Reparations for African Americans
A New Impetus
The ravages of slavery and the racial structures that followed it have consigned African Americans to America's economic bottom. This is a thesis of the book, The Debt: What America owes to Blacks, Dutton, January 2000, written by Randall Robinson, former President of TransAfrica. Robinson's book has renewed interest in reparations to African Americans for centuries of imposed slavery and persecution.
Randall Robinson's positive attitude gains impetus from the rewards to other groups that obtained restitution and reparations for their years of forced labor and persecution in wartime Nazi Germany. Their successes can serve as a guide for an African American petition for reparations.
In his book, The Debt, Randall Robinson states that on January 5, 1993, Black Congressman John Conyers introduced a bill to "acknowledge the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery in the United States and to establish a commission to examine the institution of slavery, subsequent de jure and de facto racial and economic discrimination against African Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African Americans, to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies, and for other purposes." Robinson observes that the bill did not ask for reparations for the descendants of slaves but requested a commission to study the effects of slavery. Only 28 members of the U.S. House of Representatives, of whom 18 are Black, approved the measure. The measure was referred to the House Committee on the Judiciary and then to the House Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights. The bill has never made it out of Committee.
U.S. government officials, especially former State Department official Stuart Eizenstadt, have been prominent in promoting the petitions in European countries for reparations for victims of WWII. The U.S. government owes equal attention to the petitions for reparations for centuries of Black Slavery and persecution.
World War II reparations and restitutions have been directed to large groups that had not been permanently damaged, psychologically or economically by their WWII experiences and have been properly assisted in gaining livelihoods during the last 50 years. The African American experience encompasses large groups inhabiting ghettos throughout the United States, who can show permanent damage due to centuries of persecution and violence against them.
By providing blanket reparations to Jewish groups, the Federal Republic of Germany recognized its obligations in repairing the damage due to the persecution of the Jewish people and repaid its debt towards restoring the Jewish people's dignity and structure. The U.S. government must also recognize its obligations in the severe persecution of African Americans from a racist America and repair the loss of dignity and structure to the African American community.
Two centuries of slavery extended into another century of economic exploitation by segregation, unfair employment practices and violation of basic laws. Economic crimes that are not resolved and have features that transcend generations have no statute of limitations. The cumulative debt that has arisen from denial of just payment for labor should be paid.
A principal feature of African American slave labor is its great contribution to the growth and prosperity of the United States and its White population. Free labor and low wages enabled competitive industries. Substitution of manual labor for capital goods released capital for investment in other industries. Those who have contributed greatly to the growth of America and to the prosperity of other Americans deserve to receive an equal share in the fruits of their labors.
No citizens of the United States (other than Native Americans) have suffered the continuous persecution and economic denial afforded to the Black population. Efforts of any group (other than Native Americans) to compare their discrimination to that of the African American population degrades and insults the African American experience. It wasn't until 1963 that government laws allowed African Americans to compete equally in the American system. By 1963 the financial and political control of the country and its institutions had been distributed to white hierarchies and their descendants and made it impossible for the African American community to gain wide access to the financial and political reins in the United States.
Wealth and power tend to become more concentrated with time and enhance one another. Those who have little wealth and little power are more likely to lose the little they have instead of gaining more. The means to raise the mass of African American citizens from a perpetually imposed subordination in wealth and power is by transferring a great amount of wealth and power to the African American community.
A historical perspective of the institution of slavery, the government's role in supporting it, and the economic damages and severe persecutions that accompanied slavery and its aftermath, clearly demonstrate the obligations that America has in reparations for African Americans.
