Truth Commissions

Truth Commissions in the United States

The Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission

On November 3, 1979, a group of white supremacists confronted demonstrators preparing for a “Death to the Klan” rally at a black public-housing project in Greensboro, North Carolina.  Although the demonstrators had received a parade permit and the police department was aware of plans to disrupt the march, there were no officers present when five anti-Klan activists were killed and ten others wounded.  Videotapes captured Klansmen and American Nazis shooting into the crowd, but nevertheless, all-white juries acquitted the perpetrators in a state criminal trial in 1980, and a federal criminal trial in 1984.  In a subsequent federal civil action in 1985, jurors found two Greenwood Police Department Officers and six Klan and American Nazi members liable for the wrongful death of Dr. Michael Nathan.  The jury also found four Klansmen and Nazis liable for assault of Dr. Nathan and Dr. Paul Bermanzohm, and two Klansmen and Nazis liable for the assault of Tom Clark.  In a post-verdict settlement, the city of Greensboro agreed to pay the full $351,500 that Martha Nathan had been awarded for the wrongful death of her husband.  The settlement agreement contained no admission of wrongdoing or apology from the City or its agents’ actions, and specifically stated that the agreement should not be construed as conferring any liability on the City for the events of November 3, 1979.

On the twentieth anniversary of the Greensboro Massacre, residents and community members affected by the tragedy came together and conceived of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission Project (GTRC).  A grassroots initiated project, the GTRC empaneled seven commissioners to investigate the incident. Like the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the GTRC conducted its research and community outreach by collecting private statements, holding public hearings, and engaging in documentary research.  In May 2006, the GTRC produced a comprehensive report on its findings, establishing an accurate public record of the Greensboro Massacre and providing recommendations to prevent recurrence.  The GTRC’s findings led to the next phase of a year long community dialogue to “constructively engage the confusion, division and bitter feelings“ related to the events of November 3, 1979.

Resources
  • Greensboro Truth and Community Reconciliation Project
  • Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission
  • Bermanzohn, Sally Avery. “A Massacre Survivor Reflects on the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission.” Radical History Review, no. 97 (2007): 102-109.
  • Magarrell, Lisa, and Joya Wesley. Learning from Greensboro:Truth and Reconciliation in the United States. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008.
  • Wiliams, E. Jill. “Legitimacy and Effectiveness of a Grassroots Truth and Reconciliation Commission.” Law and Contemporary Problems 72, no. 2 (2009): 143-150.

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The Mississippi Truth Project

The Mississippi Truth Project (MTP) is a statewide effort to create a truth and reconciliation commission that will address the racially motivated crimes and injustices in Mississippi between 1945 and 1975.  A grassroots movement that, on January 31, 2009, culminated with a declaration of intent to form a truth and reconciliation commission in Mississippi, the MTP is comprised of five regional groups engaged in local efforts to collect oral histories and document past abuses.  If established, the commission will “explore the institutional structures of racism as well as examine crimes against the body, crimes against property, the collusion of public officials and conspiracies of silence that for the past 60 years have divided Mississippians.”

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The Winter Soldier Investigation

Held in 1971, members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War held a three-day meeting in Detroit, during which over 100 Vietnam Veterans gave testimony about the atrocities they had witnessed and participated in, in Vietnam. The Winter Soldier Investigation and the subsequent protest brought to the American public the realities of the Vietnam War. The Iraq Veterans Against the War has continued this effort to make an account of the reality of United States’ foreign wars. Winter Soldier: Iraq & Afghanistan was a four day summit held in March, 2008 at which soldiers from both Iraq and Afghanistan testified.

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1898 Wilmington Race Riot Commission

On November 10, 1898, a white mob seized government offices in Wilmington, North Carolina. The mob destroyed the local black-owned newspaper shop and terrorized the African American community. The new government passed increasingly restrictive rules for African-Americans, intensifying the era of Jim Crow segregation in North Carolina. The thriving African American community was destroyed. The North Carolina General Assembly established the 1898 Wilmington Race Riot Commission in 2000. The Commission was created to create an historical record of the Race Riot and to assess the economic impact of the riot on African-Americans locally and across the region and state. The Commission held public hearings that sought the testimony of the descendants of those affected by the riot. The Commission issued its final report in 2006.

