Greensboro apology for Klan violence establishes a welcome precedent for CIA torture program

This week, in a historic and unprecedented move, the Greensboro City Council formally apologized for the city’s handling of the 1979 massacre by white supremacists in a low-income, predominantly African-American neighborhood of Greensboro.

The apology to victims, their families, and the community comes after over four decades of persistent struggle for acknowledgement of the city’s wrongdoing, including its failure to be transparent about the role of its police. Greensboro’s action is a shining illustration of what can be achieved by sheer, stubborn refusal to let government misdeeds be swept under the rug.

In a less publicized but significant step in the quest for official accountability, Rep. David Price wrote to the CIA this week demanding answers on another dark chapter in North Carolina’s history — the Agency’s misuse of our state’s infrastructure and skilled aviators in a years-long program of systematic torture and rendition.

Without North Carolina’s airports, the CIA torture program literally would not have gotten off the ground. As Rep. Price noted, over 80% of the CIA rendition-to-torture missions in the first half of the CIA’s massive program emanated from our public airports in Smithfield and Kinston.

While advocates for justice and accountability can cheer these important moves, there is still much the state needs to do, and that starts with Governor Cooper. The Governor has taken an important step in creating task forces on racial equity in criminal justice and health. Citizens have given him another important opportunity when it comes to torture.

Greensboro’s apology would never have occurred without the ground-breaking work of the Greensboro Truth & Reconciliation Commission and the survivors and allies who initiated it. This two-year effort to break through government inaction and cover-up was the work of dozens of citizens from all walks of life. In addition to recommending institutional reforms and additional truth-seeking, the GTRC’s 2006 report urged that Greensboro make meaningful gestures to acknowledge the events of November 3, 1979, including public and private apologies to those harmed by the events.

The uphill battle fought by the GTRC, massacre survivors and others, driven by a loving insistence on justice in the face of government inaction, was a major inspiration for the citizen-led North Carolina Commission of Inquiry on Torture. Where government fails to uphold the rule of law, citizens can step in.

While Klan violence and the CIA’s torture program may seem far apart, one thread that links them is official refusal to look the problems squarely in the eye. When it took on the 1979 massacre, the GTRC tackled the enabling landscape of racism in law enforcement and criminal justice. The racist “othering” of Muslim people has allowed the U.S. to avoid scrutiny for a years-long government torture system whose victims are all Muslim. We are overdue for a reckoning on how this form of official and societal racism has degraded our democracy.

Governor Cooper rightly recognized the urgency of tackling systemic racism when he created task forces on racial equity in criminal justice and health. The CIA continues to do its secret business through its contractor based at the Johnston County Airport. We need the Governor to act with urgency on the problem of torture.  In fact, the NCCIT’s 2018 report recommends a governor-led task force.

Greensboro’s apology has flesh through a set of scholarships in the names of those murdered, so that future generations are both aided and reminded of those who lost their lives. The U.S. owes acknowledgement to the men and women whose lives it has trampled through torture and secret detention. With its unique contribution as home of the “torture taxis,” North Carolina is a good place to start.

Jill Williams was Executive Director of the Greensboro Truth & Reconciliation Commission from 2004-2006, and now lives in Pulaski, VA.  Catherine Read was Executive Director of the North Carolina Commission of Inquiry on Torture from 2017-2018, and lives in Raleigh, NC.