Truth and Reconciliation as a Response to American Segregation?
This is a guest post by Merrian Brooks. Merrian is a student at the Ohio University School of Osteopathic Medicine.
Slavery was fully abolished with the passing of the 13th amendment in 1865 in the United States. Far from being the end of oppression, 1865 marked the beginning of both law-based (de jure) and societal (de facto) segregation that was not truly changed until the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Truth and Reconciliation Commissions are established to illustrate the truth using amnesty as a tool for enhancing the likelihood that that truth will in fact come to light. The idea being that truth will help heal wounds and thus give the victims symbolic retribution that will allow them to coexist with their apologetic neighbors. Had there been a TRC in the US, what form would it take? This article attempts to examine the implications of a mock TRC as a response to American segregation.
First, one has to acknowledge that segregation was not a political response to maintain power; it was rather the rule and not the exception. Laws stated that one drop of African ancestral blood made you black, and separate facilities were legal as long as they were of similar quality to what the majority was given. These laws were reflections of what the majority considered a fact. How does our mock TRC address these situations where the law denied rights by assimilating the ‘truths’ of the majority? In this case, the law eventually acknowledged a societal rights violation. With Brown vs. The board of education of Topeka Kansas decision of 1955, the chief justice that wrote the majority statement conceded, “separate facilities are inherently unequal”. This landmark case acted as the ‘TRC’ for de jure segregation, forcing the majority to live up to its human rights ideals. This decision paved the way for the numerous statutory changes favoring integration, and provided hope and comfort to those who suffered under the laws of segregation. Though de facto segregation still has not completely disappeared, minority populations now have the legal support to live, work, and be educated amongst the white majority.
Next, the period of segregation that preceded the Civil Rights act was wrought with examples of violence and murder of blacks that involved little to no punishment by the law. In this case, there were several alleged conspiracies involving law enforcement (who were sometimes the perpetrators), non-governmental groups like the Ku Klux Klan, and other private citizens. These groups would murder, bomb, hang, or otherwise terrorize black people or neighborhoods. When these crimes occurred, all white juries were purposely selected and those who committed the crimes acquitted. There are several examples of this including the story of Emmitt Till, the four little girls killed in a church bombing, or the violence against anti-Klan demonstrators in Greensboro, North Carolina. Our mock TRC would have to bring forth as many as would come to expose the details of these particular atrocities. However, simple apologies for the deaths of four little girls who were killed in Sunday school would fall on deaf ears without a true promise of justice. Without jail sentences, or at least hefty civil fines, the TRC would not contribute to reconciliation. I believe this because the tragedy attached to the memory of these incidents lies just as strongly in the systematic denial of justice as it does in the barbaric acts themselves. This is where our TRC would fail most significantly. With amnesty as a tool, truth comes at the high prices of possible forgiveness of true crimes.
A TRC in response to the Greensboro Massacre was started in 2005 with significant support from the local black community. This TRC discovered the details of the massacre and publicized the complicity of law enforcement. One important feature contributed to the success of this commission; that is that justice had already been served. Originally, an all white jury acquitted all of the whites that had been involved in the murders. Six years later a civil suit found the same men guilty, awarding $350,000 in damages. The point of the TRC in Greensboro was to discover the details of that day, particularly the complicity of police in the crime. I wonder the impact this TRC would have had, had reparations not already been paid.
I firmly believe that Black Americans do not need a TRC. For slavery it would be far too complex, and in some ways a totally inappropriate tool for multi-generational oppression. The Civil Rights Act acknowledged the truth of the crimes and handicaps blacks faced due to racism and segregation and provided reconciliation by allowing blacks to move on without fear of any law based barriers to their pursuits in life. I see in my life and those around me that the many acts that lead to integration and protection from hate crimes, has done at least as much as any truth and reconciliation could ever do.