Democracy, Dialogue, and Community Action:Truth and Reconciliation in Greensboro.

democracy-dialogue-spoma-coverA recent book published by the University of Arkansas Press, Democracy, Dialogue, and Community Action: Truth and Reconciliation in Greensboro, follows the work of the Greensboro, North Carolina Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a citizen led initiative exploring the events of November of 1979 when five Greensboro protesters were shot and killed by the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party during a local march. The march was organized by the Communist Workers Party in response to what they argued were exploitative conditions of workers in the local textile mills.  This seldom-discussed event, which was suppressed by city leaders, left a huge rift in the Greensboro community, deepening divides along racial and economic lines that continue in the community today.

Author Spoma Jovanovic worked alongside community members to help document the efforts of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC) as they worked to address deep wounds in the region, including exploring why the murderers were never convicted. Just as the events of 1979 remained highly controversial, so did the work of the Commission. Some citizens supported it whole-heatedly, while others, including members of the city council, initially refused to take part in the discussions whatsoever.  A practical look at the messy, conflicting, and difficult work, the book explores how such work can foster greater participation in local, even national, democracy.

When we refuse to look at the meaningful events in our history, Jovanovic argues, our communication falters, we cease to engage in public discourse; we forget to listen to the stories of our neighbors, and distrust builds. “Absent trust,” she writes, “the willingness of citizens to actively engage the ideas of others evaporates. What follows is a democracy that ceases to exist as a vibrant pathway to equality and justice for all.”

Inspired by the work of post-apartheid South Africa, the Greensboro TRC was the first of such commissions to take place in the United States and did so solely at the local level without any government sanction. Made up of a diverse group of Greensboro citizens, the group uncovered layers of misunderstanding about that day, discovering, for example, that the police, who had long argued they were absent from the scene of the crime due to radio miscommunication, had actually known that such was violence was possible and chose not to be present. During discussions and public meetings held by the TRC, citizens testified to feeling caught up, both literally and metaphorically, in a fight between two radical groups. Many young people who read about the work of the TRC in their high school and university classes, found out about the massacre for the first time, finally able to link a detailed story to the unnamed divisions they’d sensed in their community since childhood.

As a case study and a historical resource, this book explores both the strengths and weaknesses of the Greensboro TRC and the often-conflicting ways citizens react to and interpret historical research aimed at redressing wrongs. Jovanovic explores the role the media played in interpreting the day’s events, the desire of many people to bury history, and the difficulties we all face in building participatory democracy. Such commissions, writes Jovanovic, “should not be considered a panacea for injustice, yet their structure and process offer a measure of hope.”  The book can be purchased online through the U of A Press.


The Seed and the Story is a partnership with the Courier and Post Dispatch newspapers in Pope and Yell County, Arkansas. This weekly column explores folklife, oral history, and community in central Arkansas (and beyond), particularly the Yell County area where the column originates. Columns are often written in partnership with the McElroy House: Organization for Folklife, Oral History, and Community Action and humbly attempt to bridge intergenerational themes in the region.