Truth & Reconciliation in Greensboro, North Carolina

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Via Encore Careers:

In early November 1979, a group of American Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members opened fire on a labor and civil rights march in Greensboro, N.C., killing five people and wounding 10 others. Twice, all-white juries acquitted the six Klansman and Nazis brought to trial. Outrage, fear, confusion and pain enveloped the city like a dark cloud. A federal civil suit filed in 1985 found the local police, Klan and Nazis liable of one wrongful death in the Greensboro Massacre. But it was too little, too late.

The Rev. Nelson Johnson, then a community activist, led that civil rights march back in 1979, and over the ensuing decades he struggled to find a way to bring healing to a city still seething. “The question was: Wow do we engage this part of our culture that has now become its own kind of cancer?” he recalls.

Nelson began to rethink his approach to activism. “I grappled deeply with my understanding of social change – what I had been doing and how I had been doing it.” After attending seminary, he and his wife Joyce founded the Faith Community Church in a rundown Greensboro neighborhood.

Embracing Martin Luther King Jr.’s concept of the “beloved community” – its belief in forgiveness, inclusiveness and the capacity for personal transformation – the Johnsons formed the Beloved Community Center and opened its doors to those in need. The center reached out to the homeless, to those caught up in gangs and drugs, and to struggling service groups.

Building on their work with the Beloved Community Center, Nelson and Joyce embarked on a five-year effort to create a truth and reconciliation commission to reexamine the Greensboro Massacre. Local resistance was persistent; the Greensboro City Council rejected the idea and refused to participate. Others were suspicious of the Johnsons’ intent.

But in 2004 the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission effectively transformed the city of 230,000 into a civil rights experiment. Thousands attended public hearings, religious services, conferences and artistic performances. Discussion groups, Internet blogs and call-in shows engaged residents directly. Klansmen and Nazis met in the same rooms as surviving family members of those killed in the massacre.

Former Nazi Roland Wayne Woods came forward to say he had killed a demonstrator. Asked why he had committed the murder, Woods said he had been mixed up, full of hate and rage, and then took full responsibility. “We all cried that day,” Nelson remembers.

After two years of testimony and public debate, the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued 29 recommendations – some sweeping, some specific – to the City Council and public. Beyond North Carolina, the Johnsons are aiming to facilitate truth and reconciliation projects nationwide, “opening up a new future for us all.”

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