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The impossible task of truth and reconciliation

Commissions are a common tool to expose atrocities after war and genocide. Reconciliation and forgiveness are harder to come by.

Maria Ntuli, whose son Jeremia was killed by the former South African apartheid regime in 1986, speaks about her loss in 2006 during the 10th anniversary of the first Truth and Reconciliation Commission Hearing.
Gianluigi Guercia/AFP via Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

Part of our series on America’s struggle for forgiveness.

Karen Hughes White searched for Robert Hughes for 30 years. Her grandfather’s brother wasn’t listed alongside his other siblings in the 1910 census records. She searched elsewhere, too — coroner’s inquests, news accounts, grand jury summons. Within the family, it was said that Robert Hughes simply “went off.”

White is a researcher of African American history, including that of the Hughes family, who are descendants of several enslaved families at Monticello. Robert Hughes’s absence from that history made her suspect that he might have been lynched, both because of how he seemed to vanish and when. At that time in America, that is what lynchings did. They were a cruelty that existed, purposefully, outside the lines of the law.

White, along with family members, confirmed the truth last year. On October 6, 1907, a white mob entered the Allegany County jail in Cumberland, Maryland, and pulled an 18-year-old man known as William Burns from his cell. Burns was Robert Hughes; it’s not clear why he was using, or was referred to, by the name “Burns.”

Hughes had been arrested a few days earlier after an alleged altercation with a police officer that had left the officer dead. The mob, which local reports said swelled to as many as 2,000 people, beat Hughes and shot him, again and again. When a white attorney went to the police station to get help, he said he found four officers sitting in the station house, the door locked and lights dimmed. Not one person, out of thousands, was arrested for Hughes’s killing.

In all her research of African American history, White said, nothing shook her “to her core” quite like learning of Hughes’s fate. It is one thing to understand that lynchings happened, White said. “When it is your family, and you connect to this theme of American history, it is totally something else.”

In October 2021, White and her sister, Angela Hughes Davidson, testified alongside others before a county panel aimed at uncovering this history, for the descendants of those connected to it and for the rest of society. The panel was the first held as part of the Maryland Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was established by the state’s legislature in 2019 following advocacy efforts by historians and activists who’d been working to document and memorialize Maryland’s lynching victims. Between 1854 and 1933, according to the legislation establishing the commission, at least 40 African Americans were lynched by white mobs in the state of Maryland. It is the first state-level truth and reconciliation commission in the United States to investigate racial terror lynchings, called so because they were not just acts of violence against individuals but against whole communities, intended to intimidate Black Americans and prove where the power lay.

Other truth and reconciliation commissions have convened in the United States at the local and state level, most notably in Greensboro, North Carolina, which investigated the November 1979 massacre of anti-Ku Klux Klan protesters by Klansmen and Nazis; and in Maine, which exposed the disproportionate removal of Indigenous Wabanaki children from their homes. Other truth-seeking initiatives have cropped up from Alaska to New York City to Iowa to confront racism and other abuses. In 2021, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) introduced legislation to form a Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation Commission to look at the effects of slavery and institutional racism in America.

There is no one-size-fits-all truth commission, but in the past 50 years, this form of transitional justice has become a common tool to help societies move away from war or authoritarianism. More than 40 countries have used them in the aftermath of a major rupture — the fall of a dictatorship, a civil war, a genocide. Perhaps the world’s most well-known truth and reconciliation commission (TRC), established in South Africa in 1995, held hearings with victims and perpetrators of apartheid, a system of institutionalized racism against Black and brown nationals under the post-colonial Afrikaner government.

The opening session of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, tasked to probe apartheid-era human rights abuses, in 1996.
Philip Littleton/AFP via Getty Images

The best truth commissions, experts say, are those that center victims, specifically the people or communities most marginalized by abuses or atrocities. This often means giving victims or their descendants a chance to testify, sometimes publicly, about how abuse or oppression affected them or their communities. Sometimes, commissions invite perpetrators, too, to testify or admit their roles in violence or abuse. Sometimes, they are there solely to bear witness to the harm they’ve caused.

