Categories
Analysis Organizing Social Justice

Truth & Reconciliation in Greensboro

Nelson & Joyce Johnson, founders of Greensboro’s Beloved Community Center, sketch out some of those values, assumptions and strategic objectives to establish a North Carolina Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC).

| Nelson & Joyce Johnson |

SOME UNDERGIRDING VALUES, ASSUMPTIONS AND PROCESSES RELATED TO FORGING A NORTH CAROLINA TRUTH, JUSTICE AND RECONCILIATION COMMISSION (TJRC)

  1. Introduction and Sketch of the Vision and Basic Plan

Every significant social undertaking usually has unstated values, assumptions and strategic objectives related to that undertaking.  In this document we will sketch out some of those values, assumptions and strategic objectives as we currently see them for exploration and further refinement.  This is a vital step as we strive to build on the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) initiative to establish a North Carolina Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC). You will notice that we have added the word “justice” to this emerging North Carolina statewide process. 

Our country is trapped in a web of false or terribly distorted and contradictory historical narratives. Against this background, there is a growing consciousness of the need for some kind of truth seeking and justice making process in our nation.  In fact, there has been over fifty (50) calls for and/or initiatives launched in recent years for truth processes.  These include Rep. Barber Lee’s call for Congress to create a Federal Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJR).  Also, it is becoming increasingly clear that the nation cannot long endure without a broader and more truthful understanding of its history and a wiliness to both own and creatively engage that history so as to heal the wounds and repair the wrongs of our yesterdays.  This is necessary if we are to have better tomorrows.  In a real sense, nothing less than our personal futures and the future of the entire nation is at stake. 

The NC-TJRC is envisioned as an ultra-inclusive process. That is, we want to reach a significant slice of the racial, economic, gender, rural, urban and ideological diversities within our state.  While all the diversities are included, there will be a preference for the most marginalized, abused, and neglected, including an emphasis on undervalued and underpaid workers.  

The rationale of working with all of these diversities is to touch the connective tissue of the common humanity in each of these components of our state’s population.   In some religious traditions this is understood as touching the image of God in each person. This view is, understandably, not shared by everyone.  Another way of capturing the same point is to raise the question: Can people (humans) change?  If the answer is affirmative, the follow-up question is:  What are the conditions conducive to changing in positive ways?  And, a related question is: What is the potential of creating those conditions on a scale sufficient to bring about a meaningful measure of positive moral/social/economic transformation? 

In this paper, we will outline significant elements of a process and name several key steps necessary to put the vision of a NC- TJRC in play.  Before we go further, however, we want to express our sincere gratitude for all people within the family and close allies, scattered across the nation for your support of the long, difficult struggle for a measure of justice in Greensboro, including the process that brought into being the nation’s first Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). 

  1. The Objective Conditions Are Ripe and Crying Out for Change

It is difficult to see how the nation can continue in its current mode and direction without descending deeper into more devastating and violent division and conflict.  So, the more focused question is not whether conditions are ripe for change, as we are already changing, but rather, what kind of change. The George Floyd murder and the resultant explosion of the Black Lives Matter Movement, the 2020 elections and the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the nation’s capital, coupled with waves of state level voter suppressions laws designed to radically reduce the Black/Brown vote all speak to the objective conditions encasing and weakening our fragile and flawed democratic republic.  These conditions and the great wealth-inequalities leave the nation very unstable and, perhaps, more divided than it has been since the Civil War period. 

Given the current polarization and evolving conditions, again, the question is not whether the objective conditions are ripe for change but rather in what direction the nation change will.  We believe, under the current conditions, that a high quality Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) in one mid-sized, southern state (10 million people) can have significant impact on the character and quality of national change going forward. It is our hope that we can contribute to a genuinely transformative national “Truth, Justice and Reconciliation” momentum by modeling such a genuine TJRC process in North Carolina.

  1. The NC-TJRC Must Cultivate a Deep, Respectful Atmosphere of Mutual Listening, Mutual Speaking, and Mutual Benefits

Cultivating an atmosphere of deep, respectful listening and speaking will require a good bit of advance, patient, one on one and small group work (initially within groups that roughly share essentially the same ideological tendencies).  One on one and small group discussions will help to establish the essential ground-work (a particular form of training) for growth into deeper discussions and greater unity between the broad diversities of peoples in the state.  The point here is to avoid, early in the process, heated arguments between different social/economic/gender and racial groups that cause the emphasis to shift from understanding each other to winning the argument.  

