Chatham resident Pearson examines lasting benefits


Editor’s note: In the second of this two-part interview with News + Record Publisher Bill Horner III, former U.S. diplomat W. Robert Pearson, 77, looks at the healing process of reconciliation at a time when political and racial divisiveness are on the rise. Pearson, the former leader of an international humanitarian charity (IREX), has been engaged in reconciliation, problem-solving and building relationships worldwide for more than four decades.

There’s no question the time we’re in has placed us at a fork in the road. What is it about a time such as this that opens the door for a new path?

This is the third major civil rights struggle in U.S. history. In the first, after the Civil War, Black Americans achieved important gains for a brief period, but were forced for 100 years to give up their constitutional rights. The second struggle, during the 1960s, saw key legal breakthroughs but seemed to fail to make over white American attitudes. The surprise, however, is that many children of the 60s and thereafter learned what their parents would not see — that color should make no difference in how one lives one’s life or how the country protects its citizens.

Now in this third struggle, we see people of every shade demanding that we actually live by the principles we espouse. That surge of additional support from the white community now has ushered in a widespread and deep commitment to make it better now that it ever has been before.

I went to the rally at the Courthouse Justice Center on June 6. There were a large number of white citizens who attended, including many young white people. This reflects the fact that this third struggle is different. Those new white supporters — many young — are making it more likely that more progress is possible, supporting and working with Black leaders.

What exactly is it that we are reconciling?

We are reconciling history and its consequences, and the changes the consequences require. In Chatham County, today we have two separate histories — one Black and one white. We must start there — sharing the same history — Black and white — of Chatham County. Then we can see how to come together to do better.

What might be the benefits or advantages we’d accrue on that path?

Here in Chatham, we would have a brighter economic future for our children. A community at peace produces more jobs, takes advantage of more skills, creates an attitude of “forward together” in which all can share. Raleigh is listed in a United Nations economic study as one of the two fastest-growing cities in America for population size. We are now part of the expansion of the Triangle. Having the Black and white communities sharing equally in the economic growth opportunities ahead would release enormous potential for growth and prosperity in Chatham County.

Part of “truth and reconciliation,” of course, is the notion of truth. In a divisive age, in a divisive community, how do we arrive at what the truths are?

Truth is an event — an undeniable fact — such as lynchings where no one was ever tried, where no one was ever given a chance to defend oneself, and where hundreds watched but no one was ever indicted, tried or convicted. Truth is the history of suppression of constitutional rights. (See sidebar story, “For Black Americans, it’s been opportunities lost,” in the Oct. 1-7 edition of the News + Record.)

Truth is both the event and the consequences of the event. Quite often what is asserted as “truth” is actually an opinion. Truth speaks quietly and clearly. The facts of history — especially as concerns actions regarding race in America — are there for all to see.

What is it about truth — and history — that causes people to disavow it, or to claim ignorance of it? And why is that harmful?

No one wants to be blamed for something, yet much of the talk we hear on race is designed to blame. Blame produces a defensive reaction. After that, the listener tunes out. Personal accusations of blame and shame usually do not lead to reconciliation. I’ve mentioned countries where blame has produced no positive result and countries where blame and shame have not been part of the reconciliation process and progress has been achieved.

Why must it be a community-wide conversation?

We are already having a community-wide conversation. Those who feel strongly that there is a great deal to be done are making their points publicly. The newspapers and media are reporting those views. We cannot separate ourselves in this county entirely from what is going on around our country. All over the country, responsible leaders of every race are engaged in serious discussions about what is wrong and what should be righted.

We are open to dialogue and invite conversation with those who are interested in sitting together in the spirit of finding the common space where justice is real for every one of us. Since May 25, it seems to me that there is here in Chatham County a momentum in attitude and commitment that is going in the direction of equal justice in practice as well as principle in our political, legal, educational and social actions. Our political, criminal and religious leaders seem to be heading in the same direction.

What is restorative justice, and what role does that play?

