Harrowing work comes to an end at truth commission

by Jordan Green

The sun beats down on the submerged patio at Liberty Oak on downtown Greensboro’s Washington Street, instilling a kind of languid agreeableness on the noontime diners. Two women whose sweat, expertise and hourly labor have played a key role in shaping the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s massive report settle in under the parasol and flip open their menus.

Their relaxed posture and easy banter belie the arduous 12- and 16-hour days they’ve put in over recent months, the harrowing last-minute scramble to assemble facts and perspectives, the laser-like scrutiny on their lonely enterprise, and the strange revelation that they became the target of ousted police chief David Wray’s surveillance program.

‘“Our lives have been the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,’” says Executive Director Jill Williams, who is 28. ‘“We don’t know people outside of the commission. Since our lives are so consumed it’s difficult to realize that not everybody even knows about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission or November 1979.’”

Williams and Research Director Emily Harwell moved to Greensboro in early 2005 to work for the commission. Williams had previously worked as a program administrator at her alma mater, Davidson College, outside of Charlotte. The 41-year-old Harwell had recently completed a stint as senior researcher for the East Timor Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation. She’s closely following events in the newly independent Southeast Asian nation, where poverty and competition for oil revenues seem to have precipitated rising communal violence that threatens to spill over in open civil war.

‘“I came here to work on this project,’” Harwell says. ‘“Everyone I met had to do with the commission. I’ve never had time to have a life outside of work. That’s difficult being closely identified ‘— no, I’m actually only identified with my work here.’”

It was hard to avoid taking the slings of public opinion personally, they both say. At the heart of the controversy was the contention ‘— bandied about in local blogs and in the pages of the News & Record ‘— that the truth process was an orchestration of the Rev. Nelson Johnson.

They had to constantly remind critics that seven commissioners were selected through a nomination process that involved a broad array of community groups, and that while they took their mandate from the similarly named Greensboro Truth and Community Reconciliation Project to pursue ‘“healing and reconciliation of the community through discovering and disseminating the truth,’” the commission was charged in its guiding principles with conducting an impartial investigation that would respect diverse viewpoints.

‘“I got my professional ego out of joint when people made claims about what the report was going to be when they didn’t even ask me about it,’” Harwell says. ‘“Criticism would be putting it politely. Impugning our integrity was what it was.’”

The two are acutely aware of their limitations.

Harwell recounts how only a day before the report was completed she sent assistant researchers to the Wilson Library at UNC Chapel Hill, where archival files from the 1985 federal trial are stored, to try to nail down one particular detail.

Williams mentions a reluctance to talk among some community members that the commission was never able to overcome.

‘“There was some real fear of physical retaliation from the Klan and the police,’” Williams says. ‘“In the public housing projects they looked at the Klan and the police as one and the same, frankly. As a white woman, it was hard for me to say, ‘Oh, you don’t need to worry about the Klan,’ or, ‘Oh, you don’t need to worry about the police.’ It was a lot different than being afraid that you’ll lose funding for your nonprofit or being afraid you’ll be misquoted.’”

Williams is buoyed today by good spirits and a sense of relief that the hardest work is done. She confesses a piece of her personal history that might concern the white power groups that always claimed the truth commission was an agent of racial integration and communism.

‘“Did I ever tell you about the time I went to Columbus, Ohio to protest against the Klan?’” she asks Harwell.

As a sophomore at Davidson College Williams and some friends in a group called Students for Ethnic, Racial and Cultural Harmony, or SERCH, decided to join an Anti-Racist Action counter-demonstration against a joint Klan and Aryan Nations rally. It was 1996 or 1997; she’s not exactly sure which.

‘“Up until then we had mostly showed up at the Hindu festival,’” Williams says, ‘“but I wanted to go in more of a direct action direction.’”

She found herself in a uniquely American alternate universe where militant anti-fascists, white supremacists and religious fundamentalists tested their ideological passions in the First Amendment marketplace. And she learned a little bit about shared humanity during close encounters with sworn adversaries.

‘“There were these guys in three-piece suits for Jesus,’” Williams recalls. ‘“I thought, ‘Oh neat, the Jesus people are coming together with the anti-racists.’ But they started yelling at Anti-Racist Action, ‘Do you guys want to go to hell?’ These people came to protest the people who were protesting the Klan!’”

The anti-racist activists, some of them women with shaved heads and facial piercings, roared back: ‘“Hell!’”

One of the anti-fascists repeatedly shouted, ‘“I used to be a white American, but I gave it up for humanity.’”

Williams got separated from her group, and she found herself sitting in her car, an anti-racist pin affixed to her jacket, as a group of Klanfolk marched in her direction.

‘“Here’s this Klan guy in his robe and he’s carrying his hood,’” she says. ‘“He gestures for me to roll down the window, and I rolled down the window. He says, ‘Do you know how to get out of here?’ I told him, ‘No, I came from out of town for the rally too.””

The truth commission officially disbanded on May 25, when copies of the executive summary of the report were distributed during a release ceremony at Bennett College’s Annie Merner Pfieffer Chapel. Although the full report is available on the internet (, the commission staff is still scrambling to wrap up.

The report needs to be copy edited and sent to the printer. Consent forms must be filled out so the commission can make taped and written testimony available to the public at the Bennett College archives. Four feet of Greensboro Police Department files need to be organized for public review. And there are grant reports to write.

The staff must be out of their office at the Self-Help Building by Wednesday (June 7), Williams says, but Harwell would like to finish up sooner.

Harwell and her partner are moving to Vancouver, British Columbia, as they had previously agreed before she took the job in Greensboro. She thinks she might sign on to work with a truth and reconciliation commission forming in Canada to examine how indigenous people were forced into government-run boarding schools against their will. Her partner works for the United Nations in Liberia, so it also seems conceivable that she might contribute her research skills to human rights work to buttress the African country’s fragile democracy.

‘“They have a lot of challenges, and they’re dangerous challenges,’” Harwell says. ‘“I don’t think I would live there, but I might come in as a consultant now and then.’”

Williams might stick around, depending on where she lands her next job.

‘“I wish I could tell you what I was going to do,’” she says. ‘“My background is in mediation. I have an interest in race. One fantasy is to go work in New Orleans, but I don’t have any particular leads on that.’”

She shrugs.

‘“I might stay in Greensboro,’” she says. ‘“After a long nap I’ll decide.’”

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