Truth and dissent: Robert Peters’ minority report

by Amy Kingsley

They have gathered and deliberated evidence for two years, but in the end members of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission never fully agreed on what led to five violent deaths on Nov. 3, 1979.

The commissioners released the executive summary of the report at a ceremony on May 25 at Bennett College. A few conclusions published in that summary are attributed to a majority of the commissioners instead of the unanimous approval required for consensus. Commissioner Robert Peters dissented on findings that lack of police presence was the biggest cause of violence that day, said Executive Director Jill Williams. Each of the commissioners disagreed with the majority opinion in at least one section of the full report, she added.

All the commissioners except for Peters felt so strongly about police culpability that they published the statement despite his disagreement. This majority is again cited in a finding that this police negligence was intentional and in another that the Ku Klux Klan posed a larger threat than the Communist Workers Party.

‘“There were a couple of places where we had at least one commissioner who felt there wasn’t enough evidence to make a statement,’” said Commissioner Pat Clark. ‘“The only fair thing to do was note that one commissioner disagreed in a few places.’”

Six of the seven commissioners comprised the majority referred to in those findings, Clark said. All of the commissioners wrote reflections on the process that functioned in part as clarifications of minority opinions.

Peters, a lawyer, wrote that his professional background gave him a different perspective from the other commissioners and offered detailed legal explanations pertaining to each of the contested statements.

Peters’ reflection does not rebuke the other commissioners. Instead he embraced the notion held by the rest of the commission that there are multiple truths influenced by class, race and personal experience.

‘“It is nothing short of the result of an honest effort to seek consensus and still not have anyone compromise their views,’” said Commissioner Cynthia Brown. ‘“It’s not just about splitting hairs, it’s also about keeping your principles.’”

Brown offered her own example of the negotiations over every line in the final report. The rest of the commissioners wanted to condemn gun possession outright, but Brown stood by her position advocating armed self-defense for certain populations. In the end, they settled on the statement that if no guns had been present on Nov. 3, 1979, it is probable that no lives would have been lost.

In his reflection, the Rev. Mark Sills included a Sufi story about a group of blind men who touch an elephant and describe their experience as honestly as possible. In spite of touching the same elephant, each man conjures different words for his sensation. For one it is like a snake, another compares it to the trunk of a tree and the last describes the elephant as a large, heavy stone.

‘“Perception is a hundred percent of reality,’” Brown said. ‘“The truth is very complex and subjective.’”

Peters’ reality as a retired professional in the criminal justice system includes a profound respect for the rule of law, according to his reflection. He acknowledged the imperfection of the legal system, but stopped short of condemning it as harshly as some of his fellow commissioners. He also wrote that no evidence supports rumors of conspiracy and that the judge and lawyers involved in the criminal cases performed professionally, a minority opinion among the commissioners.

The entire panel approved the vast majority of findings presented in the executive summary, said Commissioner Barbara Walker.

‘“Consensus really means that everyone can buy into it,’” she said. ‘“We were unified on so many things. Generally the discussion came down to matters where there was a great deal of interpretation of the law.’”

To comment on this article, e-mail Amy Kingsley at