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Still No 40 Acres, Still No Mule

Still No 40 Acres, Still No Mule

Acknowledgement of past wrongs may help put African-American reparations in the spotlight

By Crystal L. Keels

The simple mention of reparations for African-Americans in the United States can be counted on to generate a firestorm. When it comes to the issue of recompense for injustices Black Americans have suffered throughout U.S. history — slavery, Jim Crow segregation and other political and social mechanisms designed to maintain racial inequality — the question of accountability is one the nation has historically ignored. The United States has customarily denied the need for restitution for the “peculiar institution” of slavery and its aftermath, and the legendary post-civil war promise of “40 acres and a mule” still remains elusive.

But in the 21st century, avoiding the issue is becoming increasingly difficult as activists, scholars, politicians and grass-roots organizations work diligently to ensure that the issue of reparations for African-Americans and all people of African descent is one the country — indeed the world —  must at least consider.

A spate of recent public apologies for connections to the crime of slavery and other racial injustices have surprised many, considering a cultural context that for centuries maintained an adamant disavowal of responsibility for the degradation of millions of people of African descent.

“We are beginning to look back and correct the past,” says Harvard law professor Charles  J. Ogletree Jr. “The good news is that things we never imagined would happen last year happened.” He notes this year’s conviction of Edgar Ray Killen for the 1964 murders of civil rights workers James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodwin and Michael Schwerner; the reinvestigation of the 1955 kidnapping, torture and murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till; and the recent apology for the crime of lynching issued by the U.S. Senate. “These are major steps,” he says.

In mid-July, a South Carolina church service was held to atone for the 1916 lynching of a wealthy Black farmer who was hung from a pine tree and shot to death by a White mob after a quarrel with a White man over the price of cotton. And in June, Wachovia Corporation, the North Carolina-based financial giant, offered an apology for its historical ties to slavery. Other modern banking and insurance companies, including JPMorgan Chase, have come under public scrutiny for their involvement in the highly profitable slave trade.

The Wachovia findings were the result of a Chicago city ordinance supported by Alderwoman Dorothy Tillman, a project that Ogletree has been instrumental in as part of the Reparations Coordinating Committee. City law requires that companies that want to do business with the city of Chicago disclose any historical ties to slavery. In compliance with that ordinance, Wachovia uncovered its links to slavery through past acquisitions of institutions that owned enslaved Black people. 

“We are deeply saddened by these findings,” Wachovia chairman and CEO Ken Thompson said in a statement. “On behalf of Wachovia Corporation, I apologize to all Americans, especially African-Americans and people of African descent.”

Public response to these events demonstrates that admissions and acknowledgements are not necessarily welcome news, however. John Carlisle, director of policy at the National and Legal Policy Center, a conservative organization dedicated to “promoting ethics in public life,” said in a recent article that in Wachovia’s case, an apology is “ridiculous” and adds that “slavery reparations is nothing but a shakedown, pure and simple.” Carlisle argues that the company was mistaken to take responsibility “for business transactions conducted more than a century and a half ago,” and has now opened itself up to possible lawsuits. Conservative columnist Thomas Sowell, senior fellow at the Hoover Institute, similarly describes reparations as a “hustle.”
And some contend that an apology is all that is necessary. Dr. Carol M. Swain, professor of political science and law at Vanderbilt University, said in a recent article in the Washington Post that a national apology for slavery is sufficient to “bring closure and healing to a festering wound” and would not leave the government liable for monetary redress.

Still others argue that an apology is not nearly enough — some type of restitution must be made.

Ogletree is not alone in his quest for redress. Notable supporters of reparations include James Lloyd; Alfred L. Brophy; Michele Roberts; Kimberly Ellis; Randall Robinson, author of The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks and founder of the TransAfrica Forum; Dennis Sweet; Adjoa Aiyetoro; Eric J. Miller; Sharon Cole; and James O. Goodwin, members of the Reparations Coordinating Committee.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court brief Ogletree and others filed in March 2005 on behalf of the survivors of the 1921 race riots in Tulsa, Okla., was denied in May, he sees this as a long-term effort, and one he considers a way to give back, he says, for the benefits he and others received from the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling that made segregation unconstitutional.

