The best outcome of a truth and reconciliation commission, according to Canadian academic and politician Michael Ignatieff, is the narrowing of “the range of permissible lies” we tell about ourselves as a society.
The historical marker recently placed to commemorate the Greensboro Massacre represents just that. It doesn’t tell the whole story, or even all of the important parts, of what happened on Nov. 3, 1979, but the sign includes far fewer of the lies that have dominated the narrative all these years.
No longer, for example, will local media outlets in good faith be able to refer to the events that day as a “shootout” without acknowledging that the state of North Carolina, with the blessings of the Greensboro City Council, named it a “massacre.”
That shift, in and of itself, is meaningful to survivors of the Greensboro Massacre and countless others locally, but its impact extends far beyond Greensboro. Since the release of the Greensboro Truth & Reconciliation Commission’s report 10 years ago, I have had the privilege of working with people all over the country and world who have been inspired by the truth process here.
Yes, the South African Truth & Reconciliation Commission was a powerful model for the process in Greensboro. But what happened here — a process generated not by a government, but by the people in the community including the survivors — is inspirational to others who have experienced injustice around the world.
It’s been meaningful to Native American groups in Maine who, along with the state, established their own TRC to examine the impact of child welfare policies on native children. And to groups in Detroit trying to address a wide range of institutional and structural barriers for people of color — including recent massive water shut-offs for poor residents. More recently, it has been inspirational to activists in Ferguson, Baltimore, New Orleans, New York City and beyond who are trying to remind us all that black lives matter.
And it’s been encouraging in places like Scotland, Western Sahara, Colombia, Papua New Guinea and Palestine where survivors of other patterns of abuse are looking for ways to get their plights acknowledged and to reform those institutions responsible for those injustices.
That a grassroots process in Greensboro took place and continues to see slow but steady change in “narrowing the range of permissible lies” and reforming public institutions provides a source of hope for people in other places struggling to do the same. The “truth and transformation” initiative growing out of Ferguson, for example, will look different than Greensboro’s Truth & Community Reconciliation Project, but the lessons learned in Greensboro — and the inspiration offered by the fact that it happened at all — have been invaluable.
As I’ve learned about and worked with each of these communities, I’ve come to appreciate that one of Greensboro’s greatest strengths is the leadership of the Greensboro Massacre survivors, and particularly the Rev. Nelson and Joyce Johnson. As the executive director of the Greensboro TRC, I did not have the chance to work closely with or get to know the survivors until well after the commission’s work was completed. But since the Greensboro TRC finished its job, I have worked closely with them to support efforts in these other communities and I’ve been consistently amazed by the gracious, humble, loving and strategic guidance they have offered. People all over the country and world hold the Johnsons and the other survivors in high esteem and seek their counsel often.
As I work alongside the Johnsons and fellow survivors with communities around the world, I remember those voices 10 years ago warning that an effort to investigate the events of Nov. 3, 1979 would only harm Greensboro’s image. To the contrary, I am beginning to see that those predictions and the assumptions underlying them — assumptions about the ill intentions of the survivors and other community leaders who initiated the truth and reconciliation process in Greensboro — were all a part of that “range of permissible lies” that we are still working to narrow today.
The corresponding truth, which mainstream Greensboro would be well served to acknowledge and continue building upon, is that the city’s creative democratic spirit — embodied by the Greensboro Massacre survivors, their allies and countless others — are among Greensboro’s greatest assets.
Jill Williams was the executive director of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission and has since served as a consultant and researcher in the area of community based truth-seeking initiatives. She currently lives with her family in Pulaski, Va., where she is the director of the Accountability in Student Learning Program at New River Community College.