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Whitewash

America?s first Truth and Reconciliation Commission is attempting to get North Carolina to face what really caused the 1979 Greensboro Massacre.

This past summer and fall some of those narratives finally got a public hearing. There was no celebrated retrial here, as has occurred elsewhere in the South. Instead, Greensboro became the site of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission process, familiar to places such as South Africa and Chile but unprecedented in the United States. Greensboro's TRC, initiated by survivors and assisted by international experts, provided a public forum for righting the record and restoring the spirit of justice where judicial practice and punishment had become impossible. Unlike its international antecedents, however, Greensboro's TRC was not preceded by a major shift in power. It had no official sanction, public funding, or authority to issue subpoenas or grant amnesty. The white mayor, who opposed the process along with the white-dominated police force, the white majority of the City Council, the white financial interests and chamber of commerce, complained to the Washington Post that "the TRC project is being used as an alternate way to create what never happened, and that is a major investigation." Which is exactly the point in a situation where conventional avenues to justice are posted Dead End.

When the commission issues its report in March it is unlikely to produce hard proof of police complicity in the attack. Although two Klansmen testified ("Maybe God guided the bullets," Imperial Wizard Virgil Griffin declared), most police and federal agents refused to. But the hearings have already relocated the massacre within the long sequence of struggle-repression-political opening-bad faith-struggle-repression that white Greensboro's story denies, and absent which "the events of 1979 are unintelligible," according to Nelson Johnson, who organized the protest, was wounded, and then arrested for inciting a riot.

Once a revolutionary communist, now a Christian minister and, with his wife, Joyce, director of the Beloved Community Center ("The distance between Marx and the Old Prophets is not as great as it seems," he says), Johnson has been a lightning figure as a black activist in Greensboro since the late 1960s. He reviews the pattern by which city power players historically raised competing specters of the Klan and black radicalism or communism to justify racial policies long on rhetoric and blue-ribbon panels but short on action. To blacks, white leaders cast themselves as the moderate bulwark against the Klan, meanwhile stoking race fury among the white working class to thwart unionization in the mills.

Despite that 1954 resolution on desegregation, for instance, Greensboro's best men said race mixing in the schools would only rile the Klan; thus, the city was one of the last to integrate its schools, in 1971. After the epidemic, the polio hospital reverted to the segregationist mode of every other city hospital, and in 1963 was used as a jail during a month-long black uprising. By the late '60s and '70s, Johnson says, the black community had had it with the white power structure and achieved an extraordinary level of organization exercised in student strikes, rent strikes, work stoppages, and poor people's groups. When white radicals began entering the mills, organizing cross-racially, and were elected in a few cases to union positions, "you had a convergence of forces for social, racial, and economic justice that culminated in 1979."

That was shattered on November 3. Although the WVO was a small sectarian group, its decapitation had the broad freeze effect of terror. Now when survivors like the Johnsons talk of reconciliation, it's in terms of following the full skein of Greensboro's experience to arrive at what Joyce calls "an authentic language" for addressing past and future. Nothing can right America's race history; it is what it is, mendacious and brutal. The high-profile convictions of old Klansmen for crimes of the 1960s only reinforce notions of individual monstrosity, isolated incidents, and punishment as the solution to all problems. "What does it mean for an 80-year-old man, one foot on a banana peel and another in the grave, to go to prison?" Johnson asks. "What does this explain about the vicious sentiments of the system that used him? What does it challenge?"

In Greensboro people who weren't alive in 1979 have stopped by Johnson's church to ask about the TRC. Hundreds have sat through all-day hearings. Elijah Andrews, who was 13 on November 3 and remembers his mother going after his little brother and shrieking, "Get down!" learned of the hearings and, amazed that attention was finally being paid, attended them.

How does anything change in this country? How do people fragmented for years get themselves together, find a voice, "a way out of no way"? With 61 years of the mess of life behind him, Nelson Johnson talks in deep, even tones about alternative structures, creative democracy, restorative justice: "They're kind of a Jacob's ladder. You do it all, and then you do it all again, and each time you go higher."

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