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Greensboro Redux

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It's wonderful to see the coverage of the 50th anniversary event at the Smithsonian commemorating the first sit-in, at the Greensboro, North Carolina Woolworth's by those four brave, imaginative N.C. A&T freshmen. A portion of that historic lunch counter is now at the American History Museum in DC, and the store itself just opened as the new International Civil Rights Center & Museum.

But the coverage ignored a subsequent Greensboro civil rights event of possibly comparable future importance: Creation of our nation's first Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

On Nov. 3, 1979, nine carloads of Ku Klux Klanners and American Nazis -- in one of the worst civil rights atrocities in American history -- drove into a black public housing project and opened fire on some 100 African-American, White and Latino men, women and children preparing to join an anti-Klan march and educational conference. Five of them were killed, ten injured. The Greensboro police were shown to be complicit.

State and federal court trials elicited not-guilty verdicts from all-white juries, despite videotapes showing the defendants firing at the crowd. A subsequent 1985 civil rights suit caused the City to pay $351,000 in damages, $75,000 of which went to create the Greensboro Justice Fund, which, with tremendous grassroots efforts and assistance from the Internatl. Ctr. for Transitional Justice, then went on to create the Truth & Reconciliation Commission, established in June 2004 -- its goals being the attainment of truth, civic accountability, restorative justice and reconciliation. Its creation built on models from South Africa, E. Timor, Peru, Morocco and Ghana.

The Commission held hearings, community meetings, examined documents and issued its report in May 2006 (available at www.greensborotrc.org). It has sparked study groups, community meetings, classroom exercises, empowering people to acknowledge the past and take ownership of the future -- turning Greensboro into a virtual classroom on questions of racial and class inequities. And it is a model for dealing with racist history in other cities, as well as with other important issues, such as immigrant-bashing and youth gangs.

Chester Hartman is Director of Research at the Washington, DC-based Poverty & Race Research Action Council. PRRAC's bimonthly publication, Poverty & Race, in its Jan./Feb. 2006 and Nov./Dec. 2008 issues (www.prrac.org), had lengthy descriptions of the Greensboro TRC by two survivors of the massacre (both of whom were widowed by it).