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Healing U.S. Divides Through Truth And Reconciliation Commissions


By now, saying that America is divided has become almost cliched. But it's true. And it's something that seems to touch almost everybody in some way. According to the Pew Research Center, for example, these divisions even affect who people say they're willing to date or befriend. And the research says such divisions have only widened during the Trump administration, especially on deeply personal issues like race, immigration and aid to those in need.

But no matter what happens on Election Day, at some point, the country needs to find a way to move forward, so we've decided to spend the next few weeks thinking about how that could happen. And we're going to begin our series by focusing on Truth and Reconciliation Commissions. You might be familiar with the idea from other countries, like in post-apartheid South Africa and Northern Ireland. But similar commissions have been set up in the United States, and we thought people who participated might have some insights to share.

In a few minutes, we're going to hear from reverends Nelson Johnson and Mark Sills, who are with the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission. That was established some decades after the Greensboro massacre of 1979. That's when members of the Ku Klux Klan attacked unarmed people at a civil rights march with the apparent complicity of local law enforcement and killed five people. No one was ever held accountable for their deaths.

But we're going to hear first from Denise Altvater, who is co-founder of the Maine-Wabanaki State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission. That commission was convened to address the widespread practice of taking Native American children from their homes and placing them in foster care or adopting them out to white families. That was Denise's experience, and it was deeply traumatic for her. She recalls being tortured and abused when she was separated from her mother for years.

DENISE ALTVATER: The state came with station wagons and took myself and my five sisters out of our home. They put all our belongings in garbage bags. My mother was away shopping. She wasn't home, and we did not see her again for four years. So when they drove us away from the reservation, they drove me away from the only thing I'd known my whole life. And for four years, the foster parents tortured us, and the state left us there.

MARTIN: That sounds terrible. That's just horrifying to even hear about - I really have no words. There really are no words to react to what you experienced and - you and so many others. And I did want to ask, as an adult, how you and others arrive at the idea of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. How did that come about, and how did it work?

ALTVATER: Back in '99, the federal government did an audit in Maine and found that Maine had the highest rate of removal of Native children than any other state, so they were threatened with losing federal funding if they didn't fix the problem.

So the child welfare people knew my history. So they were looking for individuals who had been taken to come and tell their stories and make a video because they knew that Maine knew the law, but they refused to follow it. So what was needed was a way for them to feel and believe and understand why the law was so important. So I was asked to tell my story. And I said, sure, why not?

And I walk in a room, and there's all of these umbrellas and cameras. And so I sat down, and I told the only story I knew. I had never talked about it my entire life. So they interview several of us Wabanakis, and within the next month, we trained over 500 DHHS workers on ICWA. And so every time we did the training, I would have to watch that video over and over and over and listen to my words. And it was very much overload.

MARTIN: What do you think is the most important aspect of this?

ALTVATER: The most important was having the space where my voice and others' voices could be heard and believed in a place where we knew that something was going to happen. So it was so life-changing to tell your story in that type of an atmosphere, and it transformed me into somebody who started having courage that I never had before. And it just transformed my life. So healing and having a voice were the two most important aspects to me. No reparations at all were necessary as far as I was concerned, and I'm still concerned.

MARTIN: Thank you so much for sharing that. Can you stand by for the rest of us? Are you OK?


MARTIN: OK, thanks. So, Reverend Johnson, I'm going to ask you now - and recognizing that this is also painful for you - but what happened on November 3, 1979?

NELSON JOHNSON: Well, let me say first that my heart aches all over again, Denise. I heard you share the story in Greensboro. So I just want to let you know that we join you by the heart and thank you for your courage.

ALTVATER: Thank you, Reverend.

JOHNSON: Let me say first of all, we were organizers - active organizer in the textile industry and in communities throughout North Carolina. We chose to have a march through the historical Black community. Well, nine carloads of Klan and Nazis drove into the march with a cache of weapons, and they fired on the group. Five people were killed. I was wounded. And I knew then that this couldn't happen without the police collusion.

We fought it from the very, very beginning. Two juries did not convict the Klan or found them not guilty of anything. So at our 20th anniversary of this tragedy, we mull over what to do. We resolve to build a truth process over 40 years of persistent work.

MARTIN: What did participating in this commission accomplish for you that those failed trials did not? What do you think it achieved? And how do you think that you and the community benefited from it?

JOHNSON: Well, it laid a foundation of information that was available to the community. The population of our city had been so thoroughly inundated with the view that we were responsible for our own deaths, I think it opened the door for what eventually happened. And that is that the city used the document, although some 40 years later, to help them come to a conclusion that the police deliberately did not show, that the city government created an atmosphere that mitigated against a decent trial.