Ogletree is working on behalf of the more than 100 living survivors of the race riot during which 300 people died and a thriving Black business district and hundreds of Black homes were destroyed. “This is a marathon, not a sprint to bring some true relief in Tulsa,” Ogletree says.  

Ogletree adds that a significant aspect of the movement toward reparations is an educational one — even for elected officials.
“When we held our hearings, it was amazing how many in Congress didn’t know the story (of the 1921 Tulsa race riots),” he says. 

Bringing the facts to light is a major motive behind HR40, the Commission to Study Reparations Proposals for African Americans Act. The bill was first introduced in Congress in 1989 by U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., but has met with great resistance and has yet to pass.

The precedent for reparations for past injustices against other ethnic

groups in this country has been set. On the Millions for Reparations Web site, Dr. Raymond Winbush, director of the Urban Institute at Morgan State University in Baltimore, notes that the United States in 1971 paid reparations of $1 billion plus 4 million acres of land for the Alaska Natives Land Settlement; in 1980, $81 million for the Klamath tribes of Oregon; in 1985, $105 million for the Lakota people of South Dakota; and in 1988 the government paid $1.2 billion for the Civil Liberties act for Japanese Americans interred during World War II. And on a global scale, victims of the Jewish Holocaust have received hundreds of millions of dollars. But the notion of reparations for African-Americans remains a highly contentious issue.

“This is a legal issue,” says Adam Clayton Powell III, director of the Integrated Media Systems Center and a visiting professor at the University of Southern California. “There are precedents, notably the treatment of assets taken by Nazis from Jews and some other victims. It may be uncomfortable for those of us in the U.S. to consider appropriate compensation for what was taken from American Indians — Hawaii is providing a case in point right now — and to consider and quantify what was taken from African-Americans and others in the form of labor without appropriate compensation,” Powell says.

“The issue itself at the very least seeks to provide remedies that hold the prospects for equalizing life chances in this country for African-Americans,” says Dr. Marvin Haire, associate director of research and publications for the Delta Research and Cultural Institute at Mississippi Valley State University, and former president and current member of the National Conference of Black Political Scientists. “There are some people who still claim African-American inferiority that is rooted in slavery. As long as those notions continue to exist, this will remain a contentious issue,” he says.

Dr. Tyrone Simpson, assistant professor of English and urban studies at Vassar College, echoes similar sentiments. “The underlying logic historically of Black attempts to gain full citizenship within American society embraced by both Black and non-Black thinkers is that somehow Black people have to earn their citizenship,” he says. “That in some way moral virtue is a prerequisite for protections from the state. That is an illusion that has been socially created. It is not a legal requirement,” Simpson saysIda Hakim, founder of Caucasians United for Reparations and Emancipation, which in June held its second national convention in Atlanta, was motivated to create the organization after witnessing the ways in which her husband, a Black man, experiences the notion of African-American inferiority in his daily life.

“I saw what he encountered on a daily basis. I had to find out what I could do — what White people could do — to make amends,” Hakim says. She says she contacted Silis Muhammad, chairman of the board of All For Reparations and Emancipation, and founder of the National Commission on Reparations, who suggested she support African-American reparations.

“I hadn’t heard of it before and began to investigate. I felt reparations was an idea that would make me very unpopular. I thought, ‘They are going to hate me,’” Hakim recalls. “But I decided to go ahead anyway.” Hakim says she wrote letters to editors as a way to start, and CURE has now been in existence for 14 years.

“This is the right thing,” she says. “White people are way off base with

their knee-jerk reactions (to the issue).” She notes the deep-seated racism that exists in the United States and says CURE encounters all types of opposition. “We stress the advantages of creating a climate of justice,” she says. “It is a war that has to be won one mind at a time.” 

It is not just White minds that resist the notion of African-American reparations, however, says Dr. Manning Marable, professor of public affairs, political science, history and African-American studies at Columbia University in New York City, and founding director of the Columbia University Institute for Research in African-American Studies. “Part of the public affairs work is to convince Black people that compensation is deserved,” Marable explains. “This is no handout. Trillions of dollars have been given to Whites for hundreds of years.” He points to Halliburton and other contemporary instances where

preferential treatment is given to increase White wealth. “This is racialized,” he says. “Blacks and people of color are nowhere to be found. And this reinforces economic disparities.” He adds that the U.S. government is responsible for crimes against American Indians and, in kind, the call for African-American reparations is justified. “Black people should never be apologetic,” Marable says.

