Finding A New Community Truth

by Shea Howell

The Metro Detroit Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was seated in November 2011 before a crowd of about 300 people gathered at Cobo Hall. The nine Commissioners are carrying the hope many of us hold that at long last Michigan will take a hard, honest look at our racial divide.

The Metro Detroit Commission joins a growing number of national and international efforts to create public processes for addressing systemic racial and ethnic injustices. The South African TRC, confronting the brutality of apartheid, is perhaps the best known of more than 20 international commissions.

We urgently need a process for truth. The charter produced by a group of citizens working through the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion, begins with this charge:

“There comes a time in the life of every community when it must look honestly and seriously into its past in order to provide the best possible foundation for moving into a future based on healing and hope; a future that is consistent with the United States of America’s founding promise of equality and opportunity for all.”

The Reverend Nelson Johnson echoed the promise of healing and forgiveness entrusted to the commission as he closed the Cobo gathering. Reverend Johnson provided the intellectual and spiritual energy for the Greensboro North Carolina TRC, the first in the United States.

Its task was to examine the context, causes, and consequences, and to make recommendations for community healing around the tragedy in Greensboro, in 1979, which resulted in the deaths of five anti-Klan demonstrators. Even though there were many eye witnesses to the killings, the shooters were twice acquitted by all-white juries. Survivors and community members initiated the the project, launching a democratic process that engaged the community in examining the aftermath. After three years, the TRC issued its report in 2007. The commission concluded in spite of its shortcomings that, “our efforts have taken us some distance away from the half-truths, misunderstandings and hurtful interpretations that have marked the story until now.” The Greensboro Commission made substantial recommendations for community actions like anti racist trainings, changes in jury selection, and the creation of a Community Justice Center.

Learning from Greensboro, Reverend Johnson said he believed the TRC process has the possibility of producing a “new community truth.” He said, “when all voices are heard, all the stories are told, we are able to come to a new, more whole truth.  A new, community truth about our past.”

The indignities and frustrations during Michigan’s economic hardship are mounting. The Metro Detroit TRC has an opportunity to intervene by taking forceful action to publicly name how the racism of the past is not only still alive, but threatening to destroy all of us in the present.  There are many moments in our near and distant past that need truth telling. We encourage you to join us the first steps of the Metro Detroit TR as we gather public input.  This Commission, and all of us, have the responsibility to find a new community truth together.

To see the Truth and Reconciliation Commission mandate in full, go to

To get involved or find out more information go to