as being a beacon of progress in the history of race relations, according to some local activists the city has never come to terms with a spectacular moment of violence and seeing racial horror that happened as the city approached the twenty-year anniversary of the sit-in triumphs.
On November 3, 1979, the Communist Worker’s Party (CWP), a group made up primarily of activists from outside Greensboro, organized a Death to the Klan rally and invited members of the Ku Klux Klan to attend and respond to the CWP’s critique. The Klan, joined by members of the Nazi Party, took up the CWP’s challenge and, after an altercation with CWP marchers, opened fired on the activists. Five protestors were killed in the shootout, and many more were injured. Most Greensboro citizens were horrified, and their dismay increased when nine months later an all-white jury acquitted the defendants despite overwhelming evidence that the accused had killed the marchers.
In the heat of the moment, city leaders declared that the violence was coincidental to Greensboro itself, since virtually none of the individuals involved were from the greater Greensboro area. The CWP knew it could garner attention for its struggle to organize workers in the local textile industry while addressing what it viewed as the linked problems of racial and economic injustice by invoking Klan racism. In this way, CWP activists understood that race continued to be a live wire in the post-civil rights South. Although they certainly did not seek out the violence that resulted, the labor organizers knew it would be easy to goad the Klan into some sort of confrontation. So much of the South was built on these kinds of horrors.
Twenty years after the November clash, a coalition of progressive Greensboro activists called for a truth and reconciliation commission –the first in the United States –in order to answer the questions, “What if American cities – especially Southern cities –stopped ignoring the skeletons in their closets? What if they were inspired by the potential of the truth &reconciliation model as demonstrated in South Africa, Peru, and elsewhere, to help them seek life-affirming restorative justice and constructively deal with past incidents of injustice?” Although the subsequently formed Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission (GTRC) had no subpoena power and could not redistribute resources or reallocate justice, the GTRC believed it important to address the festering pain of the shooting, the subsequent trial, and more fundamentally, the long-tem silence in the community about racial, economic, and social injustice that led up to and the followed the violence.
The commission clearly believed its work was productive, even if in the process old wounds reopened. When it published its final report in May 2006, the GTRC used the words of legal scholar Martha Minow as the lead epigraph: “Failure to remember, collectively, triumphs and accomplishments diminishes us. But failure to remember, collectively, injustice and cruelty is an ethical breach. It implies no responsibilities and no commitment to prevent inhumanity in the future. Even worse, failures of collective memory stoke fires of resentment and revenge.” The GTRC recognized that the scale of the atrocities that called other truth commissions into being was different from what even the most skeptical and hardened activists would claim in Greensboro, but the GTRC hoped that its work remained a timely reminder “of the importance of facing shameful events honestly and acknowledging the brutal consequences of political pin, calculated blindness, and passive ignorance.”
Although the efficacy of the GTRC report is unclear –some local business and civic leaders still think the violence in 1979 did not reflect Greensboro’s social interactions and core values, and they also feel that the GTRC only stirred up trouble for the sake of stirring up trouble – it appears that the spirit of the report is at least figuratively found in the city’s International Civil Rights Museum’s Hall of Shame. That room, with its jagged and searing reminders of the ugliness in our recent pasty, and the Hall of Courage that follows soon after remind us that the fight for a just and better world cannot happen without a sincere and thorough engagement with the past.