Note: The historical perspective can be bypassed and the conclusion can be reached by clicking on the following: Conclusion
This historical perspective has been compiled from archive, library and Internet sources. The information relies mostly on Chronology: A Historical Review, Major Events in Black History 1492 thru 1953 by Roger Davis and Wanda Neal-Davis. The chronology is available on the Internet at http://innercity.org/holt/contents.html
The Institution of Slavery
In 1619, at Jamestown, Virginia, the arrival of 20 black indentured servants aboard a Dutch vessel acted as a forerunner of slavery in the English colonies. Indentured servants, unlike slaves, were released after serving a term, of usually seven years, and eventually allowed to own property and participate in political affairs.
The unsuitability of Native Americans for the labor intensive agricultural practices, their susceptibility to European diseases, the proximity of avenues of escape for Native Americans, and the lucrative nature of the African slave trade led to an African based institution of slavery. The Dutch, in their northern American territory of New Amsterdam, imported Black slaves in 1624 to serve on Hudson Valley farms. Soon afterwards, the English colonies of Connecticut (1629), Maryland and Massachusetts (1634), and New York (1637) also imported Black slaves.
The transatlantic slave trade produced one of the largest forced migrations in history. From 1650 to 1850, at least 12 million Africans were shipped from Africa across the Atlantic Ocean. Between seven and nine million of these kidnapped Africans were exported during the 18th century, with a probable mortality rate of 10- 20% on the ships. Africans became the solution to an acute labor problem in the New World.
By 1750, the slave population in the English Colonies reached 236,400 with over 206,000 living south of Pennsylvania. Slaves comprised about 20% of the colonies population, and more than 40% of Virginia's population. One source (Growth Of The Nation 1800 – 40 Jefferson's Administrations Stephen F. Austin State University, Nacogdoches, TX) cites the first census in the United States (1790) has 757,000 blacks, of which about 690,000 remained slaves, out of a total population of 3,929,625. More than half of the 750,000 blacks in the United States lived in Maryland and Virginia.
A decline in tobacco farms and industrial workers antagonism to slavery's lowering of wages impelled states to ban slavery and the importation of slaves. In 1778, Virginia passed a law that no slave should be imported into that Commonwealth by sea or by land, and that every slave who should be imported should become free. In 1780, Pennsylvania became the first state to abolish slavery in the United States. Finally, the United States House and Senate approved "An Act to Prohibit the Importation of Slaves into any Port or Place Within the Jurisdiction of the United States, From and After the First Day of January, in the Year of our Lord One Thousand Eight Hundred and Eight 1808."
It didn't matter. South Carolina resumed the importation of slaves after Eli Whitney’s 1792 cotton gin increased cotton production profits and boosted demand for field hands. The World Almanac and Book of Facts 1996 from MS Bookshelf claims that 250,000 slaves were illegally imported from 1808-1860.
The Emancipation Proclamation (1863) and Union victory in the Civil War (1865) freed almost 4 million slaves. (The Concise Columbia Encyclopedia, 1995 by Columbia University Press from MS Bookshelf.) In that era, approximately one-third of Southern families owned slaves. In Mississippi and South Carolina, almost one half of the families owned slaves. The total number of slave owners was 385,000, and a few of them were freed slaves. (http://members.aol.com/jfepperson/stat.html )
The final emancipation of slaves occurred when General Gordon Granger, on June 29,1865, rode into Galveston, Texas and issued a General Order on emancipation to the Galveston community. The date was almost two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
The Government Role in Supporting Slavery and Persecution
An extensive body of law, developed from the 1660's to the 1860's, governed slavery in the United States. Every slave state had its own slave code and court decisions regarding slavery. All slave codes made slavery a permanent condition, inherited through the mother, and defined slaves as property, usually in the same terms as those applied to real estate. Slaves, being property, could not own property or be a party to a contract. Since marriage is a form of a contract, no slave marriage had legal standing. All codes also had sections regulating free blacks, who were still subject to controls on their movements and employment and were often required to leave the state after being emancipated.
The Massachusetts Colony legalized slavery in 1641. The Virginia colony, 1642, enacted laws to fine those who harbor or assist runaway slaves. In 1664, Maryland introduced slavery into law. The law also prohibited marriage between white women and black men. This particular act remained in effect for over 300 years and was not repealed until 1967.