Restorative justice historically has focused largely on the relationship between the perpetrator of a crime, often one of violence, and the victim. Today, if you were to imagine something like restorative justice on a large scale, it would have to include acknowledgment of the wrong and agreement on how to set the wrong right. The spirit of restorative judgment could help greatly if done in a non-judgmental process.

What was the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and what role did it play, historically?

The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission exposed the wrongs of centuries of repression of Black Africans in their own land. It allowed those who committed the wrongs to avoid punishment if they told the whole truth of their deeds. It allowed the Black community to hear the acknowledgment of those wrongs and the acceptance that a new day had come for South Africa. Most importantly, it avoided civil war and revenge-taking from both sides for what had happened, and it gave both sides a chance to work for a better tomorrow. It worked. South Africa made a largely peaceful transition from white rule to democratic rule in which both Blacks and whites were empowered to participate.

Reconciliation also has worked in other countries that have experienced great hardships. In my work I saw how other countries treated their minorities. I saw that injustice often led to violence. I saw truth lead to reconciliation. I saw courageous people in Ireland, Canada, Rwanda, and Liberia reach across the gap of distrust and misunderstanding — and sometimes horror — to work with each other to rebuild their societies. On the other hand, I saw examples in Turkey, China and Myanmar where hatred led to violence which has not ended.

Olúfemi Táíwò, the chairperson of African Studies and Research Center at Cornell University, wrote recently in The Washington Post that reconciliation requires “acknowledging and atoning for the wrong done — asking for their victims’ forgiveness while resolving never to repeat the wrongs and working to restore their victims to full humanity as fellow citizens.” If “the wrongs” discussed here were perpetrated by people no longer alive…why is forgiveness necessary?

We’ve talked about the legacy of bias that has come down to the present day and the damage caused. Where perpetrators and victims as individuals are no longer alive (though the consequences certainly are), it is collective acknowledgment of the wrong and collective recognition of the need to right the wrong that opens the path to reconciliation.

A report from truth and reconciliation work done in Greensboro in 2006 stated that the work “promotes the belief that confronting and reckoning with the past is necessary for successful transitions from conflict, resentment and tension to peace and connectedness.” Do you think it’s possible for us to get there?

Yes, it is possible. The history and its consequences are there for all to see. In my experience, confrontation seldom leads to reconciliation. The truths we are bringing to light do not require conflict. There are difficult passages on the road to reconciliation — some very difficult — but they are based on acceptance of facts that long were hidden and consequences that long were ignored.

There is a reason why the hard truth and consequences were hidden. Doing so permitted those in power to pretend that all that mattered was the present. That pretense covered up all the reasons why it had to change. So yes, it’s very possible to get to reconciliation by starting with the past and following the trail of truth.

Since all those who were discriminated against or say they were discriminated against and therefore suffered harm for past events — whether white or Black — are certainly not going to forget and are going to find it hard to forgive, why must we try to make it better? What is the purpose of forgiveness when we still have hard work to do?

This is a difficult step in a reconciliation process, but it is a necessary one. No one should forget the wrongs, no one should forget the struggles, but all we have to work with is today and tomorrow. In this sense, forgiveness means the willingness to move forward together to a better future. That is an achievable outcome.

About Bob Pearson

During his long diplomatic career, W. Robert Pearson, 77, was an innovative diplomat, leader and crisis manager at the top levels of the U.S. government. He was U.S. ambassador to Turkey and completed a 30-year career in 2006 with the Department of State as Director General of the Foreign Service. He is a frequent writer and speaker on diplomacy, foreign policy, Turkey, NGOs and development.

Pearson served under six presidents (four Republican and two Democratic) and 11 secretaries of state. Retirement brought him to Chatham County; he lives in Fearrington Village with his wife of 45 years, Maggie.

A native of Tennessee, Pearson traces his Southern lineage back more than 300 years, with ancestors who fought in the American Revolution and the Civil War. Two great-grandfathers were at Bennett Place in Durham in 1865 in the last surrender of a major Confederate army.