“Victims” and “perpetrators” are black-and-white terms for situations that are almost always more complicated, and those distinctions can blur in times of war and oppression. Truth commissions exist because they deal with issues that are too big and too systemic to fit into the parameters of, say, a criminal trial. They operate under a radical concept: that all of society has a right to fully know what happened, and how, and why. They expose the extent of the atrocities and aim to unravel what allowed them to happen, in the hope that the knowledge could prevent them from happening again.

Such commissions look at the past, said Matiangai Sirleaf, a law professor at the University of Maryland who studies international and post-conflict law, “to inform the present and to offer recommendations for how to reform institutions.”

The truth is supposed to reveal what needs to be repaired, who needs redress. “You get the truth to do something,” said Kelebogile Zvobgo, a transitional justice expert at the College of William and Mary.

That something is usually reconciliation, which has become a kind of catchall for the not easily defined goals of healing, justice, and accountability.

Practitioners recognize that reconciliation can be a fraught term because it evokes a kind of easy kumbaya moment in the wake of unspeakable tragedy, leaving victims to feel they may have to take on the additional burden of forgiving perpetrators, or that perpetrators will escape accountability, for the sake of the larger community. Many practitioners say that TRCs shouldn’t create an expectation of individual forgiveness, but it still exists. Instead, commissions are “trying to restore the society as a whole, rather than thinking about individuals having to forgive other individuals,” said Gloria Y.A. Ayee, an expert in truth commissions at Harvard University. “The government is taking actions to restore the well-being of the community.”

Efforts on behalf of the community can come at a cost, too. “The definition of reconciliation at its most basic level is forgoing revenge: We can live together and beyond this, but we’re not going to seek retribution for the wrongs that you have done, and we’re not going to try to do what you have done to us,” said Nicholas Creary, a professor at Moravian University whose research influenced the creation of Maryland’s commission. That trade-off is supposed to come with a promise: that truth and reconciliation will fix the forces that pushed a community or country to the extremes of cruelty, of repression, of making a purposeful spectacle out of the murder of a young man. When a society fractures to that point, however, one commission cannot possibly repair it.

It is why, experts said, there are such high expectations for truth and reconciliation commissions, and why they often fall short of their goals. Yet a long, arduous path toward something like reconciliation has to start somewhere. “You have to have truth first,” Creary said, “before we can even have any hope of any kind of meaningful reconciliation or justice.”

A 1974 commission investigating hundreds of disappearances of Ugandans during the early years of Idi Amin’s rule is largely seen as the world’s first truth commission, though it didn’t use the name and didn’t quite live up to its mission. Amin established the commission under public and international pressure and then interfered with and tried to intimidate those attempting to uncover the truth. Colombia’s Truth, Coexistence and Non-Repetition Commission, set up as part of a 2016 peace deal, is currently investigating the country’s more than five-decades-long armed conflict. There are less than 100 days left in its three-year mandate.

Dozens more have existed between the ’70s and now, from Sierra Leone to El Salvador, South Korea to the Solomon Islands. Of them all, South Africa’s TRC is perhaps the world’s best-known.

After the transition from the apartheid regime to a democratic government in 1994, the new African National Congress-led government set up the commission to investigate and establish “as complete a picture as possible of the nature, causes and extent of gross violations of human rights” that occurred between 1960 and the end of apartheid. The commission gathered testimony from survivors and victims, as well as perpetrators, who, in exchange for a full public disclosure of their crimes, could apply for amnesty as long as they could show their crimes were politically motivated and they testified truthfully. This was controversial and came with an apparent incentive to seek amnesty: If a violator failed to come forward, then he could face prosecution.

