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"Greensboro's Radical Experiment in Democracy,"

by Signe Waller Foxworth November/December 2008 issue of Poverty & Race

The lead article in our Jan./Feb. 2006 P&R was “Truth and Reconciliation in Greensboro, North Carolina: A Paradigm for Social Transformation,” by Marty Nathan and Signe Waller, followed by a short update in our May/June 2006 issue. While down in Greensboro in mid‑September to speak at a HUD housing conference, I took the opportunity to meet with Signe Waller and attended the weekly Beloved Community meeting at a local church. It seemed appropriate to report on the project’s progress, which I’ve ask Ms. Waller (now Ms. Waller Foxworth) to do. Another side‑trip while in Greensboro was a tour of the under‑construction International Civil Rights Center and Museum—in the very Woolworth’s that was the site of the February 1960 sit‑in by four No. Carolina A&T freshmen that triggered such a wave of exciting and effective civil rights activities. The ICRCM is scheduled to open in February 2010, on the 50th anniversary of the sit‑in. It is a huge (and expensive) undertaking—physically and politically. Further information (or to make a contribution), contact the project’s Executive Director Amelia Parker, 800/748‑7116,—CH

“Now comes the hard part, taking this beautiful body of work out into the community,” a local supporter of the Greensboro Truth and Community Reconciliation Project (the Project) told a reporter. The comment was made after the country’s first Truth and Reconciliation Commission, charged with an “examination of the context, causes, sequence and consequence of the events of November 3, 1979,” in Greensboro, North Carolina, presented its lengthy final report to city residents on May 25, 2006. A radical experiment in community-building and genuine democracy is taking place in this mid-sized Southern city. What has been accomplished thus far has inspired many people in the United States and around the globe.

The Background

The Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission (Greensboro TRC) examined events connected to the Greensboro Massacre. On November 3, 1979, while assembling for an anti-Klan parade, five labor leaders and community activists were murdered and ten wounded by Klansmen and American Nazis. Killed were four white men (two of them Jewish, one Latino) and an African-American woman. The black community in which this terrorist assault took place was paralyzed with fear. Four television crews captured the incident on film. Nevertheless, all the perpetrators were twice acquitted of any wrongdoing, first in a state trial for murder and later in federal court for civil rights violations. Finally, in 1985, after years of community marches and petitions in a highly charged political climate that included constant governmental repression and police surveillance and harassment of those who stood with the victims, the injured and widowed survivors of Nov. 3, 1979 realized an unprecedented, though only partial, victory in civil litigation. Several Klan members, Nazis and Greensboro police officers were found jointly liable for one of the deaths.

The City of Greensboro paid a $351,000 settlement—for the Klan and Nazis, as well as the police—to survivors of the tragedy, but has failed, as yet, to acknowledge any responsibility whatsoever, much less its complicit and dishonest actions in the affair. A few thousand dollars was assessed against the Klan and Nazis for assaulting and injuring some demonstrators, but they never paid and there was no further litigation. Until the release of the Greensboro TRC report, there was no comprehensive and coherent public account of this civil atrocity. The official narrative proffered by the city and the media was (and remains) significantly flawed: It scapegoated the victims of the tragedy and ignored or downplayed factual evidence that clearly pointed to police and governmental collusion with the assailants.

The Commission’s report goes a long way toward rectifying false views foisted on people through the mass media. Commissioners concluded that the “GPD [Greensboro Police Dept.] and key city managers deliberately misled the public about what happened on Nov. 3, 1979….” The report articulates that police absence at the anti-Klan rally was intentional and that the absence of the police was the “single most important element that contributed to the violent outcome of the confrontation.”

Wider Applicability

Can Greensboro’s truth process be applied elsewhere? Most definitely. The systemic nature of racism and worker oppression in the U.S. guarantees that virtually every town or city has ample historical experience of injustices it has yet to face and overcome. Everywhere, genuine democracy is blocked by powerful institutions built to further enrich a wealthy elite at the expense of the people. If the transformation of society toward genuine democracy is the goal, then this process of truth and reconciliation is totally relevant and effective, providing a mechanism with application anywhere. While it focuses on the past, it is oriented toward the future. The Greensboro model can be applied right now and adapted to local circumstances.


