Moving Toward Reparations
The resurgence of the reparations movement is taking shape
with Black leaders, intellectuals
By Ronald Roach
In 1998, historically Black Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona, Fla., answered the Clinton administration’s call for colleges and universities to sponsor race relations discussions and events in support of President Clinton’s National Conversation on Race initiative. The Bethune-Cookman program, conceived by Dr. Sheila Flemming, chairwoman of the college’s social sciences division, brought together hundreds of Black and White citizens from Daytona and the surrounding counties to witness a mock trial to judge the legitimacy of the claim for Black American reparations.
The jury of six Whites and six Blacks decided unanimously that reparations should be studied officially by the federal government and that they are justified for African Americans because of slavery’s impact and legacy. The mock trial gave public expression to an idea long shunned by the government and misunderstood by the general public.
Nearly a century and a half after Union Army General William T. Sherman proposed granting “40 acres and a mule” to newly freed Black slaves in the waning days of the American Civil War, the issue of reparations is getting serious public scrutiny. Long considered an idea that only Black radical activists took seriously, the notion of reparations finds itself, at the dawn of the 21st century, firmly advocated by America’s most influential Black leaders and intellectuals.
The movement’s most visible leaders and advocates include human rights activist Randall Robinson, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., Dr. Manning Marable of Columbia University, Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree, political scientist Dr. Ronald Walters, activist Dr. Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich, and others. Prominent legal figures, such as Ogletree and Johnnie Cochran, have joined forces on a reparations team that is planning lawsuits against corporations, localities, states and the federal government over slavery and past discrimination.
To a great extent, Robinson, best known as the central figure in the American anti-apartheid movement in the 1980s and the former president of the TransAfrica advocacy organization, has captured center stage in the reparations movement. This is largely a result of his influential book The Debt: What America Owes To Blacks. The book, published in 1999, sparked considerable public debate on reparations. Robinson also is credited with convening the group of lawyers that includes Ogletree, Cochran and trial attorney/philanthropist Willie E. Gary. The group is known as the Reparations Coordinating Committee.
The resurgence of the movement among Black Americans is taking definitive shape as African American groups prepare to file lawsuits and scholars pursue research to fully document the present-day effects of slavery and post Civil War, segregation-era discrimination. Experts say the current reparations movement is stronger and deeper than ever before.
“More intellectuals are involved with the reparations movement than were the case with (other Black social movements),” says Dr. Ray Winbush, executive director of the Race Relations Institute at Fisk University.
REPARATIONS AND RACIAL UPLIFT
As the idea of Black reparations — monetary payment to American Blacks for the labor provided by slave ancestors and for damages resulting from post-Civil War discrimination — has gained currency in recent years, Black leaders and scholars have increasingly urged that the call for remedies be part of an agenda of Black social and economic uplift. In fact, the notion of racial uplift tied to reparations marks a clear distinction between the Black American movement and that of Japanese Americans interned by the United States during World War II and Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. For groups other than Black Americans, reparation demands has focused largely on winning settlements for surviving victims of state-sanctioned crimes and atrocities. In one particular instance, however, the state of Florida paid reparations to Black survivors of the racist attack in 1923 that destroyed the all-Black town of Rosewood.
The Black American movement has evolved into one that calls for something akin to a new social contract between African Americans and the United States. Though some activists are demanding individual payments to Black families, the best known advocates talk only of remedies being fashioned to help bridge the divide between poor Blacks and the rest of the nation.
Reparations movement leaders and thinkers commonly describe their goal first in terms of American society and institutions owning up to and atoning for the legacy of slavery and discrimination. Second, they say the goal of the reparations movement is to garner some form of compensation, usually mentioned as the establishment of a special trust fund to be administered for projects to educate and economically empower Black Americans.
“I would argue that the demand for reparations is fundamentally not about the money. The money is secondary. The primary reason is for the truth to be told,” says Marable, director of the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia.
Recognizing the deep resistance to Black American reparations harbored largely by White Americans, reparations proponents also take great pains to urge supporters to hold a long-term view of the Black American movement. Supporters freely concede that establishment of a Black reparations trust fund might never become reality, but they express optimism that such a movement could succeed in transforming the way Americans think and feel about American slavery, segregation-era discrimination against Blacks, and public policies that could help Black Americans.
“The reparations movement is going to dominate the racial dialogue in this country for the next 15 years,” Winbush predicts.
This 21st century vision of the reparations movement has especially drawn the ire of Black conservatives, particularly those who have been known to criticize Black leaders. The idea of reparations being tied to Black uplift especially infuriates Dr. Shelby Steele, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and vocal critic of Black civil rights establishment leaders.
Steele says advocating for Black reparations represents an affront to the previous generations of Black Americans who survived hundreds of years of oppression only for their descendants to attempt trading on that history for handouts from American society.
“Black leaders are in an indefensible position arguing for reparations. They are afraid to ask Black people to compete and excel on their own,” Steele says.
