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Mares: Truth and Reconciliation

When I heard about the recent killings of black parishioners at a church prayer meeting in Charleston, South Carolina, the first thing I thought of was the murder by a right-wing hired assassin of Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero in his cathedral in El Salvador in 1980. 

My second depressing association was a text by the murderous Islamic State for Iraq and Syria, entitled, The Management of Savagery that included quotes like “One who previously engaged in jihad knows that it is naught but violence, crudeness, terrorism, and massacring."

And finally, I was reminded of a report published just this spring by the Equal Justice Initiative entitled "Lynching in America.” The report concludes that, far from being random acts of drunken mob violence, lynchings were part of a decades-long campaign in the South to enforce racial segregation and subjugation. Between 1877 and 1950, the EJI documented nearly 4000 events in which people of color were tortured, burned, hanged and dragged through the streets, not because they had committed crimes but because they had violated the presumed racial hierarchy.   

Their so-called offenses ranged from bumping up against a white woman or wearing an Army uniform after World War I, to talking back to whites, or insisting on fairness and basic rights.   

These carnivals of death were sometimes advertised in newspapers and drew large crowds of white spectators, including elected officials and leading citizens who actually posed in front of mutilated black with their children for keepsake photographs and post cards.

The report contends that this reinforced a narrative of racial difference, and a legacy of racial inequality that echoes in our criminal justice system today, where we see racially-biased capital punishment, excessive and disproportionate sentencing of racial minorities, and police abuse of people of color.

The report calls for a process of truth and reconciliation, and quotes Nobel Prize winner Eli Wiesel as saying that “Without memory, our existence would be barren and opaque, like a prison cell into which no light penetrates."

I think it’s fair to call the Charleston slayings both a hate crime and domestic terrorism - born of a toxic mixture of ready gun access, hate-filled internet sites and our still-unresolved historical racism.  

EJI Director Bryan Stevenson states that “We cannot heal the deep wounds inflicted during the era of racial terrorism until we tell the truth about it.” I say if South Africa and Guatemala, El Salvador, and Northern Ireland can have Truth and Reconciliation Commissions,  it's time for the U.S. to do the same.         

Writer Bill Mares of Burlington is also a former teacher and state legislator. His most recent book is a collection of his VPR commentaries, titled "3:14 And Out."
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