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The 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Commission

The Tulsa Race Riot occurred in Tulsa, Oklahoma on May 31, 1921, after a black man was arrested for assaulting a white woman. Rumors spread that he would be lynched and thousands of people gathered at the courthouse where he was being held.  In the chaos that ensued, a mob of armed white men looted, burned and destroyed the black community, leveling the black neighborhood of Greenwood and killing more than 300 people.  The Tulsa Race Riot Commission was created to provide a historical account of the Riot.  From 1997 to 2001, the Commission examined records, recorded testimony, and attempted to identify individuals who were affected by the Riot.  The Commission’s final report was issued on February 21, 2001, and included recommendations for substantial reparations.  In June 2001, the Oklahoma legislature passed the “1921 Tulsa Race Riot Reconciliation Act,” which, to the disappointment of many, did not adopt the Commission’s recommendation to confer reparations payments on victims.  Instead, the Act provided for more than 300 college scholarships for descendants of Greenwood residents, mandated the creation of a memorial to those who died in the riot, and called for new efforts to promote economic development in Greenwood.

In February 2003, a legal team led by Charles Ogletree Jr. and Johnnie Cochran filed a lawsuit for reparations on behalf of the survivors and descendants of victims of the Race Riot, based on the findings of the Commission report.  A federal judge dismissed the suit on the grounds that it was initiated too long after the deadly riots, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal in 2005. In response, the survivors and their legal team turned to Congress.

Representative John Conyers introduced the Tulsa-Greenwood Race Riot Claims Accountability Act in 2007.  The bill, H.R. 1995, was designed to provide survivors or descendants of victims of the Race Riot with a mechanism to bring civil actions for up to five years after the enactment of the bill, as long as they had not previously brought a claim and had a determination on the merits.  After the bill stalled in committee, Representative Conyers reintroduced it as the John Hope Franklin Tulsa-Greenwood Race Riot Claims Accountability Act, H.R. 1843, in 2009.

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Rosewood Massacre Commission

In 1923, a mob of 400 to 500 white men burned down the houses, stores and churches of Rosewood, a black community in Florida. The mob was avenging an alleged assault by a black man on a white woman.  Six blacks and two whites were killed. The remaining members of the black community fled into the forest. 70 years later, in 1993, five professors produced a report for the Florida legislature that documented the history of the Rosewood Massacre.

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Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice

In 2006, faculty members, students and administrators formed a Steering Committee to investigate the University’s historical relationship with slavery and the transatlantic slave trade.  The Committee produced a report in 2006.

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Boston’s Union of Minority Neighborhoods

The Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Clinic is assisting the Boston Busing/Desegregation Project (BBDP) as it seeks to build the foundation for a more equitable public school system in Boston by learning from the injustices of the past.

The BBDP seeks to address the issue of busing and its legacy in the City through a community driven Truth process:  it is leading a project of telling, sharing, and learning from stories across differences in order to co-create the history of busing and Boston school desegregation.” The BBDP’s framework is centered on three key components: Truth telling, Learning from the truth, and making Change based on the new knowledge shared. It is using the collective story to achieve a shared vision of “where we go from here.”

CRRJ created a Timeline of Boston School Desegregation from 1961 to 1985 to assist BBPD  and has provided expertise on community truth-telling mechanisms.

For more information about this project, go to: http://unionofminorityneighborhoods.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=21&Itemid=25 or contact Donna Bivens at donnabivens@umnunity.org.

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The Housing Project: Truth and Justice

Designed to educate the public about racial inequities created and perpetuated by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) in Detroit, the Housing Project: Truth and Justice is a three-phase project that will examine how past practices and legal decisions contributed to Detroit’s segregated housing patterns, and the effects that this segregation has had on the school system.  The first phase of the project was a Mock Trial of the FHA at Wayne State University Law School, which took place on October 16, 2009.  The second phase of the project is the creation of a truth commission, and the third phase of the project will use the findings of the truth commission to promote policy changes.

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More Resources on Truth Commissions

  • United States Institute of Peace, Truth Commissions Digital Collection
  • International Center for Transitional Justice
  • Conflict Resolution Information Source
  • Chapman , Audrey R., and Hugo van der Merwe, . Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa: Did the TRC Deliver? Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008.
  • Hayner, Priscilla B. Unspeakable Truths: Confronting State Terror and Atrocity. New York:: Routledge, 2001.
  • Ifill, Sharon A. “Creating a Truth and Reconciliation Commission for Lynching.” Law & Inequality 21 (2003): 263.
  • Pillay , Suren, and Helen Scanlon. Peace versus justice?: Truth and Reconciliation Commissions and War Crimes Tribunals in Africa . Cape Town: University of Cape Town. Centre for Conflict Resolution, 2007.
  • Schabas, William A., and Shane Darcy, eds. Truth Commissions and Courts: The Tension Between Criminal Justice and the Search for Truth. Massachusetts: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2004.