Lisa Magarrell, Joya Wesley. Learning from Greensboro: Truth and Reconciliation in the United States. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008. xv + 278 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8122-4110-5.
Reviewed by Julie Biando Edwards (University of Montana)
Published on H-Human-Rights (December, 2009)
Commissioned by Rebecca K. Root
American Experiment: Examining the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission
In Learning from Greensboro: Truth and Reconciliation in the United States, Lisa Magarrell and Joya Wesley ask “why should a city in the United States look to emerging or reforming democracies in other parts of the world to find ways to come to terms with its own troubled history?” (p. 229). The question is a fascinating and complicated one. It raises two controversial possibilities --that Americans would be interested in claiming and subsequently exploring our own “troubled history,” and that to do so they would turn to a tool developed to redress the injustice and violence of nations newly struggling with democracy. In a forward-looking and sometimes amnesiac nation--and one by and large suspicious of claims of international human rights, the adoption of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to examine, explore, and bring to new light instances of America's own violent past might seem the least likely thing imaginable. Yet, despite widely held convictions that America begins anew with each subsequent generation, some wounds do not heal, some violence cannot be overlooked, and sometimes looking backwards is the only way a community can move forward.
This seems to be the case in Greensboro, North Carolina. The violence that occurred on November 3, 1978, during which Ku Klux Clan and Nazi Party members killed five protestors, cast a pall over the community of Greensboro for the next three decades. Eventually, community members were prompted to take measures, nearly thirty years after the killings, to launch the first TRC in the United States. Magarrell and Wesley’s excellent account of the background, formation, organization, and implementation of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission (GTRC) provides an in-depth look at what happens when the question asked above is considered seriously.
This ambitious yet readable text manages to be both sweeping in scope and generous to detail at the same time. Magarrell and Wesley focus on the GTRC while also providing the relevant historical and global context. They acknowledge the systemic racism and injustice that led to the events of November 3, 1978, social problems that the GTRC also notes as important elements that directly influenced individuals involved in the violence. They also compare elements of the process in Greensboro with processes in South Africa, Peru, and Chile and illustrate the similarities and differences in these cases, providing useful points of reference for the reader. Such contextualization gives the book a fullness that it might not otherwise have.
As a look at the inner workings of a TRC, the book is very useful. Those looking for a purely academic exploration into the formation of the GTRC will not find that here, however. This is a book as much about personality as it is about process, and the authors lay bare the often fraught human process of forming a TRC. The authors wisely chose to focus on the human story behind the formation of the commission in Greensboro and that choice enriches the story immensely. Not simply a policy manual detailing the many mistakes and successes of an American TRC, the book explores the very human players in a contested, controversial, and often conflicted drama. The people who emerge from its pages--leaders of the 1978 protest, commissioners, police officers, local government leaders, and the families, friends, and neighbors of the five slain protestors--have much to say about the violence in their past and their attempts to move together into the future. The authors effectively let the people of Greensboro tell the tale of their TRC themselves, and the result is a fascinating glimpse of the inner workings of the community as it struggles with the adoption of this tool to peer into the dark recesses of its past.
It is important to note that Magarrell and Wesley were both participants in the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation process (Magarrell as an advisor and Wesley as communications director for the GTRC), and they clearly believe that the work of the GTRC was worthwhile, but the book is also candid in its exploration of the many flaws of the process. While the authors both feel that the GTRC was necessary and useful, they also point out places where the commission fell short and are forthcoming about the fact that, as the first TRC in the United States, the learning curve was steep and perhaps not ever fully overcome. Of course, not everyone in Greensboro was supportive of the formation of the GTRC and the book also looks at the many reasons why some members of the community, including those who endorsed the concept of the GTRC in principle, might not have wanted to reopen such painful wounds.
The authors note that, once the GTRC issued its final report, faculty from institutions around Greensboro met to discuss how to use the report in the classroom. “During the fall of 2006,” they write, “at least ten courses were taught in the Greensboro area that either focused exclusively on or included the GTRC report” (p. 142). This book itself, along with the over-500-page GTRC Final Report and supplementary information available at the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Web site (http://www.greensborotrc.org/index.php), would make an excellent text for classroom use. Indeed, it would be possible for interested faculty to pair this book with the Web site and Final Report to create a curricula that looks at the potential for TRCs in other communities. Likewise, groups currently pondering the feasibility of a TRC in their communities might do well to read this book as both a cautionary tale and as a record of the fact that TRCs can be successful, even in solid democracies not accustomed to evaluating their troubled histories. As Magarrell and Wesley note towards the end of the book, despite the flaws of the GTRC, they “value its unique features, its conscious effort to model a new vision for working for social justice, and its place in the ranks of increasing efforts to surface the truth about racist violence in U.S. history and its legacy today” (p. 240).
Magarrell and Wesley
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