Most extraordinary perhaps about the Greensboro truth process is that it was grassroots-driven, implemented without official authorization. In fact, the Project thrived against official opposition—in 2005, the City Council voted to oppose it. The vote was split along racial lines, with three black Council members in support of the process and six whites against. The mayor at the time, who was white, joined the naysayers. Over a year later, when the issue was revisited in Council, the opposition vote held.

However, this is actually good news. When one considers what the Project has achieved, despite the resistance it has encountered, including official opposition, then it is clear that communities, towns, cities and states do not have to wait for a nod from on high. If people can be mobilized, if there is a strong community group or other non-governmental organizations with political will and the desire to seek truth, restorative justice and the healing of past wounds, then there is a potential to embark on a transformational truth process. Alex Boraine, who served as Deputy Chair of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, praised the Greensboro experiment to a Project delegation visiting South Africa in 2007. Greensboro, he said, is making a major contribution to truth processes internationally because it has shown, with the strength of its community model, what people can do without government sponsorship.

In very sketchy outline, here is how Greensboro’s radical experiment in democracy is unfolding: Its pre-Commission phase began in 1999 when the vision took shape in the minds of several massacre survivors — in particular, Rev. Nelson Johnson and Joyce Johnson of the Beloved Community Center and Dr. Marty Nathan of the Greensboro Justice Fund. A couple of years later, the Project went forward with financial support from the Andrus Family Fund and in consultation with the International Center for Transitional Justice, which linked the Greensboro effort to a worldwide trend in restorative justice.

The essence of the Project lies in the local organizing carried out day-to-day by the Beloved Community Center and affiliated organizations with community members. The commitment to employ genuinely democratic methods and to strive for inclusive participation is unshakable. The Project established a Local Task Force and a National Advisory Council early on.

In January 2003, the Local Task Force announced its Declaration of Intent to revisit the tragedy in order to “lead Greensboro into becoming a more just, understanding and compassionate community.” The Declaration was signed by 32 community leaders. Community members then prepared and published a Mandate and Selection Process for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Also in 2003, Archbishop Desmond Tutu met with a delegation from the Local Task Force. His inspiring and encouraging words, along with the support of other main players in the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, reinforced the Project’s orientation toward a firm spiritual grounding for its mission of truth-seeking, restorative justice and community reconciliation.

The Selection Panel that appointed the Commissioners consisted of over a dozen panelists chosen by diverse groups and organizations. The Panel was broadly representative of city residents. Everyone in Greensboro was invited to submit nominations for Commissioners. The panel selected seven Commissioners from among the nominees. Commissioners were installed on June 12, 2004, in a moving, historic ceremony at the Transit Depot in downtown Greensboro. The swearing-in ceremony was officiated by Melvin Watt, North Carolina’s 12th Congressional District Congressman and a member of the Project’s National Advisory Council; Carolyn Allen, a former Greensboro Mayor and Co-Chair of the Project’s Local Task Force; and District Court Judge Lawrence McSwain, the Chair of the Project’s Selection Panel. Once spawned by the Project, the Commission was independent. It hired its own staff and made its own decisions.

The Commission

Overcoming many obstacles, the Greensboro TRC carried out its mandate faithfully. To mention only a few of these: the need to scramble for funding; the lack of an existing template for a grassroots-driven truth and reconciliation commission; and ongoing resistance from the city’s status quo leadership and institutions, in particular attempts, subtle and not so subtle, to split the Commission from the Project—i.e., try to introduce from outside the process ground rules that would cut off the survivors of the original incident from the Commission, or cast suspicion on the entire process because those victimized in 1979 were part of it.

For over two years, the Greensboro TRC conducted myriad interviews, held hearings, investigated documentary evidence and kept open lines of communication to Greensboro’s communities. Over the course of three months in the Summer of 2005, the Commission held three sets of public hearings, each lasting a full day and an evening. Testimonies came from victims, perpetrators, people who lived in the community where the killings took place, academics, clergy people, community organizers, lawyers, judges, law enforcement and media representatives—people with some involvement in, or knowledge of, the incident.

