My entry into the dark world of racial violence began in 1994, when the state of Mississippi asked me to assist as a jury consultant in prosecuting Byron de la Beckwith for killing NAACP Field Secretary Medgar Evers.
While in Mississippi preparing for the trial (Beckwith was convicted of murder in the 1963 slaying), I learned how fear of white viciousness controlled the daily lives of African-Americans not just in the era of slavery, but in the modern era — how that fear and violence divided us along racial lines and how it affects us all, even today. By 2003 I had helped prosecute six more Klan murders of African-Americans. But a feeling of helplessness engulfed me.
Witnesses to crimes that occurred in 1963 and 1964 were dead and dying. There could be no more prosecutions.
Yet there had been so much violence for which the violent would go unpunished. And that was when Professor Theophus Smith suggested we might learn something from the South African Truth Commission model.
Thee Smith, an Emory University religion professor and Episcopal priest, trained in reconciliation methods. Smith suggested we form an organization that could respond to communities wishing to work though their segregated lifestyles by lifting “the veil of silence” that covered our conflicted past — by telling the truth about racial violence, and by finding ways to move forward as healthier communities less separated and divided from each other. In 2003, we founded Southern Truth and Reconciliation — STAR.
STAR, a nonprofit consulting organization, is designed to help communities address local issues of racial injustice through truth-and-reconciliation processes. We respond specifically to communities interested in connecting the dots between present-day incidents and the legacy of lynching, race riots and other communal forms of racial/ethnic violence. Our team recommends and helps plan reconciliation projects within a community by providing public speakers or facilitators and recommending other resources, such as government agencies, civic or grassroots organizations, and educational materials.
Projects that STAR has initiated or supported include:
• Working with and supporting the Moore’s Ford Memorial Committee as it seeks ways to focus on the 1946 lynchings of four African-Americans in Monroe.
• Co-organized Atlanta’s Coalition to Remember the 1906 Atlanta Race Riot. Several churches sponsored monthly meetings to discuss the issues of race within Atlanta’s faith community. The state Board of Education agreed to include information about the 1906 riot in high school history lessons. At the end of the yearlong remembrance, on the weekend the riot had occurred 100 years earlier, a four-day series of meetings and performances occurred across Atlanta to focus on racial issues. In 2006, the coalition received the city’s highest civic honor, the Phoenix Award.
• In 2008, STAR assisted the Atlanta Friends of the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission by helping with statement-taking among Liberians who had relocated in Georgia to escape the ravages of the Liberian civil war .
• STAR observed the anniversary of the Sam Hose lynching in Newnan. Our members supported a 2012 conference on truth and reconciliation called “The Gathering.”
• In November 2012, STAR provided support for the “Hidden Stories of Rights Denied” conference in Orlando, a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization project co-sponsored with The Rosewood Heritage Foundation in Rosewood, Fla.
Today, we have partnered with Hope in the Cities, a reconciliation group in Richmond, Va., to help yet another Georgia community, not yet identified, lift the veil of silence that has suppressed an honest conversation about the issues that have divided it for decades. Recently, local community leaders and residents attended a workshop in hopes of forming a group that can reach across the abyss to build the trust essential for our futures together.
We encourage interested people to join STAR. More information is available at www.southerntruth.net.
Andrew Sheldon, a jury consultant, is a founder of Atlanta-based Southern Truth and Reconciliation.