International panel commends truth and reconciliation process

by Jordan Green

Emissaries from locales as disparate as Abbeville, SC and Ardoyne, Northern Ireland came to Greensboro last week to discuss commonalities of loss, injustice and official denial with leaders of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation process. Many spoke from a place of pain and anger, but also with relief as they cautiously expressed hope for the possibility of transforming society.

There was a subtle rebuke to those representatives of official Greensboro who claim the Klan-Nazi shootings of 1979 happened too long ago to resonate with present-day residents in the testament of Doria Johnson, a participant in a panel discussion at NC A&T University on July 8.

‘“Fifty years from now, people will pick up your report and know not just the white, rich man’s version of history; you have afforded future generations the opportunity to know the truth,’” Johnson told members of the now-disbanded Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission. ‘“You go back as far as you can with the perpetrators. You go back as far as you can with the pain. We’re still talking about Jesus being lynched two thousand years ago. Pain is intergenerational and it is passed as a weight through the years.’”

Johnson traces her family’s pain back to 1780 when her ancestor, George Crawford, landed on American soil as an African slave. The central traumatic event of her family’s history was the lynching of her great-great-great grandfather, Anthony Crawford, by a crowd of whites in Abbeville in 1916.

‘“He left behind four hundred acres of prime cotton land,’” Johnson said. ‘“He left behind our church built on our property. He left behind a school he built on his land. He was a registered voter. His last words were, ‘Give my bankbook to my children,’ and ‘I thought I was a good citizen.””

While other panel participants spoke of repressed collective memories, Johnson provided a vivid example, telling the audience that her great-great-great grandfather’s lynching prompted a mass exodus of blacks from Abbeville, and that she believes at least 11 other blacks were lynched in the same period.

‘“The reaction I get when I go back [to Abbeville] is one of denial, not wanting to deal with it,’” she said. ‘“I can’t even find the descendents of those eleven lynching victims. People have to learn to own their experiences.’”

In addition to the lynching of Johnson’s forebear and the 1979 killings of five communist labor activist in Greensboro, panelists spoke about efforts to address past injustices in Rosewood, Fla., where a black community was wiped out by a white mob in 1923; and Moore’s Ford, Ga., where four blacks were lynched in 1946.

International panelists spoke about South Africa, where the white government institutionalized death squads to violently suppress the black freedom movement; Peru, where a 20-year armed confrontation between the military and Maoist rebels unfolded in which, as panelist Eduardo Gonzalez described, ‘“both sides committed unspeakable atrocities’”; Sri Lanka, where different ethnic and religious groups have been displaced by civil war; and Ardoyne, a working-class Irish nationalist community where activist Patricia Lundy said 99 individuals were killed over the span of a couple decades by the British military, local police and, to a lesser extent, by nationalist activists.

Lundy said she sees similarities between Ardoyne and Greensboro related to the contested nature of memory.

‘“I was shocked and appalled,’” she said. ‘“I think there is amnesia in the United States. I think there is resistance in the state that was involved in these atrocities. These are not isolated incidents; they are part of a pattern of violence.

‘“Ardoyne was demonized as a terrorist community,’” she added, ‘“and it was thought that they deserved what they got, so that resonated very strongly with what I heard here.’”

Others spoke of the need to open space in public discourse for a consideration of the rights of people whose lives are not considered important. Such a case is the fate of the Tamil-speaking Muslims, a minority group caught in the middle of the conflict between the Tamils and Sinhalese in Sri Lanka.

‘“The Muslim community finds it difficult to find a place in the conversation about the future of the country,’” panelist Farzanna Haniffa said. ‘“The story about Muslim expulsion, everybody knows that it happened, but it’s not thought to be an important part of the story.’”

Many of the panelists agreed that it is important to move forward with an agenda of social change in spite of a common situation of elected officials refusing to engage with truth processes. There were nods of agreement when Gonzalez warned against allowing the truth-seeking efforts to become exercises in amnesia.

Participants in Greensboro’s truth process envisioned that social change in various ways.

‘“Around the world in communities large and small, secrets are being kept,’” said the Rev. Mark Sills, a former member of the Greensboro truth commission. ‘“We’re all complicit. Sometimes the victims are complicit. Those secrets enable violence to take place. Whenever the truth is spoken, old ways of doing things are threatened and power structures are brought down.’”

Lewis Pitts, a lawyer employed by Legal Aid of North Carolina who represented survivors of the 1979 shootings in a civil suit against the city of Greensboro, called for a new American revolution.

‘“This process is not just constitutionally protected as a First Amendment right, but it’s a moral obligation,’” he said. ‘“We have a right and duty that goes as far as to overthrow it. We are the patriots; they are the perverts. We should not allow ourselves to be marginalized, because we are at the core of this. A reconciled society is one that is by the people, of the people and for the people. So let’s do it.’”

In the end it was an audience member, Brian Kilpatrick, who asked the question that seems to mark the current turn of Greensboro’s story of restorative justice.

‘“If I’m stepping on your neck I can’t be talking about reconciliation,’” he said. ‘“What do you do about people who want to talk about nice-nice before we talk about who got killed, why they got killed, and what we’re going to do to make sure it doesn’t happen again?’”

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