Throughout its implementation, the Project has received messages of support from the U.S. and abroad. Several individuals and communities have approached the Project with queries about how they might create something similar to address racism and injustice in their own histories. Project representatives have met with, and assisted, people from Philadelphia, Mississippi; Moore’s Ford, Georgia; New Orleans, Louisiana; Rosewood, Florida; Abbeyville, South Carolina; and Wilmington, North Carolina. Groups in several other states, including Tennessee, Alabama, Oklahoma and Ohio, have expressed interest in engaging a truth process. In July 2006, the Beloved Community Center and the International Center for Transitional Justice co-sponsored an international conference in Greensboro at which several North American groups involved in truth-seeking joined representatives from South Africa, Peru, Northern Ireland and Sri Lanka to share lessons from their various efforts.

Some detractors of the Project have claimed that only a few survivors really care about, or are involved in, the truth process. Were that true, Rev. Nelson Johnson and his wife Joyce would not have received the prestigious and highly competitive Ford Foundation’s “Leadership for a Changing World” award in Fall 2005. The award was granted in recognition of their leadership to the Beloved Community Center and, in particular, to the truth and reconciliation process.

Far from it being the concern of merely a few, over 10,000 Greensboro residents actively participated in Project events and initiatives by viewing the Project’s documentary, Voices of Greensboro, that describes the truth process; attending the Commission’s installation ceremony; signing a petition urging City Council support for the truth process; marching on the 25th Anniversary of the Greensboro Massacre in support of the Project’s goals; attending the three days and three evenings of public hearings held by the Greensboro TRC; participating in special church services that honored the deep, sacred meaning of the com­munity’s striving for truth and reconciliation; attending and speaking out at many community-wide meetings sponsored by the Project or the Commission over a six-year period; agreeing that their organization be a report-receiver and then studying the Commission’s Final Report with their groups; adopting the Commission’s Final Report for classroom study; and attending showings of Greensboro: Closer to the Truth, an independent film featuring Greensboro’s truth process. Thousands more were exposed to the process through media coverage and other forms of public discussion. The city was turned into a virtual classroom on questions of racial and class inequities.

The Post-Commission Phase

Today, the Project is in its post-Commission phase. Study of the Commission’s report continues in Greensboro, where the focus is on its recommendations for the City government. In all of the colleges and universities in the Greensboro area, teachers and students are studying the report, assigning and writing papers, and giving creative, artistic expression to the themes in the truth process. One example of the interest on the part of students was a Concerned Students for Truth and Reconciliation Conference, at UNC-Greensboro in April 2007, with participants from the host campus, Guilford College, North Carolina A&T State University, Greensboro College, Elon University and Duke University. Another is the memorable and spectacular multi-media performance, with choreographed dancers and a jazz orchestra, in February 2008, at N.C. A&T State University. The production, “Bullet Holes in the Wall: Reflections on Acts of Courage in the Struggle for Liberation,” linked together three Greensboro events —the 1960 student sit-ins, the 1969 student uprising and the 1979 attack on an anti-Klan rally—as “part of a larger movement for equality, true democracy and social and economic justice...continuing even today.”

The democratic methodology of seeking truth, building community and advancing reconciliation and restorative justice is being applied here in Greensboro and in North Carolina to such recent and current struggles as raising the minimum wage; stopping racist hate crimes and demanding institutional accountability when they occur; defending immigrants against abuse in their communities and workplaces; and changing unjust, counter-productive ways of dealing with groups of youth known as gangs. The Project and the Commission’s work have created a wonderful opening into the present, a way to empower people to acknowledge their past and take ownership of their future.

Signe Waller Foxworth is a survivor and widow of the Nov. 3, 1979 Klan-Nazi attack; a member of the Greensboro Truth and Community Reconciliation Project's Local Task Force; and author of Love and Revolution: A Political Memoir: People's History of the Greensboro Massacre, Its Setting and Aftermath (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002).


The Greensboro TRC’s Final Report and the Executive Summary are online at The Beloved Community Center may also have some hard copies of the Commission’s Final Report available for sale – 336/230-0001, The Project’s website,, offers access to all the Project’s defining documents as well as several academic study plans that have been used locally. The documentary film Voices of Greensboro is available through the Beloved Community Center. To obtain the documentary Greensboro: Closer to the Truth, produced by Adam Zucker, email


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