At the 1787 Constitutional Convention, the Federal government faced the issue of slavery by adopting a "three-fifths rule." In a compromise to settle differences between Northern and Southern states over the counting of slaves for purposes of representation and taxation, the government counted each slave as 3/5 of a person.
In 1793, the U.S. government enacted the infamous Fugitive Slave Act and demonstrated an acceptance of slavery. The law allowed slave owners, their agents or attorneys to seize fugitive slaves in free states and territories. Congress voted for the Fugitive Slave Act on February 12, 1793 and made it illegal for anyone to assist a slave in escaping to freedom or give refuge to a runaway slave.
The government reinforced their pro-slavery attitude by refusing a petition submitted by free Blacks to the Philadelphia Congress. In 1800, by a vote of 85 to 1, Congress rejected the petition to gradually abolish slavery.
Another Fugitive Slave Law was passed in September 1850. This law allowed escaped slaves to be returned to their masters if they were captured. The law prosecuted anyone who helped to hide or aid fugitive slaves. The law also triggered a slave catching business in which any black person, free or not, could be accused of having escaped. Slave catchers roamed the continent looking for Black people. Because of this law, many Blacks escaped to Canada in the 1850's and 1860's. The Fugitive Slave Law encouraged the U.S. Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision that affirmed (by a 6-3 vote) that a slave did not become free when taken into a free state. Congress could not bar slavery from a territory, and Blacks could not be citizens.
The Civil War brought slavery to an end.
Nine months before he issued his Emancipation Proclamation, President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill that ended slavery in the District of Columbia. The act brought to conclusion decades of agitation aimed at ending what antislavery advocates called "the national shame" of slavery in the nation's capital.
The bill provided for immediate emancipation, compensation of up to $300 for each slave of loyal Unionist masters, support for voluntary emigration of former slaves to colonies outside the United States and payments of up to $100 to each person choosing emigration. Over the next 9 months, the federal government paid almost $1 million for providing freedom of approximately 3,100 former slaves.The District of Columbia Emancipation Act is the only example of compensated emancipation in the United States.
The Senate passed the proposed amendment by a vote of 38 to 6, on Apr. 8, 1864. The House defeated the amendment by a vote of 95 to 66 on June 15, 1864. The House reconsidered the amendment, and on Jan. 31, 1865, passed the resolution by a vote of 119 to 56. President Lincoln approved Amendment XII on Feb.1,1865. Other laws that offset the evils of slavery followed.
Congress overrode President Johnson's veto on April 9 and passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866. The act gave Black Americans citizenship and guaranteed them equal rights with whites.
On June 13 of the same year, Congress approved the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. The amendment guaranteed due process and equal protection under the law to all citizens. On July 21, the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, granting citizenship to any person born or naturalized in the United States.
On February 26, 1869, Congress sent the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution to the states for approval. The amendment guaranteed Black Americans the right to vote.
In the Civil Rights Act of 1875, Congress guaranteed equal rights to Black Americans in public accommodations and jury duty. Two years later discrimination and persecution of African Americans began its return. The benefits of Reconstruction to African Americans quickly ended after the withdrawal of federal troops from the South and the end of federal efforts to protect the civil rights of African Americans.
Segregation of public transportation began in 1881. Tennessee segregated railroad cars. The segregation was followed by Florida (1887), Mississippi (1888), Texas (1889), Louisiana (1890), Alabama, Kentucky, Arkansas, and Georgia (1891), South Carolina (1898), North Carolina (1899), Virginia (1900), Maryland (1904), and Oklahoma (1907).
On October 15, 1883, after only 8 years of enactment, the Supreme Court declared the Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional. The Court declared that the Fourteenth Amendment forbids states, but not citizens, from discriminating. Soon, separated railroad car laws that segregated Blacks from Whites were in force in most of the South.
