Why dig up the past?

The Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission started in 2004 with its goals spelled out in measured, bureaucratic language. But the best words to describe what its members tried to do as they immersed themselves in the details of the Nov. 3, 1979, shooting deaths of five people at a political rally come from a humble old hymn.

A woman sang it in the chapel of Bennett College the late May evening that commissioners presented their findings on how, 26 years ago, five members of the Communist Workers Party were killed by Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan.

"We'll understand it better, by and by."

Like Greensboro, communities throughout the country and across North Carolina bear scars of social, racial and economic strife that date to the nation's beginnings, from the treatment of Native Americans by European settlers and the import of African slaves. Truth and reconciliation commissions and similar groups are becoming a popular venue for airing these past grievances, much the way a commission in South Africa 20 years ago investigated the human rights abuses of apartheid.

The 1898 Wilmington Race Riot Commission recently presented its report to the N.C. General Assembly on that watershed event and recommended ways to right its enduring wrongs. Residents of Waco, Texas, are looking for ways to move past that city's violent history as the site of public lynchings from the late 1800s to the 1910s.

But is all this retrospection worth the energy it takes and the emotional upheaval it causes?

Irving Joyner, a law professor at N.C. Central University, sees the potential for similar exercises all over Eastern North Carolina, from Durham, to Oxford, to Elizabeth City, to Robeson County -- anywhere people are divided by historical disparities of race, class or economics.

"For many people, there is a need to heal, and a need to know what happened, so they can grasp the gravity of the situation," said Joyner, a consultant to the Greensboro panel and vice chairman of the Wilmington group.

"I don't think you can have any healing or reconciliation or people coming together until there is an exploration of what occurred, and why it occurred, and what are the results of that and how does that now impact people down the line."

'It can't be all bad'

Two years, many thousands of manhours and 300 pages of findings after it was formed, the Greensboro commission may be able to say it contributed to a deeper understanding of the 1979 killings.

Not everyone agrees, however, that the process, with its vitriolic detractors and appreciative supporters, has brought the city any closer to truth or reconciliation.

One faction believes that the shootings were an isolated event that gave Greensboro an undeserved black eye and that churning it all up again -- and again, and again -- does nothing for the image the city would like to project to potential industry recruits.

"The bottom line is, people who lost loved ones are never going to get over that, and I understand that," said Keith Holliday, Greensboro's mayor since 1995. "But as a community, we need to be able to move past it."

Others say that understanding the sequence of events that led to the shootings and the climate in which they occurred can help explain, and perhaps dispel, lingering racial and social tensions.

"The 1979 incident in Greensboro is part and parcel of a larger fabric," said Stephen McCollum, a city resident who has followed the commission. "If this were as isolated an event as some people might like it to have been, you wouldn't be spending this kind of time on it. And I think that anytime you can get people to engage on an issue or an idea to this degree, it can't be all bad."

McCollum didn't even live in North Carolina in 1979 when the Communist Workers Party was trying to organize factory workers, especially African-Americans living in cities, to push for better conditions and equitable wages.

The CWP counted among its enemies the Ku Klux Klan. Though many Klan members worked alongside blacks in low-paying factory jobs, the Klan opposed "race mixing" and saw communism as anti-American.

CWP members had crashed a KKK gathering in China Grove, near Salisbury, in July 1979, snatching the Confederate flag, brandishing sticks and chasing Klansmen into a community center. That fall the CWP organized a "Death to the Klan" rally and march that was to begin at one public housing development in Greensboro and proceed through several others. The CWP publicly challenged the Klan to come.

Municipal and police leaders knew about the Nov. 3 event and about plans by some Klansmen to attend and maybe lob eggs at the communists. Members of a state Nazi group, who shared some of the Klan's ideologies about race, also came.

A convoy of Klansmen and Nazis arrived at Morningside Homes as marchers gathered. Some CWP members rushed the convoy and pounded on the cars. Some Klansmen got out and retrieved guns from one of the vehicles.

Klansmen fired; some members of the CWP shot back. Eighty-eight seconds later, five CWP activists lay dead, and 10 other people were injured. TV news crews captured the shootings on film. No uniformed police officer was in sight.

In search of satisfaction

The absence of a show of force by Greensboro police became a central issue after the killings. Besides suggesting poor judgment, it fueled speculation of a conspiracy among police, the Klan and Nazis, and it became a symbol of the disenfranchisement of the poor, who could not expect their public officials to protect them. Two criminal trials in which all-white juries acquitted the Klansmen and Nazis on murder and lesser charges reinforced those sentiments.

In a democracy, if the courts don't provide what most people view as justice, where can they get satisfaction? The city refused to investigate further, books and movies didn't seem to change anything and commemorations drew the same people every year.

No governmental support

The truth and reconciliation commission was a new approach, used in South Africa, Peru and East Timor but never tested in the United States until some of those involved in the Nov. 3 event generated enough grassroots interest in the possibility to try it.

