Greensboro, North Carolina Confronts its Racist Past


By Erin St. John Kelly

Lisa Magarrell LL.M. ’01 returned to Columbia Law School to discuss the new book she has co-authored with Joya Wesley, Learning from Greensboro: Truth and Reconciliation in the United States, on February 18. Although there have been more than 30 of these non-judicial investigative bodies that address human rights violations through testimony by victims and perpetrators around the world, Greensboro’s was the first project of its kind in the United States when it convened in July 2004. Magarrell was a principal advisor.

On November 3, 1979, Magarrell was using a newly earned J.D. to represent migrant farm workers in Washington State. All the way across the country, on that same day, Nazis, Klansmen shot at leftist anti-Klan demonstrators and labor organizers who had gathered at a housing project in Greensboro, North Carolina.

At the end of that day, five marchers lay dead and 10 were wounded. The police had been conspicuously absent, and in two of the subsequent trials all-white juries acquitted the shooters. In a third trial, two police officers, four Klansmen and two Nazis were found liable for the wrongful death of just one protester. The nation barely took notice, because on November 4, the historic hostage crisis began in Iran, consuming news coverage.

Some 30 years later, Magarrell, who is now a senior associate at the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) in its New York office and director of the ICTJ’s Reparations Unit, has co-authored Learning from Greensboro about that city’s attempt to confront its racist past and the events of that day in November.

“Contrary to the narrative that outside radicals clashed, what happened in 1979 was not an isolated event of strangers coming into town,” Magarrell said in an interview, “but rather, it was an event in which Greensboro was an integral part. Many things came together to result in the killings.” She cites a history of racism and complicit institutions like the police.

When she came to Columbia Law School in February, Magarrell was introduced by Ellen P. Chapnick, dean for Social Justice Programs. “It is an honor and a privilege and delight to have Lisa come back to the school,” Chapnick said. “We are delighted to have a discussion of what went on in Greensboro and what we can learn from it.”

Magarrell appeared on a panel with Pat Clark, one of seven Greensboro commissioners, and Sally Bermanzohn, who is a professor of political science and department chair at Brooklyn College, and who was a Greensboro marcher and whose husband was one of the wounded there. The panel was moderated by Graeme Simpson, a director at the International Center for Transitional Justice and a lecturer-in-law at Columbia Law School, where he teaches a seminar on transitional justice.

“The truth and reconciliation commission in Greensboro was totally remarkable,” Bermanzohn said while on the panel. “And Lisa Magarrell put it together for us. It could not have happened without her incredible skill.” Magarrell refuses to take credit. “It’s the people in Greensboro who led this and conceived of it, and did all the hard work,” she said afterward.

The panel, which was presented by the Social Justice Program and Human Rights Institute, analyzed the practice and workings of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was an unofficial one, making it different from the state-sanctioned ones like South Africa’s. “It doesn’t fit the classic paradigm,” Simpson said in his introduction. “It’s truth-seeking driven from below.”

The panel also dealt with the larger theory behind truth and reconciliation commissions, which is to address the legacy of past injustice and the need for a victim centered restoration of dignity, and even a post-modern search for the definition of truth.

The panelists believe there is a universal place and need for these commissions, even in stable democracies, like the U.S., that it is not only for “developing, countries emerging from conflict and transitioning to democracy,” as Simpson said.

Magarrell was a Law School Fellow in 2006, where she germinated her book. “Columbia allowed me to think and process the Greensboro experience,” she said. “In fact,” she said, I would never have ended up at the ICTJ or in Greensboro if I had not been introduced to transitional justice during my studies for the LL.M.”

“I am proud that Columbia Law School could give Lisa the time and space to think and write about her experience so that others can learn from this important milestone,” said Chapnick.


Graeme Simpson is the director of Thematic Programs at the International Center for Transitional Justice, where he oversees work in Prosecutions, Reparations, Truth-Seeking, Security System Reform, Memorials, Gender, and a newly-established program on Peace & Justice. He is also Lecturer at Columbia Law School, where he teaches a seminar on Transitional Justice. He has worked extensively on issues related to transitional justice, including work with the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and on the transformation of criminal justice institutions in South Africa. Mr. Simpson was a founder and, from 1995-2005, executive director of the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, in Johannesburg. Mr. Simpson has worked as a consultant to both governmental and non-governmental organizations in various countries. He has an LLB and a history Masters degree from the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa.

Sally Bermanzohn is a professor of political science and department chair at Brooklyn College, City University of New York. Bermanzohn wrote Through Survivors' Eyes: From the Sixties to the Greensboro Massacre, and edited the book, Violence and Politics: Globalization's Paradox. She also wrote "A Massacre Survivor Reflects on the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission," Radical History Review: Truth Commissions, State Terror, History, and Memory 97 (2007) 102-09.

Pat Clark was one of seven commissioners appointed to the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission from 2004-2006. Currently, she is the Director of the Newark-based Criminal Justice Program of the American Friends Service Committee’s New York Metropolitan Regional Office. She coordinates the collaboration on the Center for Healing and Transformative Justice for the New York and the New England Regional Offices.  Previously she served as the Executive Director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an interfaith, international organization with programs in racial and economic justice, demilitarization, nuclear disarmament, and peaceful resolution of conflicts.  

Lisa Magarrell is the co-author of Learning from Greensboro. She is a Senior Associate at the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) in its New York office, and Director of the ICTJ’s Reparations Unit. Since joining the ICTJ in 2001 she has worked on reparations issues in relation to a number of countries, including Peru, Ghana, Guatemala, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Timor-Leste, and in connection with the Trust Fund for Victims of the International Criminal Court. Ms. Magarrell has also provided technical assistance to truth and reconciliation commissions – in Peru and Greensboro. She also served as a resource for policy-makers and the Assembly of First Nations in Canada as they moved toward the seating of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to address the legacy of forced residential schooling of aboriginal children. She has law degrees from the U.S. and El Salvador, and an LL.M. from Columbia Law School, with a focus on human rights and international law.