Also, if the NC-TJRC process is to work, we cannot over emphasize that there must be mutual benefits for all parties, especially black and brown people, the poor in general, with an emphasis on poor whites. Tragically, so many white people are captive of the ideology of white supremacy and who tend to see benefits for black and brown people as opposed to their interest.   Therefore, we must avoid the zero sum win/lose framework that is built into our current national and cultural.

Even those who “lose” financially (the rich) will win in other ways; we know it is not likely that the majority of the upper economic class will agree with this perspective.  However, disagreement with this perspective, does not make it untrue.  After all, what does it ultimately profit a few people to gain a lot of wealth (stuff and things) but lose the nation and what’s left of one’s humanity, i.e. living outside of a beloved framework (and in fear of being exposed and becoming a target).  The details of how to structure these conversations will vary, but all will require deep, mutual, respectful speaking and listening with mutual benefits promised for all.  

  1. We Must Forge a Sufficient Body of Agreed upon Historical Truths (Community Truths) That Contributed to the Accumulated Historical Wrongs and the Currently Lived Confusion and Injustices

This is where the rubber meets the road.  Given our national history, there will necessarily be conflicting narratives of hardships, injuries, wrongs, who to blame, etc.   A whole world of misinformation, disinformation, false information, confusing information and painful information will flow from these discussions.  Such discussions can be both gut-wrenching but are also absolutely necessary.  Truth is often bitter.  These discussions will not only reveal unspoken truths, but will also be partly therapeutic as the emotional trauma is deeper and more enduring than most of us realize.  Engaging these discussions across the state will require patience, tolerance and persistence.   This will be an extended exercise in deep listening and respectful speaking that will involve sorting out, reframing, re-contextualizing, forgiving and forging alternative narratives.

In the course of these discussions, the injuries, damage, and pain will become clearer.   Although, we are in a period Dr. King characterized as the “fierce urgency of now” yet, we cannot rush the process. We must take the time necessary.  This is how people grow into the process and thereby help to forge a body of acknowledged “community truths.”  We envision a North Carolina Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) of 11-15 people. We will strive to attract people with integrity and sensitivity.  We envision that the commissioners will bring professional gifts and expertise with a range of life experiences. 

Further, most of the commissioners will be from North Carolina, with no more than three from outside of North Carolina.    Ideally, there will be at least one commissioner from each of the geographic sites in the state. The TJRC will schedule public hearings across the state that will provide an opportunity for Commissioners to hear and respectfully pose inviting questions to those testifying, creating space for elaboration at the public hearings.

  1. The Limitations of TJR Processes & What It Takes to Repair Historical Wrongs

It must be acknowledged that all historical wrongs cannot be corrected, even with a good NC-TJRC or a goof national TJRC.   However, this should never become a reason for not doing the best we can. The “best we can” has the possibility of helping to bend the moral arc and hopefully contribute to setting our state and nation on a different course.  

Over the years, we in Greensboro have played a significant part in helping to build a budding movement infrastructure in North Carolina.  It will take ramping up and connecting the range of social justice organizing work already being done in the state, as in the Fight for 15, the Poor People’s Campaign, plus local and state police, environmental, educational, housing equity, and other initiatives seeking justice. We are challenged, together with others, to help these struggles “walk towards each other”.   Both quality and size of these connected struggles cause them to become transformative.  Hopefully the growth of this trend in North Carolina will inspire others across the nation to intensify forging a range of positive, creative initiatives of which TRJC (s) is one component, but an essential component.  

All of the elaboration in the previous paragraphs is to say, we have no illusions that a state or national TJRC will alone change the direction of the nation.  At the same time, we believe that a greater measure of shared truth (and love) is necessary to counter the rapidly growing trend of falsehood, confusion, manipulation, fear and division resulting in a growing trend towards greater force and violence.  That is why we are happy to partner with the Poor People Campaigns (PPC), and we will be reaching out to religious, civic, labor and neighborhood organization as well as youth/student groups, street groups (that some call gangs) and others who agree with our declaration of intent; our hope is to enlist them in the NC-TJRC process.  For us, this is a major initiative that we likely would not be undertaking except for the work in Greensboro, especially the labor movement and the Greensboro TRC-related work with which so many in the Family have been a part. 