Immediately, a group of New Orleans black businessmen decided to fight these laws. Homer Plessy, an African American, volunteered to break the law. Plessy boarded an East Louisiana railroad train in New Orleans and took a seat in a white-only car. After being asked to move and refusing, he was arrested. Plessy and his attorney argued that the separate car laws violated his civil rights. Judge Ferguson found Plessy guilty and fined him twenty-five dollars.
The Plessy v. Ferguson case went to the Supreme Court (1896) and the court declared the law of separate cars to be constitutional. From this 1896 decision, the Court ruled that "separate but equal facilities" was proper under the 14th Amendment. Jim Crow" laws followed the "Separate but Equal" doctrine and brought African Americans a second-class citizenship."Separate but Equal" remained the law of the land for fifty-eight years, until 1954, when the Supreme Court determined in "Brown v. Board of Education" that "separate is inherently unequal."
After the 1896 Supreme Court decision on Plessy vs. Ferguson, which encouraged the separation of Blacks and Whites, the City Council of Baltimore approved the first city ordinance designating the boundaries of black and white neighborhoods. This ordinance was followed by similar ones in Dallas, Texas, Greensboro, North Carolina, Louisville, Kentucky, Norfolk, Virginia, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Richmond, Virginia, Roanoke, Virginia, and St. Louis, Missouri. The Supreme Court did not declare the Louisville ordinance to be unconstitutional until 1917.
On April 11, 1913, the Wilson administration began government-wide segregation of work places, rest rooms and lunch rooms.
And so it went, until World War II awakened the conscience of Americans to the evils of discrimination and persecution. Anti-discrimination state laws began to be enacted. They didn't do enough.
In 1945, New York was the first state to enact an anti-discrimination law. It's omnibus statute banned discrimination in employment, housing, credit, places of public accommodation and non-secretarian educational institutions. In 1968 the Human Rights Law created the State Division of Human Rights, which simply described that the state has the responsibility to act to assure that every individual within the state is afforded an equal opportunity to enjoy a full and productive life.
Fifty eight years after the Supreme Court effectively legalized segregation, the Supreme Court, in a momentous decision on May 17, 1954 ruled school segregation unlawful. The decision resulted from a review of "BROWN VS. BOARD OF EDUCATION."
The landmark Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited employment discrimination due to race, color, sex, national origin, and religion. The Act also prohibited retaliation for opposing discrimination, filing a complaint, or participating in a related proceeding.
The laws that promoted slavery and segregation had powerful and immediate effects in their enactments. The laws that countered discrimination and persecution accomplished much of their thrust, but lacked total enforcement and didn't sufficiently protect the rights of all African American citizens.
The Economics of Slavery
One of the major revelations of the economics of early slavery is the reported 1638 price tag for an African male--about $27, at a time when the salary of a European laborer was about seventy cents per day. (Willie F. Page. The Dutch Triangle: The Netherlands and the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1621-1664)
Nevertheless, by 1790 slavery seemed to be a dying institution. The decline of tobacco planting proved crucial to the freeing of slaves in the Chesapeake region of Maryland. Years of overplanting had created a worn land. Farmers produced less tobacco and turned their farms to more profitable grains. Their need for large numbers of slaves decreased. Rather than assume the cost of caring for their slaves, many farmers freed them.
The introduction of cotton increased the demand for slaves. Before the turn of the 19th century, the South had little cotton production. Eli Whitney's cotton gin changed the production quota, and with it the history of Black America. The cotton gin made the production of the heartier short-staple cotton profitable. Before the invention of the cotton gin it took a slave a day to clean a pound of the short-staple cotton. With the cotton gin, the slave could clean up to 50 pounds a day.
