Conference Explores Role of Apology and Forgiveness in Conflict Resolution

Apr 1, 2007

On November 3, 1979, a confrontation between members of the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi party and a group of African American and Communist Workers Party (CWP) activists erupted in violence. Although police were present, they did not intervene. Five CWP activists were shot to death; several more were injured. Now referred to as the Greensboro massacre, this event and its aftermath created a lasting rift in the community. In 2005, inspired by community reconciliation efforts in post-apartheid South Africa, Greensboro residents initiated a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to examine the causes and lasting repercussions of the massacre and attempt to reconcile their community.

The Greensboro massacre was one of several major group conflicts examined by legal and social science scholars, professional mediators, theologians and social advocates at a Group Conflict Resolution conference aimed at examining sources of resistance to apology, forgiveness and reconciliation, held at the law school March 30 and 30.

“There is a large body of research in the areas of psychology, sociology, philosophy, religious studies and law focusing on apology, forgiveness and reconciliation in relationships, such as those between a victim and his or her offender or between husband and wife,” said Professor Erin O’Hara, co-organizer of the conference.  “Our goal was to determine the extent to which this body of knowledge can be applied in dealing with conflicts between groups.”

In addition to racial hostilities, conference presentations explored forgiveness after atrocities such as the Holocaust and conflict resolution efforts in countries in major transition, including South Africa and Eastern Europe, as well as longstanding cultural tensions between the Belgium’s Walloon and Flemish ethnic groups and between ranchers and environmentalists in the western United States. Presenters included Vanderbilt law professors Erin O’Hara, John Goldberg and Terry Maroney; Nelson Johnson, a community leader injured in the Greensboro Massacre; Robert Mnookin, chair of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School; Thomas Brudholm of the Institute for Holocaust Studies at the University of Copenhagen; Susan Bandes of DePaul College of Law; Laurel Fletcher, director of the International Human Rights Law Clinic at Boalt Hall School of Law at UC-Berkeley; University Professor Tom Tyler of New York University; James Gibson of Washington University; and Meir Dan-Cohen of Boalt Hall.

The conference, which was sponsored by the Andrus Family Foundation, also honored civil rights pioneer and Vanderbilt Distinguished University Professor James Lawson, who delivered the keynote address. Now a distinguished theologian, Lawson was hailed by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as “the leading theorist and strategist of nonviolence in the world” at the height of the civil rights movement.


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