It is becoming increasingly clear that white supremacy is burned deep into the culture of the United States. In this context, we join with the spirit of Phil [Thompson]’s paper on Economic Democracy which states

Going back to Abraham Lincoln, his greatest worry on the heels of the Civil War was that the majority of white citizens did not want to be part of the same community and polity, and certainly not put on an equal footing with black people.  This is still the main alienation in US society.  Economic inequality and government unaccountability, in the eyes of many whites, are the result of unfair advantages handed out to people of color. The pathway to changing the economy and government is to unite white Americans, but unity necessitates overcoming this racial resentment which is so strong that it threatens the foundation of the democracy…

The starting point for building unity across race, in our view, is changing white America’s image of black people as wanting to take material things away from white people.  Black, and other people of color, need to advocate a broadly appealing economic platform to dispute that image.  A forward-looking economic platform could meet white workers where they currently are and help move them away from a zero-sum calculation that they have nothing material to gain by uniting with people of color. But this is only a first step; an economic platform will not fully remove the anxiety many whites feel about no longer being a demographic majority with the ability to dominate society.

The “white anxiety” of which Phil speaks will be partly engaged by a NC-TJRC process that involves “deep listening and speaking” in an authentic truth process. 

  1. The Projected Issue Focus Areas and Geographical Focus Areas  

The TJRC’s Declaration of Intent lists six areas for exploration. They are:

  • The historical and current abuse of police powers and judicial processes.
  • The historical and current blocks and impediments to financial security and wealth creation.
  • The historical and current blocks and impediments to adequate housing.
  • The historical and current blocks and impediments to quality physical and mental healthcare.
  • The historical and current blocks and impediments to voting and full participation in the democratic process.
  • The disparate impact of climate change and other ecological factors on people of color and the poor. 

These focus areas might change based on further exploration and discussion with local geographical areas around the state.  The State of North Carolina is divided into three broad regions:

  • The Coastal Plains:  This is the eastern part of the state.  It was and remains the major farming area in the state.  The land is rich and flat. This is the region where the large slave holding plantations existed.  For years before the Civil War and for some 75 years after the Civil war the large plantation and former slave owners ruled the state government. This is also the area (the NC Black Belt) where the largest percentage of black people in the state still live
  • The Piedmont Region:  This is the middle part of the state going from east to west.   This region is where the major urban areas of the state are located.  These urban areas include Raleigh, the state’s capital and the second largest city in the state; Charlotte, the largest city in the state, Greensboro the third largest city in the state, Durham the fourth largest city in the state, Winston-Salem, the fifth largest city in the state. The largest universities and colleges are also located in the Piedmont Region. These cities grew up during the industrial period.  Textiles, furniture, and paper processing plants were some of the major industries that grew up in this area. Many of these industries, particularly the textiles, have moved to foreign countries in recent years.
  • The Mountain Region:  This is the western most part of the state.  It is primarily a mountain range. It is the poorest of the three regions. It is made up of small towns and villages with small farms.  People in the region rely on industries linked to natural resources of the region.  These include farming, mining, forestry, manufacturing and tourism. Asheville is the largest city in the western region. The ethnic makeup of the mountain region is 89.9% white; 9% Latino (Hispanic); and less than 1% Black (African-American). 

Our current plan calls for identifying two sites in each of the state’s three regions.  We will select the sites based on at least four criteria:

  • The desire of a sufficient core of diverse leadership, especially grassroots leadership, to sponsor and be part of a statewide TJRC process; 
  • Commitment of local leaders to help seek financial and human resources to undertake the project; 
  • Defining one of the six issue focus areas (listed in the Declaration) or identifying a different focus area that those committed to the NC-TJRC process are willing to assume as their geographic area of focus.
  • A good fit into the projected rural/urban divide, the black/white indigenous divide and of course a good fit into the regional divides. 

The geographical sites to be chosen should reflect a good cross-section of the North Carolina population.  If our resources allow and, if there is a groundswell of support to do so, we will expand from six to no more than twelve (12) geographical sites, i.e. up to four (4) sites in each of the state’s three geographical regions. As the NC-TJRC matures, these sites will be increasingly connected, effectively reflecting a statewide process.  