Cotton became the principal cash crop of the South and of the nation. In 1790 the South produced only 3,135 bales of cotton. On the eve of the Civil War, production peaked at 4.8 million bales. Cotton production reinvigorated slavery. Slaves, who were of little use in the Upper South, were not set free but sold to plantations in the Lower South. Slaves born in Virginia, Maryland or South Carolina died in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana.
Prior to the Civil War, the Price, Birch, & Company Slave Pen at Duke St., Alexandria, Virginia sold a slave child for about $50, a man for $1,000-$1,800 and a woman for $500 to $1,500. The significance of these prices can be realized by noting that in the 1950's, only 2% of American families owned corporation stocks equal in value to the 1860 value of a single slave. Slave ownership was more widespread in the South than corporate investment was in 1950's America. On a typical plantation (more than 20 slaves) the capital value of the slaves was greater than the capital value of the land and the plantation implements.
The ability of the white culture to replace African American dominance in any industry demonstrates the complete economic domination of African Americans.
During the 1890's, Black entertainers supported by the Czechoslovakian composer Anton Dvorak, who was temporarily residing in the United States, effectively dominated the musical theater industry in New York City. Within one decade, European immigrants replaced the African Americans and obtained control of Broadway's musical scene.
Black musicians started Jazz in the early 1900's and made it famous. As the commercial potential of Jazz music increased, white musicians, such as the bands of Paul Whiteman, Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey replaced the Black musicians as the economic force in the Jazz industry.
The same progression continued in each decade. None of it was deliberate. It was due to White control of the culture and its power. Elvis Presley sidetracked the overwhelming number of Black "rock and rollers." The Beatles practically put Black musicians and their recording industry out of business. When the Beatles faded and Black musicians came to popularity again, the BeeGees and white disco forced them out of the limelight again.
In sports and cinema, talented African American athletes and actors played in minor arenas and theaters at minimal salaries, while lesser white talents commanded huge salaries. How much of the reputations, successes and high salaries of the "white stars" of yesterday was due to the deliberate prevention of competition from talented African Americans?
In corporate management and financial institutions, the two largest money gathering positions, African American entry was almost universally denied.
The sacrifices of Black energy to the productive capacity of the United States did not end with slavery. The U.S. census statistics on poverty in America 1999 show that the African American population is still not being properly compensated for its efforts.
The poverty rate for Blacks fell to a record low of 23.6 percent in 1999, down from the previous low of 26.1 percent in 1998. However, the poverty rate for Blacks in 1999 was still about three times the poverty rate for White non-Hispanics (7.7 percent).
The infant-mortality rate for African Americans in 1996 was more than twice as high as for whites, a proportional gap larger than in 1970.
According to Human Rights Watch and the Sentencing Project, African Americans in the late 90's made up 13 percent to 15 percent of all drug users, yet accounted for 36 percent of all arrests for drug possession. In 1996, the incarceration rate for black men was eight times that of white men.
The continuous three centuries of intensive persecution of African Americans has no precedent in America's history. The recorded brutality, victimization, injustices and denial of basic rights that reached into dining counter seating, water fountain drinking, and toilet facilities are well documented and cannot be adequately described. Some mention of the brutality that subdued Black rebellions and degraded their life in America can illuminate the need for reparations for past injustices.
Significant slave rebellions began early. In 1712, about twenty-five slaves, armed with guns and clubs, set fire to houses on the northern edge of New York City. They killed the first nine whites who arrived on the scene and were killed or captured by soldiers. (Slave Rebellions, Reader's Companion to American History, Edited by Eric Foner ). In 1791 in Louisiana, after suppression of a black revolt, twenty-three slaves were hanged and three white sympathizers were deported, . (Chronology: A Historical Review, Major Events in Black History 1492 thru 1953 by Roger Davis and Wanda Neal-Davis). In 1795, also in Louisiana, a slave uprising was suppressed with some 50 blacks killed and executed.(Chronology: A Historical Review, Major Events in Black History 1492 thru 1953 by Roger Davis and Wanda Neal-Davis).