The commission, led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, convened in 1996. It collected testimony from approximately 21,000 victims and received more than 7,000 applications for amnesty. About 2,000 victims testified at public hearings — wrenching, televised testimony. Victims spoke about murders and beatings and poisonings, and what these crimes did to them and their families.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu (center) with fellow commissioners, listening to testimony from people who witnessed violence during South Africa’s apartheid era, in 1996.
AFP via Getty Images

The public testimony helped to show, especially to white South Africans, the personal and collective pain of apartheid, making it much harder to deny the violence and institutionalized racism of the former regime. “It managed to get the story right of what had happened during apartheid and why it was that we had to endure those kinds of horrendous violations and infringement of the rights of so many people,” said Howard Varney, a senior expert at the International Center for Transitional Justice who consulted on South Africa’s TRC and continues to represent apartheid’s victims.

Embedded in the process was the belief that an act of confession would help create the conditions for national healing and national unity. “One of the monikers of the South African TRC was that ‘revealing is healing,’” said Jermaine McCalpin, chair of African and African American studies at New Jersey City University and an expert in truth commissions. “This idea that it is in revelation that people are unburdened — those who were victimized but also those who committed atrocities. Because the point of truth and reconciliation commissions is to humanize and dignify the victimized, but also to humanize the perpetrators.”

If that was the ideal, it did not always match reality. Victims’ families worried that amnesty came at the expense of criminal prosecutions or civil suits, denying them the accountability they sought. Some protested that people confessed to gain amnesty but refused to name accomplices or, most critically, point to those giving the orders. Members of the old apartheid regime described it as an “ANC witch hunt.” South Africa’s commission had subpoena power, though it had its limits since the apartheid government destroyed many of its records on its way out. The TRC documented this deliberate destruction, which itself told a truth about the apartheid regime. All these elements carried over into the country’s effort to plot its next step: reconciliation.

Unlike South Africa, the United States is not in the middle of an obvious political transition. “Where do you start?” is a hard question to answer for a nation with 400 years of history that includes so many injustices, overlapping with so many groups — the stealing of Indigenous lands, slavery, Jim Crow, systemic racism, and other forms of racist and religious injustice that spiral into the present day.

Truth commissions in the US have tended to focus on specific events or communities, rather than a wholesale reckoning. The Maryland Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Commission has a clear mandate: to investigate documented lynchings in Maryland, a slave-holding Union state that also passed Jim Crow laws. The commission is extracting a piece of history and putting it under scrutiny, but also putting it into a larger context of the state and its history.

Creary, the MLTRC commissioner, was one of the people compiling a record, researching previously unknown Maryland lynchings with a team of students. Creary said he began to think about accountability. “That got me thinking: What can we do?” Creary said. “The South African historian in me is like, ‘Well, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. Why couldn’t we do something like that here?’”

The legislation establishing the commission passed unanimously in Maryland’s General Assembly, but it came with compromises, like tweaks to the language (“investigate” was changed to “research”); how the commission did its work (instead of counties, it’s technically by regions); and money (there is none). It has subpoena power but has not exercised it. The Department of Justice awarded the commission a $300,000 grant; it now has a part-time project manager, but the commissioners themselves are volunteers, and that has meant a degree of turnover. The Covid-19 pandemic has complicated the ability to hold hearings. The commission’s mandate was recently extended until 2023.

Investigating lynchings, more than a century later, is a challenging task. The goal of the Maryland Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Commission is to fill out a history that was distorted or one-sided, told often by the institutions — police, local officials, and newspapers — that were complicit. That means reexamining old sources, but also trying to track down the descendants of victims and communities terrorized by lynchings to tell their stories, uninterrupted. That can offer catharsis, said Clory Jackson, an activist and co-lead of the Allegany County Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but it also “gets it on the record in a way it hasn’t been put on record before.”

“I see this as an effort to restore the humanity to these victims of lynchings,” Creary said, of the commission’s work.