THE ROOTS OF REPARATIONS
Contemporary scholars and activists helping build the case for Black American reparations are drawing from decades of social, political and legal developments around reparations for historically wronged groups. The precedents established by American Indian settlements, U.S. congressional-sponsored reparations to interned Japanese-American citizens during World War II and legal claims won by Jewish survivors of the Holocaust in European courts have notably influenced supporters of Black American reparations.
In the aftermath of World War II, West Germany made restitution payments of $845 million to Israel to help resettle Holocaust survivors over a period spanning more than 12 years. In more recent times, Swiss banks have paid $1.2 billion to settle lawsuits stemming from unpaid insurance benefits due to Holocaust victims and their heirs. In 1999, officials from Germany, Eastern Europe and the United States signed an agreement authorizing $5.2 billion in reparations to Nazi concentration camp slave labor survivors and their families. In 1990, Japanese Americans received reparations from the United States of $1.2 billion, or $20,000 per person.
Black American reparations has its roots in the American Civil War. On Jan. 16, 1865, Union Army General William T. Sherman, after having consulted with 20 Black ministers and obtained approval from the U.S. War Department, issued Special Order No. 15 granting individual Black freedmen and their families 40-acre land tracts in South Carolina. After 40,000 freedmen had received their allocations, President Andrew Johnson stopped the program in response to demands by former White landowners in the region. Johnson later would veto any proposals that advocated land for the former slaves.
Despite the Civil War-era denial of slavery reparations, Black advocacy for reparations took root and survived into the 20th century. Though the idea is said to have had wide support among Blacks at the turn of the 20th century, the reparations movement eventually diminished, supported only by a small group of activists.
In the post-1960s civil rights era, reparations advocacy has found new life with the activity of groups, such as N’COBRA (National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America). Upon its founding in 1988, N’COBRA dedicated itself to persuading Black middle-class people and organizations, such as the NAACP, to get active in the reparations movement.
“When we began organizing in 1987, the reparations movement was centered in the (Black) nationalist community. Our goal was to move it back to the center of the Black community,” says Adjoa Aiyetoro, chief legal consultant to N’COBRA.
N’COBRA was one of the earliest advocates of H.R. 40, a congressional bill that has been introduced and consistently re-introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives to establish a federal commission to study Black American reparations. U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., is the bill’s sponsor. N’COBRA members and other activists have succeeded in lobbying cities and states to pass resolutions in support of H.R. 40. The city councils in Los Angeles and Chicago have passed such resolutions.
Yet despite the Black community’s reception of reparations, it has remained a highly controversial topic. Polling data show Americans to be deeply polarized around reparations. A Chicago Tribune/WGN-TV poll, conducted last spring, revealed that only 5 percent of Whites surveyed said they favored the idea of having the federal government pay reparations to Blacks to atone for the past and present consequences of slavery. Eighty-four percent of Whites said they were opposed. The poll showed that 66 percent of Blacks said they favored reparations, while only 15 percent did not.
DEVISING A WINNING STRATEGY
Reparations proponents stress the necessity of the Black American movement strategy taking shape along three fronts — a mass movement, litigation and legislation. “The reparations movement has to go the same route as the civil rights movement,” says Vincene Verdun, an associate professor of law at Ohio State University’s College of Law and the author of a frequently cited 1993 Tulane University law journal article on reparations.
Embarking upon a litigation phase, the Reparations Coordinating Committee will file a core reparations lawsuit in federal court sometime in 2002, says Randall Robinson. He notes the core lawsuit will be carefully crafted to overcome legal obstacles such as sovereign immunity, statutes of limitations, and questions over who has legal standing to be a plaintiff in a reparations lawsuit.
“I have confidence the legal team can meet those challenges,” Robinson says. “They’re good (lawyers).”
Formed in August 2000, committee members include Alexander J. Pires Jr., a trial lawyer who won a $1 billion settlement for Black farmers who brought a discrimination complaint against the U.S. Department of Agriculture; Richard Scruggs, the chief legal architect of the $368.5 billion tobacco settlement; and Gary, who won a $500 million judgment against the Loewen Group, which runs the world’s largest funeral home chain.
Robinson says the committee also will pursue cases against private companies, states, localities and European governments for their role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Although legal filings are likely to spark more public scrutiny and media attention, observers note that reparations campaigns usually have been negotiated legislatively, which means that the U.S. Congress likely would have to settle the Black American reparations issue as it did for Japanese Americans interned in prison camps during World War II.
Serious consideration and passage of the Conyers’ reparations study bill would represent a major victory for the Black Americans reparations movement, but given that the bill has languished in committee for years reparations advocates likely will have to push on the legal and mass action fronts until members of Congress take the idea seriously.
Alfred L. Brophy, a law professor at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, knows the legislative fight for Black reparations is a hard struggle. A former law professor in Oklahoma, Brophy documented the tragic riots that leveled a Black section of Tulsa, Okla., and resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Blacks in 1921. Brophy researched the Tulsa riot while serving on a commission that had been established by the Oklahoma legislature.