“It’s a matter of justice,” says Winbush. “Justice is not a handout.”

The notion of individual reparations has become almost a moot point, except in a few cases, primarily because the enslaved and their direct descendents are no longer living. But many Black soldiers who served during World War II and came home to a segregated world are.

“We should focus on reparations for World War II veterans who couldn’t use the GI Bill to its fullest extent” says Dr. Richard Pierce, associate professor of history and chair of Africana studies at Notre Dame. “One could track the loss of income they could have received.” He explains that often, Black veterans were limited in the choices they could make for housing and education because of segregation. “In these areas the government capitulated to existing social codes. The veterans are still alive and the government is culpable.”

Marable makes a similar assertion and argues that the GI Bill served as “affirmative action for millions of working-class Whites to become middle class.” He notes that the federal government transferred billions of dollars to make this social transformation possible. “When White baby boomers die they will leave their children and grandchildren $7 trillion in wealth. Black baby boomers will leave debt,” he says, based on 2001 figures. “One out of three Black households actually has a negative net wealth.” 

It is this lack of wealth and infrastructure that needs to be addressed, says Dr. Haki Madhubuti, distinguished professor and director of the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program at Chicago State University.

“Money stays within the Black community for four hours, so whatever money comes in, goes out,” Madhubuti says. He recommends  that the establishment of independent Black institutions at “every level of human involvement” is necessary. “If this country wants to reinvigorate the economy, in order for us to put ourselves in competition, we have to have wealth creation,” Madhubuti says.

Many of those in favor of reparations say such wealth creation or transfer of wealth will have to occur on the global stage, because of continuing resistance in the United States, and is also necessary to keep the nation globally competitive.

“The problem historically with American leaders who have thought to address the wrong of slavery is that they have always tried to do it without causing the state or its population some type of economic discomfort or inconvenience,” says Vassar’s Simpson. “In the same way the government has invested in Whiteness in mid-century, to equalize the playing field it is only decent that they invest in Blackness at this present time,” he says. “One way to invest would be to over-invest, to designate the lion’s share of local city, state and federal budgets in education in the direction of urban schools where Black children are most inclined to be enrolled.”

Alfred Brophy, professor of law at the University of Alabama, which also recently disclosed its extensive ties to slavery, says that real change is a challenge. He notes that one of Thomas Jefferson’s followers in a debate in the Virginia legislature in the 1820s asked the question, ‘When were men in power every ready for reform?’ “Almost never,” Brophy says. “Reparations is about the redistribution of wealth and power and about changing well-entrenched beliefs. That change will not come easily or cheaply.”

Continuing research, legal action and organizing at various levels will maintain the momentum behind movements towards African-American reparations, which Winbush says have accelerated since 2002, as activists regrouped after Sept. 11. He says the extent of the growing interest in reparations is demonstrated by the recent workshops on the topic held during the 2005 national NAACP convention in Milwaukee, and represents a major breakthrough for the issue of African-American reparations, which has historically been relegated to the margins of the U.S. mainstream.

“Very clearly, once we pull these issues out, air these issues and put them in the proper context of truth and fact “then we can move toward reconciliation,” says Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP Washington Bureau Government Affairs Office. Shelton says the NAACP’s official stance is to support HR40 and its goal to create a federal study commissioned to assess the damage done and then craft recommendations to address possible means of restitution. “Some people say let sleeping dogs lie, but at some point that sleeping dog is going to wake up. We are going to have to move toward healing — social justice and what that means — through an organized and clear judicious process,” he says. “It needs to happen.”  

Says Marable: “We have to push forward to fight this with international law. In Africa, debt forgiveness, waiving the debt, a transfer of wealth from the West — it’s the same issue. Africa is an economic basket case because of slavery and colonialism,” he says. “[British Prime Minister] Tony Blair is forcing the issue in the European Union. We ought to be pushing that agenda here.”

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