The investigatory work is being done by volunteers — historians and genealogists, but also activists and amateur researchers. “None of these cases had a proper investigation. Full stop,” said Charles Chavis, an MLTRC commissioner, historian, and the author of The Silent Shore: The Lynching of Matthew Williams and the Politics of Racism in the Free State.

In Allegany County, the largely white-owned newspapers that reported on the lynching of Robert Hughes — referring to him as William Burns — presumed him guilty, though he never had a trial. That narrative hardened. “It was told through the oral history of white folks — the story of, ‘Well, he’s just a cop killer.’ And that’s it,” said Jackson. “And through Black folks, it was: You barely talk about [the lynching] at all. There’s a way in which things are just too painful to carry on.”

When it first began the work in Allegany, the local truth and reconciliation committee were hitting dead end after dead end trying to understand who William Burns was. Finally, in one article, a volunteer researcher and historian, Heidi Gardner, discovered a throwaway line about Burns leaving behind laundry with a different name in the tags. Gardner says it was written in such a way as to suggest that Burns was untrustworthy. She followed up on it and discovered Burns’s real name was Robert Hughes.

The discovery of his name unlocked his family, and from there, his descendants. He was the granduncle of two sisters, White and her sister, Angela Hughes Davidson, both of whom testified before the county panel.

So did Renee Page, the great-granddaughter of Jesse Page, who had been arrested and implicated as an accomplice of Hughes’s. Page was released from jail after Hughes vouched for him — an act that saved his life. “What you hope you get across is that this incident that occurred really has affected our family,” Page said, months later, about her testimony. “Not just him, but for the rest of our lives, we are forever different. I forever did not know who my great-grandfather was.”

For the descendants of Hughes, there was the trauma of discovery, even as it brought closure to something they had wondered about for years. “He is a part of the history — a strong part of history that smacks us in the face again, this American history,” Angela Hughes Davidson said.

“I’m still glad we found out about it,” she added. “I don’t feel better about his death and the way he died.”

“How we deal with the truth after its telling defines the success of the process,” Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote in 2014, 20 years after South Africa’s transition to democracy. “And this is where we have fallen tragically short.”

The South African TRC provided an authoritative historical account of past violence. But the problem was what came after: the government’s failure to fully implement the reforms the commission recommended. “It did not address structural issues, it did not fundamentally change how people were experiencing political life,” Zvobgo said.

The TRC, for example, proposed an ambitious reparations program, which the South African government only partially filled in 2003 Some advocacy groups are still pushing for reparations, saying that tens of thousands of people left out of the TRC process should still be given redress. The “truth for amnesty” program was not supposed to allow all perpetrators to escape with impunity, but for the thousands who were refused amnesty or did not confess, the consequences that were promised haven’t come.

South Africa’s TRC also had a very specific mandate: to investigate human rights abuses. Yasmin Sooka, a human rights activist who served on the South African and Sierra Leone Truth Commissions, said this was a fundamental flaw of the commission, one they saw in retrospect because it’s impossible to separate political violence from the social and economic structures underlying it. For many Black South Africans, the social divisions and economic inequality in today’s South Africa show that the economic injustice of apartheid continues. Quoting a saying popular in the nation, Claire Crawford, an instructor at Occidental College who spent time in South Africa, said: “They gave us the throne but kept the jewels.”

The Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, which surveys public perceptions about reconciliation, found in 2021 that 72 percent of South Africans believe reconciliation is still needed.

“Reconciliation is something that has to be continuously worked on. It’s not something that emerges immediately in the wake of truth-telling,” McCalpin explained.

A hotel worker listens to Nohle Mohapi describe how her husband was killed in 1976 during a live telecast of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1996.
Philip Littleton/AFP via Getty Images

There is a sense that Black South Africans, in particular, took on the burdens of the TRC, reliving their trauma through testimony, and having to forgive the past for the promise of moving forward. “If you do not change the material conditions of those who have suffered,” Zvobgo said, “then you have made them share their trauma, and expose themselves to critique and ostracism and all of these different issues and challenges that present themselves to those who would testify before a commission.”