The fears of rebellion generated hostile actions. In 1795, Georgetown enacted an ordinance banning the congregation of more than 5 slaves in public with punishment of 39 lashes for the slaves and a $13 fine for their masters. (Slaves at the Founding. From Bob Arnebeck’s Page on Early Washington History). In 1818, a fee of fifty cents was allowed constables (Washington, DC police) for each whipping of a slave, who had been judged guilty of violating an act of the corporation of the Federal City. (Richard Sylvester, District of Columbia Police, Policemen's Fund, Washington, DC 1894)
The rebellions could not be stifled. In 1800, Gabriel Prosser, a slave, assisted by almost 1,000 other slaves, organized an attack on Richmond. Betrayal by two other slaves enabled the federal militia to quickly suppress the insurrection, and execute the ringleaders. (The People's Chronology 1995, 1996 by James Trager from MS Bookshelf) In 1811, in Louisiana, U.S. troops suppressed a slave uprising in two parishes 35 miles from New Orleans. Charles Deslands led the revolt. About 100 slaves were killed or executed. (Chronology: A Historical Review, Major Events in Black History 1492 thru 1953 by Roger Davis and Wanda Neal-Davis ) The Seminole Indian Wars in Florida began as a result of many slaves taking refuge with Seminole Indian tribes. (Underground Railroad Chronology, National Park Service)
The bloodiest insurrection occurred in Southampton County, Virginia, in August, 1831. Nat Turner and other slaves felt that the social righteousness preached by the prophets related directly to their situation. Turner began with only a small band, which lessened his chance of betrayal. The band moved from farm to farm and slaughtered the white inhabitants. Other slaves joined Turner's band and freed themselves in the process. After word of the massacre spread, the band was met by armed resistance. Slaves as well as masters fought fiercely to stop the attack. Some of Turner's men were killed and wounded, and the drive was disabled. This pause enabled the militia to arrive and break up the attack. Turner and several of his followers were captured and executed.
The media and government depicted the Turner violence as the work of savages and brutes and not of oppressed men. Vigilance was tightened, and new laws controlling the slaves were passed throughout the South. Slaves who revolted were depicted as beasts who could not be freed because they would endanger society. Submissive slaves were pictured as children in need of paternal protection from the evils of a complex and modern world. The slaves were never seen as men whose rights and liberties had been proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence. (Norman Coombs, The Immigrant Heritage of America, Twayne Press, 1972. , Chapter 4, Slave Insurrections)
Between 1820 and 1850, Northern Blacks became the frequent targets of mob violence. Whites looted, tore down, and burned Black homes, churches, schools, and meeting halls. They stoned, beat, and sometimes murdered Blacks. Philadelphia saw the the worst and most frequent mob violence. City officials generally refused to protect African Americans from white mobs and blamed Black behavior for inciting the violence.
Black veterans returned from the battlefields of World War I and encountered deteriorated race relations in an administration dominated by conservative Southern whites that Woodrow Wilson had brought to Washington. Previously integrated departments such as the Post Office and the Treasury set up "Jim Crow corners" with separate washrooms and lunchrooms for "colored only." The Ku Klux Klan revived itself in Maryland and Virginia, and racial hatred resurged with lynching of black men and women around the country – 28 public lynchings in the first six months of 1919 alone, including seven black veterans killed while still wearing their Army uniforms.