  1. Raising the Money and Putting Together the Team
  • Fund Raising: We believe it will take about $8 to $10 million dollars over the life of the project that we project will take about four (4) years.  We have already raised over $1 million.  We have been working with others to forge an effective fundraising team that is working hard to raise the necessary funds.  Once the NC-TJRC is officially and publicly launched, we believe there will be greater interest and more funds made available.   
  • The Staff:  Initially, (by September) we plan to have new full-time staff of seven people. Within six months that staff will likely increase to 12 people.  Also, we anticipate both college interns and full time volunteers being recruited for this work. If necessary and, if the funding allows, we may employ several part-time people.  We will push, together with others, to organize, organize, and organize with on the ground training, training and more training. We are putting special emphasis on quickly growing a top-notch communication machine (capacity) as this will be essential to growing and holding the expanding process together.   
  • The Kitchen Cabinet:  We have put together a diverse Kitchen Cabinet of 14 people that we hope to consult with on a regular basis (as needed).
  • The National Advisory Committee:  We project a national advisory committee of about forty (40) people that will meet virtually or in person twice a year.  We are projecting that twenty-five (25) of its members will be from North Carolina and fifteen (15) from outside of North Carolina.  All of the members will be available for consultation between its formal meetings, as needed. 
  1. Building from the “Bottom Up” and from “the Center Out”

Truth and Justices processes cannot and will not work if they are not deeply rooted in the grassroots, i.e. the people most damaged and wounded, the people most neglected and devalued.    This is one of the lessons learned from South Africa.  The South African TRC was not a failure, but it was also not a glowing success.  It probably did prevent a South African Civil War; that in itself was significant.   As we have learned from those who helped to forge the South African TRC process, there were three very interrelated, overlapping significant weaknesses.

  • First, according to those who were active in the process, it did not adequately reach out into local areas where the lion’s share of the pain and suffering was experienced by black people.  Stated differently, it was too centralized and did not reach deeply or broadly or prolonged enough into parts of the population that suffered the most. We have put a major emphasis on avoiding that mistake.  That’s what we mean by building from the bottom up and the center out.  The center is not the perspective of rich white men. The anchoring perspective is rooted in the people most the injured, abused, devalued and harmed. 
  • Second, a significant part of the white South African population did not adequately or sincerely engage in or commit to the TRC process.  This is where we think the depth of white supremacy comes into play.  Our best understanding is that white South Africans engaged in the process in a limited and pragmatic way. It probably was more about participating with a view of “getting it behind us” and with little fundamental change. The South African process seems to have done little to cause white South Africans to see deeply into themselves and their need for deep change. This is also a danger in any process that is developed in the United States, including the NC-TJRC process.   Engaging white supremacy at its roots will be very challenging, as it is has to do with touching that part of us that makes us truly human and connects us with other humans across the historical ditches of racism, nationalism, regionalism, genderism and all the other “isms” that cause one to view “surface” differences in the human family as a justification to exploit, devalue, injure and even kill others and justify it based on making certain people “the other” and inherently “less than” or just “evil.”  This is a very difficult challenge to overcome.  It does, in our humble opinion, require a greater measure of deep truth and love of humanity. 
  • Third, and very closely related to the first two, is that there was inadequate attention given to the economic sphere.   While there was a shift in political power, the deep historic and ongoing damage done in the economic sphere was not meaningfully addressed.  When we were in South African in 2007 at the invitation of the Tutu family, some of us talked with economically poor Black youth one night on a corner in Soweto. They shared their disgust at seeing whites who admitted to viciously killing Black people walk away free.  In contrast, they argued that if they stole a chicken or some food because they were hungry and impoverished, they would be given active jail sentences.  I know this is an over simplification as the economic system is international and complex, but such complexity should not stand as an excuse for evil in South Africa or the United States.  We in the U.S. must simply strive to do better. 
  1. Building Power and Forging Relationships across the State and the Forms of Power That Overcome Polarization and Produce Positive Policy Changes

A major part of the success of the NC-TJRC will be our capacity to forge positive relationships with people and organizations that are already active, i.e. organizers, researchers, scholars, and current participants in the social justice movement, etc.   

In concrete terms,  we will seek to grow positive relationships with people working in the six issue focus areas mentioned in the Delectation of Intent: the abuse of police powers and judicial processes; blocks and impediments to financial security and wealth creation; blocks and impediments to adequate housing; blocks and impediments to quality physical and mental healthcare; blocks and impediments to voting and full participation in the democratic process; the disparate impact of climate change and other ecological factors on people of color and the poor. 

In the process of doing our work, our hope is that we will de-intensify the growing polarization, grow greater “community truth” and seek expanded common ground among the diversities of people in our state, particularly the poor and excluded.  If we make progress in these areas, this will be a somewhat different kind of “people power” base. We will necessarily have to make strategic and tactical decisions, much of which will have to grow out of the process itself and is currently beyond the scope of further reflections in this document.