And we are very proud of the truth process, and I end with this. We're in conversation now on people who are working on truth processes and trying to put together a national truth process. So we feel that there may be some help for the sickness of our nation, which is divided as never before since the Civil War, perhaps. We need some mechanism to help bring healing and sanity to our culture.

MARTIN: I want to talk a bit more about that in a minute, but I want to bring Reverend Sills into this. Reverend Sills, you weren't directly involved in the events in Greensboro that day. So how did you become involved in the truth and reconciliation process? And what made you want to participate, and what was your role?

MARK SILLS: Well, the false assumption there is that I wanted to participate.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

SILLS: The truth of the matter is, I didn't - not initially. I grew up in a middle-class family. My parents came from working-class backgrounds. I did know how the issue of racism could touch even a white privileged family when my father preached against segregation in a Southern mill town, and the Klan demonstrated in my own front yard, burning a cross one evening. So I had been touched by that, but only very, very lightly.

MARTIN: Why did you not want to participate? And what finally convinced you to do so?

SILLS: Well, I knew it was going to be difficult. And I just didn't think I had the time or energy to devote to this. And yet, I can tell you, looking back on it, it was two of the most challenging years of my life.

MARTIN: Can - I want to ask a question. I'm going to start with you, Reverend Sills, because I assume you identify as white.


MARTIN: There are those who I think would be listening to our conversation who would believe that these commissions are basically beat-up-on-white-people day. And they would say to themselves, you know, I don't want to be a part of that because I don't want to feel those feelings, and I didn't do anything wrong. I wasn't there.

SILLS: Well, I certainly have heard that sentiment expressed many, many, many times. There's a fact that truth commissions exemplify that cannot be denied. And that is, it's difficult to heal trauma without truth-telling. You have to uncover and acknowledge what has been done wrong before you can fully move forward. And so that's what this commission accomplished. We wished it would have borne more fruit earlier. But it is still this many years later continuing to bear fruit in bringing this community together.

MARTIN: This has been such a beautiful and rich conversation. And as I said, I apologize. We're only just scratching the surface here. We could - I could spend hours talking to all of you. But I do want to look back to where we started - that we are having this conversation at a time of increasing division between Americans - I mean, everything from race and religion, the economy, even the response to COVID - whether people should wear masks or not. Look. In the age of disinformation, the concept of truth itself seems to be made to be partisan.


MARTIN: So I just wanted to ask each of you, what lessons could we apply from the truth and reconciliation processes that all of you participated into the times that we're living in now - if you have some takeaways that people who haven't been through what you've been through could take - could apply to the moment that we're in? And maybe, Denise, can I start with you?

ALTVATER: Sure. No matter what issue that you try to deal with, we learn so much more from this process than just that one single issue and that one single question. So, for me, it has changed my life. It has saved my life. It has changed my relationship with my children, with my community, with my family. And I'll do it again in a heartbeat.

MARTIN: Reverend Nelson, what about you?

JOHNSON: I think the most profound thing that people can learn is that truth matters - deep truth. There is a truth that Native Americans' land was stolen, and they were nearly annihilated as a people. It is true that women were devalued and still devalued. These are truths that are deep and enduring. And let's first of all acknowledge this depth of truth.

MARTIN: Reverend Sills, final thought from you - what do you think perhaps people could draw from the experience of the commission that - who haven't participated in the way that you have? Is there something?

SILLS: You know, we all grew up hearing phrases like, a house divided cannot stand. And our house is very divided right now in the United States of America. There are so many divisions that threaten to bring us down as a society. One of those divisions that seems to be pervasive - it is found at every level, and that is racism.

To me, racism is like an addiction. And an addicted person may not at first see that they have a problem. It may make them feel strong or wise or intelligent or powerful. And anyone who's ever worked with addicted people knows you cannot help a person resolve an addiction, overcome an addiction, until they're ready to acknowledge that they have a problem.

Truth commissions are a way that society can acknowledge the things that are killing us and destroying us and fraying the edges of our culture. And once those things have been identified and acknowledged, then progress - real progress, substantive progress - can be made. So I think the models that are represented in Maine and in Greensboro are worthy of - for other communities to look at ways to go forward.

MARTIN: That was the Reverend Mark Sills. He was a member of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a commission that was co-founded by the Reverend Nelson Johnson, who was also with us. And we also spoke with Denise Altvater. She's the co-founder of the Maine-Wabanaki State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

I cannot thank you all enough for sharing these very profound and important thoughts with us today. And also, I want to thank you again for being willing to relive these very painful moments, and I just appreciate you all so much. Thank you.

SILLS: Thank you, Michel.

ALTVATER: Thank you.

JOHNSON: Thank you very much.


MARTIN: You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.