Perhaps the nations deadliest racial confrontation occurred in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921. The exact number of people killed in the riot, which destroyed a 30-square-block area of a primarily black neighborhood of north Tulsa known as Greenwood, was never determined. Newspaper accounts at the time varied, with some reporting as many as 76 dead. Some historians, citing survivors' accounts, have put the figure as high as 300. (New York Times 2/21/99 Panel Tries to Get Clearer Picture of 1921 Race Riot)
Race riots were not a phenomenon of slavery and its aftermath. It was an explosive product of continuous persecution of Black people. Race riots occurred during World War II in New York and Detroit. They continued during the 1960's in Watts (35 killed, 900 injured and the value of property destroyed assessed at $225 million), Newark, Detroit (43 dead, 7,000 arrested, 1,300 buildings destroyed and 2,700 businesses looted) and Washington D.C. The murder of Martin Luther King in 1968, triggered burning, looting and rioting in 125 American cities. More recently, Los Angeles in 1992 (54 people killed, 2,383 injured and 13,212 arrested) and Cincinnati in 2001 have had riots that are consequences of perceived injustices to African Americans.
During the period from 1930 until the Civil Rights Act of 1963, brutality against African Americans reached a high intensity. Even after the 1954 Supreme Court decision, that overruled the previous "Separate but Equal" decision, and passage of the 1963 Civil Rights Act, many African Americans died in attacks. A Civil Rights memorial has inscribed the names of 40 people who lost their lives in the struggle for freedom between 1931 and 1968. They include those who were targeted for death because of their civil rights activities; those who were random victims of vigilantes determined to halt the movement; and those who, in the sacrifice of their own lives, brought a new awareness of the struggle to people all over the world. Some of the more prominently listed episodes:
REV. GEORGE LEE was one of the first black people who registered to vote in Humphreys County and urged others to vote. After he refused to end his voter registration efforts, Lee was murdered. MAY 7, 1955 -- Belzoni, Miss.
EMMETT LOUIS TILL was a 14-year-old boy who reportedly flirted with a white woman in a store. Two men took Till from his bed, beat him, shot him, and dumped his body in the Tallahatchie River. An all-white jury found the men innocent of murder. AUGUST 28, 1955 -- Money, Miss.
HERBERT LEE helped register black voters and was killed by a state legislator who claimed self-defense and was never arrested. Louis Allen, a black man who witnessed the murder, was also killed. SEPTEMBER 25, 1961 -- Liberty, Miss.
MEDGAR EVERS directed NAACP operations in Mississippi and was leading a campaign for integration in Jackson when he was shot and killed by a sniper at his home. JUNE 12, 1963 -- Jackson, Miss.
ADDIE MAE COLLINS, DENISE MCNAIR, CAROLE ROBERTSON and CYNTHIA WESLEY were getting ready for church services when a bomb exploded at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and killed all four of the school-age girls. The church had been a center for civil rights meetings and marches. SEPTEMBER 15, 1963 -- Birmingham, Ala.
JAMES EARL CHANEY, ANDREW GOODMAN, and MICHAEL HENRY SCHWERNER were young civil rights workers who were arrested by a deputy sheriff and then released into the hands of Klansmen. They were shot and their bodies were buried in an earthen dam. JUNE 21, 1964 -- Philadelphia, Miss.
JIMMIE LEE JACKSON tried to protect his grandfather and mother from a trooper attack on civil rights marcher and was beaten and shot by state troopers. His death led to the Selma-Montgomery march and the eventual passage of the Voting Rights Act. FEBRUARY 26, 1965 -- Marion, Ala.
VIOLA GREG LIUZZO was a housewife and mother from Detroit who drove alone to Alabama to help with the Selma march. She was driving marchers back to Selma from Montgomery when she was shot and killed by a Klansmen in a passing car. MARCH 25, 1965 -- Selma Highway, Ala.
WHARLEST JACKSON was the treasurer of his local NAACP chapter and was one of many Blacks who received threatening Klan notices at his job. After Jackson was promoted to a position previously reserved for whites, a bomb exploded in his car and killed him instantly. FEBRUARY 27, 1967 -- Natchez, Miss.
DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. was a major architect of the civil rights movement and was assassinated as he prepared to lead a demonstration in Memphis. APRIL 4, 1968 -- Memphis, Tenn.