Despite learning that public officials were culpable in the rioting, the Oklahoma legislature failed to consider reparation awards for the riot’s living survivors despite the commission recommending them. Instead, the legislature is supporting a memorial for riot victims. “Even when you have a strong case for (Black) reparations, there’s deep resistance to it,” Brophy says.
Brophy, who has a book coming out on the Tulsa riot, says he will be involved in a lawsuit in Oklahoma that is seeking reparations for surviving victims.
Whether Black American reparations is considered by the courts or negotiated by legislatures, reparations opponents fiercely object to the idea that Blacks are owed anything because of past slavery and segregation-era discrimination.
A common argument is that no basis for reparations exists because slaves and slaveowners have long passed away and descendants of slaves don’t have legal standing to receive any compensation. Others, who respond to the idea that reparations are needed to address the effects of past racism and discrimination, say reparations cannot ameliorate current dilemmas.
“The real problems, which do exist, relate in large measure to the Black underclass in the nation’s inner cities who suffer not from ‘White racism’ or the ‘legacy of slavery’ but from an internal breakdown of the family structure. In the 1960s, the overall family structure of Black Americans began to crumble,” according to Jay Parker, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Lincoln Institute of Research and Education, a conservative-leaning African American-led public policy organization.
Steele sees the reparations call by influential Black activists and intellectuals as a sign of failed leadership. “They are so enthralled in what our victimization will bring us. This is more of the same old tired game Black establishment leaders have been pulling for years. This is sad,” he says.
“There’s a need for Black people to get busy and to ask more of themselves,” says Steele. “We’ll keep on failing until we get the message that Blacks have to take responsibility for themselves.”
With the Black American reparations movement proving to be as much an intellectual and public education movement as a legal and political one, proponents naturally are building support for it on college and university campuses. In the past two years, colleges and universities have held a number of conferences and symposiums devoted to the issue.
Marable has established a research institute on Black reparations at Columbia University and plans to host a major symposium on the topic in the spring. He and Dr. Ronald Walters, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, are co-chairing a group of social scientists developing a research agenda to support the reparations movement and its lawsuits.
Student activism on the issue has stirred on many campuses, in large part, because of conservative activist David Horowitz’ campus newspaper ad campaign to discredit reparations as a racist and intellectually deficient idea (see story, pg. 26 ).
Although Marable postponed the reparations symposium at Columbia in the wake of the Sept. 11 tragedies, he does not regard the current American political climate as producing any significant setback for the movement. Instead, Marable has remained optimistic about the enthusiasm shown by young Black students who protested Horowitz’ ads.
“I was at Duke University when students took over part of a building, and I listened to their demonstrations,” he says. “One of the goals of reparations is embodied in an insight of Malcolm X. The demand of reparations changes the way Black people see themselves. That was evidenced by the student protests.”
At Fisk University, Winbush has established reparations research as a major priority of the famed Race Relations Institute, a research and race relations training center. The institute held a conference on the topic earlier this year (see Black Issues, April 12), and Winbush recently served as the editor of The Reparations Reader, a collection of essays to be published by Basic Books by the end of the year.
During the summer, Winbush, Marable, Walters and other prominent Black scholars attended the United Nations Conference on Racism in Durban, South Africa. For Black Americans, discussions on American reparations and the claims by African nations for international relief based on colonial exploitation and trans-Atlantic slavery were obscured by the controversy over the pullout of the American and Israeli government delegations, according to observers.
The American and Israeli government delegations bolted from the conference over concerns that delegates would condemn Israel by equating zionism with racism. The pullout controversy and the absence of an official American delegation, nonetheless, left Black American representatives feeling that the reparations issue was deliberately skirted.
“I believe that the U.S. might have used the Israeli issue to keep from confronting the far more difficult issue of American slavery and racism. In particular, the fact that some domestic organizations are developing lawsuits to be filed. In that context, the Bush administration has been careful not to legitimize concepts or language in an international meeting which could later be used against the government in court,” Walters told participants in a Washington Post online discussion during the conference.
It seems likely that the Black American reparations movement will draw more scholars to the cause. The legal and electoral attacks on race-conscious affirmative action and the advent of other conservative public policies are said to be radicalizing scholars.
Tulane law professor Robert Westley, whose Boston College law journal article “Million Billions Gone: Is It Time To Reconsider Black Reparations” has influenced reparations movement activists, says it was his interest in the affirmative action debate that led to active involvement in the reparations movement.
“The rhetoric that has been used to describe affirmative action paints it as some undeserved benefit. The idea that Blacks are undeserving supplicants has to be rejected,” he says.
Columbia’s Marable, arguably the most influential social scientist in the Black reparations movement, talks about his experiences of teaching young Black men in prisons in the early 1990s and cites their growing incarceration rates as moving him to think more deeply about the potential of a reparations movement.
“That context of destruction of a whole generation of African American males made me realize how weak affirmative action is as a policy of redress,” Marable says.
For his part, Marable is eager to recruit scholars to the Black American reparations movement. “This is a long campaign. We need scholars to draft studies that illustrate the concrete effects of racialized discrimination,” he says.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com