This is not a problem exclusive to South Africa. “There is a problem there, as to what transitional justice promises and what it can deliver. And it promises a lot. It promises heaven on earth,” said Hakeem Yusuf, a professor of law and researcher at the University of Gibraltar. Yusuf served in 2011 as a commissioner on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Osun in southwest Nigeria, an effort that came together after civil unrest following a contested election.

Yusuf said those hearings, like South Africa’s, were public and televised, which helped create broad acceptance for the process. It helped legitimize the new government, he said, but that new government also failed to follow through on many of the commission’s recommendations. “And at the end of the day, these people still didn’t get justice,” Yusuf said. “I feel they will feel used. I think they will think that we were agents of the government to serve some purpose other than the purpose of securing the rights of victims, and that is really painful.”

The Maryland Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Commission has reconciliation in its name, but David Fakunle, the commission’s chair, said that it is not all they are seeking. “Internally, we are not operating under the notion of truth and reconciliation,” Fakunle said. “It is our name, but it’s not how we’re operating. We’re operating under the goals of healing, truth, and justice.”

“Reconciliation assumes there was something to get back to,” he added. ”That is not the case. There’s nothing to get back to.”

Instead, they are intentional about healing — first and foremost for the descendants of lynching victims, and then for communities that experienced terror lynchings. Fakunle said they want people to know the story of lynching in their state, “know that this is a part of Maryland’s history, whether you like it or not, and you shouldn’t like it. That’s also the point. Because this is an affront to humanity. And if you can agree that this is an affront to humanity, then we hope that you would agree that this is something that shouldn’t happen again.”

Memorializing and testifying about the lynching of Robert Hughes at least opened the possibility of that conversation in Allegany County, said Tifani Fisher, the head of the local NAACP chapter. “By telling this story, we can build off of it.”

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan attends the unveiling of a historical marker for the lynching of Howard Cooper during an event held by the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project in Towson, Maryland, in 2021.
Will Newton/Washington Post via Getty Images

The truth-seeking process, in a formal setting like a truth commission, can help give societies a roadmap to move forward, but it ultimately requires political will to implement and execute those changes, and it comes with real costs. “If you’re saying these groups are to blame for what happened to these other groups, then you are redistributing legitimacy in the polity,” said Ezequiel Gonzalez Ocantos, a transitional justice expert at Oxford University.

And then there is the question of forgiveness; whether reconciliation requires it of those who have been harmed. Many transitional justice experts said this isn’t, and really can’t be, the goal of such a commission, as it puts undue burden on victims “where victims feel like they have to forgive the perpetrators in the interest of moving the nation forward,” said Virginie Ladisch of the International Center for Transitional Justice.

Sooka, a commissioner in South Africa, also said this was a misperception about the South African TRC. “You cannot really ask victims to forgive if they don’t know who or what they are forgiving. And so that process of uncovering the truth and having a full disclosure was quite critical. We also saw that as a very private question the victims and perpetrators would have to deal with on an individual basis, and not something that the commission could deliver on,” she said.

Beyond Maryland’s efforts, there are increasing calls in the United States for national versions of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, ways for the country to reckon with its history. The Booker-Lee proposal of a Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation Commission would look at 400 years of racial injustice. As Rep. Lee told Vox, the truth-telling commission is “critical for our democracy.” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Reps. Sharice Davids (D-KS) and Tom Cole (R-OK) have reintroduced the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies in the United States Act to look at the country’s policies toward Indigenous families.

Maryland’s commission may be a test case for how such an initiative could operate on the national level. As those involved in the committee said, it is a learning process, but one that has a fixed core: Nothing can happen without the truth.

Correction, March 26, 3:30 p.m.: An earlier version of this story misstated the history of the Hughes family. The Hughes are descendants of enslaved families at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s plantation in Virginia.


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