The road to reparations for African Americans has been a difficult path. The actions of the U.S.government and American people indicate disapproval of reparations for African Americans. Negative arguments profess that present day Americans are not responsible for past actions of ancestors, that present day African Americans have not been enslaved and persecuted, and that the distribution of reparations cannot be equitably performed. The specious arguments have inhibited a dialogue on the merits of reparations.
The history of persecution, propelled by laws that subdued the Black population, and the institution of illegal laws that sustained slavery and segregation, greatly support the argument for reparations in a democratic America. The early laws that promoted slavery and inhibited slaves from obtaining their freedom, such as the Fugitive Slave laws, were illegal. The Black population had no recourse in seeking redress from laws that in effect pardoned criminal actions. They had no recourse in combating the 1896 Supreme Court decision that allowed segregation and permitted the installation of Jim Crow laws. These illegal laws were not directed against an individual. They were directed against the Black community, and their effects continue in that community today. It wasn't until after the African American community had been totally deprived of sharing in the wealth and power of a growing America that they greatly assisted in developing, were laws passed that allowed them to share in the wealth and power. Their persecution was so complete that they didn't have the legal mechanisms or financial support to counter the deprivations forced upon them.
Benefits from late 20th century laws have come too little and too late. These laws support the African American population redress for centuries of persecution and economic denial under illegal laws. This conclusion is a major effect of the Supreme Court 1954 decision that ruled "Separate and Equal" to be illegal and the Civil Rights Act of 1963 that admitted that African Americans had been denied an equitable share in the country's wealth.
The arguments against reparations are based partly on the fear that the total bill for reparations will be staggering and topple the financial structure of the country. If the actuaries do their job, the reparations bill could be staggering and validate the extent of the denial of economic power to the Black community. However, the financial structure will not fail. It will only be moderately transferred, which answers another "hidden" argument against reparations- -that the transfer of funds to the African American community will realign the financial and power structure of the country. This might also be true. The thrust of these arguments is a continued discrimination-- an attempt to maintain a portion of the African American population in a second class status, as a floor for wage compensation in American industry.
A misconception has individual Americans responsible for reparations. The American system and its present government remain responsible for the actions of the previous American governments that began the unlawful persecution of Black people in 1787. Reparations are based upon the collective legal responsibility of the American system and not on its individual citizens.
The fears and misconceptions cannot be allowed to prevent reparations. The African American population has a legal argument for monetary redress. The courts will expect that the legal argument contains a viable means to distribute the reparations. The distribution does not mean an award of a specific sum to each African American. Preferably, it should establish as first priority and as an open-ended commitment, the repair of the Black ghettos in America--the raising of the health, education, housing, family life, cultural life, recreation facilities,etc. to highest standards. The commitment should not end until the ghettos disappear and their communities are successfully integrated into American life. Failure has no excuses. The logistics for implementing these tasks are not simple. The words are only a start to a workable plan--not much different than using the same mechanism that built the beautiful coast-to-coast neighborhoods and manicured lawns of White America.
Randall Robinson has eloquently expressed the legal right of African Americans to reparations:
According to my friend Dowdily Thompson, the Jamaican human-rights lawyer, international law in this area is replete with precedents. He says, "Not only is there a moral debt but there is clearly established precedence in law based on the principle of unjust enrichment. In law, if a party unlawfully enriches himself by wrongful acts against another, then the party so wronged is entitled to recompense. There have been some 15 cases in which the highest tribunals, including the International Court at the Hague, have awarded large sums of reparations based on this law." Only in the case of Black people have the claims, the claimants, the crime, the law, the precedents, the awful contemporary social consequences, all been roundly ignored. The thinking must be that the case that cannot be substantively answered is best not acknowledged at all. Hence, the U.S. government and White society generally have opted to deal with this debt by forgetting that it is owed. The crime--246 years of an enterprise, murderous both of a people and their culture--is so unprecedentedly massive that it would require some form of collective insanity, not to see it and its living victims.
May 15, 2001
edited March, 2003
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