  1. Projected Launch of the NC-TJRC Process

We have not tried to keep it a secret that we are working towards a NC-TJRC process.  However, we have chosen not to make any formal statements about our plans.  There were and are too many loose ends.  When we make a formal public statement about the NC-TJRC, we intend to have on-boarded key staff members, a fully confirmed Advisory Committee, a committed “kitchen cabinet,” and a thoughtful plan on how to best publicly launch the process. At this point our anticipated launch date will be between August 15 and September 15th

Our launch will include a plan to reach out to a variety of individuals, organizations, and networks to inform them of the NC-TJRC process and to suggest ways they can be involved.  Some of the organizations and leaders include:

  • Statewide religious organizations and leaders
  • Statewide grassroots organizations and leaders 
  • Statewide labor unions and leaders
  • Statewide youth organizations and leaders (including student organizations and leaders)
  • Law School organizations and leaders
  • And, a network of as many local, grassroots, movement oriented organizations as we reasonably can.  

With this vision, our media and communications capacity has to be firmly in place.  We must be able to get our message out effectively and quickly. Of course, inquiries and offers to help are to be expected, and we must be prepared to respond to those in an efficient and timely manner as well.    

  1. Summary and Concluding Words on the Eminent Situation Before Us

We have set forth a bold vision, sketched out initial elements of a plan and begun the difficult journey of growing greater truth, justice, reconciliation and healing in our state. Objectively, this is building on the work in Greensboro, including the TRC, for which suffering was endured, blood was spilled, and lives taken.  If reasonably successful, we believe this initiative can be a significant contribution to the nation.  The push we are currently making would not have been possible except for the love, work and contributions of many people (the family) across the nation.  For this we are grateful.

Developing the NC-TJRC is a challenging undertaking and is likely to become more difficult in the months and years to come.  As we said earlier in this document, “It is difficult to see how the nation can continue in its current mode and direction without descending deeper into more devastating and violent division and conflict.”

We have been in weekly discussions and planning with a strategically located group of people for over a year, including the Rev. Dr. Peter Story one of the leaders of the South African TRC process. Even though some progressive strides have been made in the United States over the last year (specifically the national election), it is our humble opinion that the national crisis has continued to grow deeper and wider.  

Under the false banner that “the election was stolen”, the former president, and leader of the January 6th insurrection, is being embraced on an even deeper level by a significant slice of the US population, including the base and leadership of the Republican Party. At this moment, our elected national leadership does not seem to have a clear pathway forward to effectively rally the majority of the American people around a clear vision and steps to “save the soul of the nation, while transforming the circumstances of the people of this country.

In a sense the insurrection is on a slow burn toward the further destabilization and ultimately the destruction of the already deeply flawed democratic/economic institutions of our nation. It is not clear when the “slow burn” will swiftly expand into a raging inferno.   That is the growing danger.  In a real sense, we are in a race against time. 

The primary fuel for this burn is the ideology of white supremacy and the economic system that promotes growing poverty and wealth inequality, all of which has its particular history.   It is becoming clearer, at least for some of us, that the historical damage of white supremacy inflicted on Black people, Native American and “third world” nations has also been inflicted on white people themselves, especially poor whites.    As white people lose their numerical majority and their capacity to dominate, the false stories they have told themselves about matters, such as their greatness and goodness, are being peeled back. This is unleashing hidden trauma and openness to a range of dangerous conspiracy theories.  This is the base of the “Make America Great Again” (MAGA) movement.

As a child in grade school in the late forties and fifties (Nelson), the word slavery was not in text books that we used.  Instead, slavery was called the “peculiar institution.”  This was a form of hiding from the truth and replacing it with false narratives.   Now, a movement, an obsession, has developed to band the teaching of what is called critical race theory.  This is simply another mechanism to avoid the truth of this brutal aspect in the history of our nation.  The growing acceptance of falsehood, conspiracy theories, division, conflict and hate are parts of the slow burn.

The substance of our thinking and commitment that we have tried to put forth is this rushed document is to join in growing a process, indeed a movement in North Carolina, rooted in the truth of our tortured history but also rooted in a history of generosity, determined resistance and a deep belief in the human capacity (all humans) to change for the better. 

We invite your response and continued help.

Love, peace and blessings,

Nelson and Joyce Johnson

Leave a Reply