Truth and Reconciliation Commision

'...That All Men Are Created Equal'

The 'Betsy Ross' flag and the Statue of Liberty. Photo courtesy WELBURNSTUART/sh
The 'Betsy Ross' flag and the Statue of Liberty. Photo courtesy WELBURNSTUART/shutterstock.com.

People know.

Not just Americans, but the entire globe.

People know that the founders didn't mean it then, nor does this nation mean it now. Sure, the words were written down, and our leaders frequently point to them as evidence that we are good. But no one really meant them. They were merely a means to an end.

Back in 1776, when representatives from a bunch of colonies wrote the words, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal," they did not in fact mean all men.

But people know that.

Mandela, Martin, and Ubuntu

Hand and foot prints. Vector illustration courtesy ducu59us/shutterstock.com
Hand and foot prints. Vector illustration courtesy ducu59us/shutterstock.com

What better way to honor Nelson Mandela on his 95th birthday today than to reflect on his concept of UbuntuUbuntu, a word from the Bantu languages of southern Africa — roughly translated “I am because we are” — sums up Mandela’s approach to leadership, incorporating a generous spirit and concern for the wellbeing of one’s community.

Citizens Remember

After a two-year process, the Greensboro (North Carolina) Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the first of its kind in the United States, delivered its final report in May on the events surrounding the November 1979 incident in which Ku Klux Klan and Nazi members killed five labor organizers and wounded 10 others at a “Death to the Klan” rally organized by the Communist Workers Party. The report details the process by which the community has come to a common understanding of the events leading up to the shootings; highlights varying levels of failed responsibility by the local police, community organizers, Klan and Nazi members, and federal law enforcement; and makes concrete recommendations for how the town can move forward, including public apologies and a public monument honoring those who died.

“There are so many people who want to focus on reconciliation without focusing on truth, and I don’t think that’s possible,” TRC co-chair Cynthia Brown told Sojourners. “In this two-year process, all we could do was lay the foundation for reconciliation. It’s up to the community now to take up our recommendations and pursue reconciliation.”

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Sojourners Magazine August 2006
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First in Truth

North Carolinians take pride in their "

North Carolinians take pride in their "First in Flight" license plates. Now they can claim another first—the first Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the United States.

Twenty-five years after Ku Klux Klan and American Nazi Party members killed five labor activists in a march for workers’ rights, the Greensboro community is calling for truth from the perpetrators and the victims. Despite local news crews filming the murders, all-white juries acquitted the men who pulled the triggers and plunged Greensboro into years of traumatized silence. In June, the six commissioners were officially seated. Five are local community leaders and the sixth is executive director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. The commissioners were trained by the International Center for Transitional Justice, which draws its methods from the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Unlike its South African counterpart, the Greensboro commission was not initiated by the government, but by the community.

"Fundamental to faith is the truth—a truth that liberates us from the bondage of falsehood," Rev. Nelson Johnson, a veteran civil rights activist who was an organizer at the 1979 rally, told Sojourners. "But truth, with all its bitterness and dark sides, needs to have with it healing and reconciliation. It is the reconciliation that transforms the truth.We often believe we can be reconciled without knowing what we really need to be reconciled about. The truth process in Greensboro will open up a way for our community to heal and model a way for other communities, who can adapt it to their particular situation."

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Sojourners Magazine September 2004
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Hearts of Stone

room of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission burst open. The parents of Amy Biehl walk in, surrounded by reporters, microphones, and cameras. From the other side, parents of Amy's young killers file in. The large crowd is riveted on the exchange of handshakes, embraces, and apologies flowing at the front of the room amid a sea of flashing cameras.

This is history in the making, and I am both moved and appalled at the spectacle unfolding before me. Has it been too neatly choreographed for public consumption? Why is it that the world pays so much attention to the murder of an American, while the deaths of thousands of South Africans remain tucked away on the back pages of history?

Amy Biehl was an exchange student, stabbed and stoned to death in August 1993 by a mob in the township of Guguletu, just two days before she was to return home to the United States. Four young men, members of the youth organization of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), were convicted of the murder. This is the day of their amnesty hearing.

The young men appear frightened as they are led into the hearing room. The Biehls have publicly offered them forgiveness and stated that they will support the Truth and Reconciliation Commission if it decides to grant them amnesty.

THE AMNESTY HEARINGS are perhaps the most controversial aspect of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The vast number of the more than 7,000 applicants for amnesty are white police officers and others who have been convicted of the brutal crimes of apartheid. During the negotiations that led to the transfer of power from F.W. de Klerk's NP (National Party) to Nelson Mandela's ANC (African National Congress), NP leaders pushed for blanket amnesty; in other words, those who tortured and murdered were not to be held accountable for their crimes.

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 1998
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