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"South By" wrapup post

Truth, reconciliation, and tikkun

I watched three independent films at SXSW. The third of them was Greensboro: Closer to the Truth, a documentary about the 1979 shooting of communist labor activists by Nazis and members of the KKK at an anti-Klan rally in Greensboro, and the truth and reconciliation commission which was formed years later to address what happened and how the community can heal. I recognize that this isn't exactly the stuff of my usual blog posts, but this film has strong tikkun olam and social justice themes, and I thought some of y'all might be interested in reading more about it.

I knew nothing about the Greensboro massacre before seeing the film, though it turns out there's a solid Wikipedia entry about what happened and how it's understood. (If this is new to you, take a moment and read that entry; it offers useful context.)

That entry acknowledges that the police are generally regarded as having been complicit in the Greensboro massacre. (Depending on who you ask, that complicity was either with intent -- it is known that there was a paid police and FBI informant within the Klan at that time, and some see a racist and anti-communist conspiracy in the police's inaction -- or a case of simple ineptitude and apathy. Either way, their lack of response shaped how the day panned out.) That's one complicating factor in this story.

Another is that, as the movie makes clear, the wounds from this incident have in no way healed. Some of the Klansmen and Nazis involved remain proud of their actions and their beliefs. And the CWP (Communist Worker's Party) activists who survived remain angry and saddened by the loss of their loved ones' lives. Because the Tehran hostage crisis broke the very next day, this story barely merited a blip on the national news radar -- and today many civic leaders in Greensboro don't want to talk about it at all.

Most of the African-American labor leaders involved in the protest were local. That includes Reverend Nelson Johnson, then a young radical filled with angry fire and now an ordained minister who preaches forgiveness. (I found his to be one of the most compelling voices in the film. His prepared speech to the commission can be downloaded here.) Most of the white folks came from elsewhere, and left town after the killings, bewildered and grieving. (Not surprisingly, many are liberal Jews from the northeast.) It's good to be reminded how the drive for social justice brought people together across the boundaries of culture and race -- and to imagine how those connections might be re-forged today.

The film introduces us to many of the activists whose lives were changed by the shootings. We also meet some of the surviving perpetrators, whose responses range from defiant self-righteousness to a kind of baffled regret. The 2005 formation of the truth and reconciliation commission is at the heart of the story -- though the film acknowledges that the broader white community had a mixed response to the commission. Many people were unaware of the commission's formation, while others actively opposed the "dredging up" of this painful history.

Here's an interview with filmmaker Adam Zucker. The Greensboro Truth & Reconciliation Commission has a blog -- and a website where one can download their final report and read more about the process they went through in creating that report. Here's an op-ed that Reverend Nelson wrote for the News-Record about the truth and justice commission's report (hat tip Ed Cone.) And here's a historical piece written by doctors Marty Nathan and Paul Bermanzohn, which tells the story of November 3 and its implications from the point of view of two of the Northern survivors. 

I take away from this film a renewed realization that the work of tikkun olam (understood in its broad social justice sense -- though I suppose one could argue that there is some kabbalistic elevation of holy sparks in this process, as well) is often difficult and painful...but the film's closing images offer me some hope that transformation is possible even under these circumstances, if we will only open our hearts and our eyes.

I hope Greensboro: Closer to the Truth is picked-up by a television station so more people will get the chance to see it. It's not a perfect film, but it tells a complicated story more of us need to hear.

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