The group had no governmental support -- the Greensboro City Council voted to oppose it -- relying entirely on gifts from foundations, churches, corporations and individuals.

Over 24 months, the commission, its small paid staff and a legion of volunteers sifted through every shred of information they could find from court documents, city and police records and historical archives. But what they were most excited about was the chance to hear from people who had witnessed the shootings or been affected by the violence and never been asked to discuss it.

Volunteers went door to door in the neighborhood where the shootings happened and visited senior centers looking for people who had lived in Morningside Homes. They went to hospitals and ambulance services, looking for people who had handled the bodies and treated the wounded. They asked for statements from police officers and city workers. They issued invitations in the chat rooms of white supremacist groups.

To Jill Williams, the commission's executive director, those who wouldn't testify were almost as telling as those who did.

"I'm a middle-class white woman," Williams said. "I think the most shocking thing I heard was people reflecting the level of fear they had: African-Americans who lived in housing projects who had a deep fear of participating in this process, of giving statements, but even just coming to our meetings to listen. They had a fear of retaliation."

Williams said that the commission had hoped to hear from more police officers who were on the force in 1979 and that only a handful of Klansmen came to speak. Some of the most powerful testimony, she said, came from former Morningside residents, including a woman who had been about to celebrate her 16th birthday when the shootings occurred. No one ever counseled her about what she saw and heard, and she said she never has a birthday that she doesn't recall the day's events.

With no government ties, the commission had no subpoena power and no authority to punish anyone. In a way, Williams said, that was liberating.

"There was no chance this could turn into another criminal trial," she said. "So the only reason they would come is to tell their story."

About 200 people did, in public hearings and private interviews.

The commission sorted through the statements and other evidence to draw conclusions and recommendations on which its seven members could agree. It was a tedious, sometimes contentious process, said commission co-chair Cynthia Brown, a former Durham City Council member who was a senior at Bennett College when the shootings happened.

"I was constantly challenged throughout this process to be open to somebody else's lens and to realize that you are shaping your perception with your own lens, and in the end, you have to come to some kind of conclusion that honors who you both are," Brown said. More than once, she left a long night of debate thinking she would not go back.

In the end, the commissioners agreed that although the CWP, the Klan and the Nazis were all looking for a fight on the morning of Nov. 3, the primary cause of the loss of life was the absence of uniformed police. Though they didn't find evidence of a conspiracy, commissioners found that the police had deliberately chosen not to be present and that their failure to protect the marchers, and by extension the neighborhood, had resulted in a deep distrust.

The commission offered a number of ways to foster better relations between city institutions and those who felt alienated from them. But first, it wanted those involved to acknowledge their roles in the tragedy, and for the city and police to apologize for failing to prevent it.

Mayor Holliday said he deeply regrets the incident and agrees the police made bad decisions, but he is disappointed that the commission found more fault with police than with the combatants. He wouldn't apologize.

"If I apologize, I'm accepting some responsibility for the action or lack of action on the part of the city, and I just can't do that. I just can't accept responsibility for the police officers not being there and therefore these people dying."

Doing so, Holliday said, could open the city to new lawsuits, and anyway, is an apology necessary for reconciliation?

Not necessarily, said Joyner, the law professor. "I think you have to have acknowledgment of what happened, and of the consequences," he said. "And then some concrete effort to repair what was damaged. I think that's more important than an apology, especially if the apology is not sincere, if it's no more than words."

A groundbreaking experiment

Some who testified were relieved to finally have their say, but the city as a whole does not seem to have enjoyed catharsis.

"I read discussion on the local blogs, and it's just as divided as it ever was," said Elizabeth Wheaton of Ramseur, who wrote a book about the shootings called "Codename GREENKIL." "I don't think anybody's position has changed."

Wheaton said that if other communities want truth and reconciliation commissions to delve into their unresolved issues, they should make them more balanced. Greensboro's, she said, leaned too far left and was influenced too much by the CWP. But her biggest complaint is that the group didn't offer more advice on how the city, still riven by Nov. 3, can find peace with it.

"They gave these recommendations, and somehow these are supposed to bring about reconciliation," she said. "Well, some of these are really harebrained."

Williams, the commission's executive director, has boxed up her papers and sent them, with the rest of the commission's documents, to the Bennett College library archives. The commission's office is closed, and Williams is looking for a job.

A native North Carolinian, Williams is proud to have been part of a groundbreaking experiment in a city that boasts of its progressive history. Greensboro had one of the first stops on the Underground Railroad and was where four black college students launched a sit-in movement that desegregated lunch counters across the country.

"This is an opportunity for a community to be honest about its history, to not so much worry about its image to the rest of the world, but to say, 'Who are we? Who are our neighbors, and how do they understand our history?' " she said. "And to realize that none of us are going to go away. We're here, and we have to learn how to deal with each other and to deal with our collective past."