Catching up with the Reparations Debate

Photo by Lauren Jeziorski

Near the end of the Civil War in 1865, Union Army General William T. Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 15, calling for the redistribution of confiscated southern coastal lands to newly freed slaves. Under the order, a family of four would receive 40 acres of former Confederate territory to help usher them into their new lives as freedmen, which included reaping the financial benefits of their labor.

It was a radical idea for its time, one developed with input from black leaders, white abolitionists and white Radical Republicans in Congress. And it was a plan that would never come to fruition, as President Andrew Johnson – who took office after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated – nullified the order, letting the land return to those who had taken up arms against the United States.

But the dream of reparations never died among black Americans. For decades, activists continued the conversation, scholars wrote treatises and organizations continued to beat the reparations drum despite gaining minimal support outside majority black circles. Until now.

In 2014, The Atlantic published “The Case for Reparations,” a 15,000-word piece by acclaimed writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, launching the reparations discussion back into the public arena. Five years later, Coates would testify during a Congressional committee hearing convened to address H.R.40, the bill that would authorize the federal government to develop reparations proposals for African Americans.

The topic has emerged in presidential debates, and multiple Democratic candidates have publicly expressed support for reparations outright – or for further study on the issue. Whether or not the issue gains enough momentum to lead to tangible action, nearly all supporters agree that 2019 has been a watershed moment – providing the most forward motion toward making reparations a reality since 1865.


“I predict that the revised H.R.40 bill, currently sponsored by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) will be successfully enacted,” says JoAnn Watson, a pastor, activist and former Detroit councilwoman. Watson serves on the board of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA). “Currently,” she says, “there are a record number of co-sponsors and a surge of support never before witnessed.”

Detroit’s Piece

While Coates’ essay helped revive the national discussion, many groups and scholars have been working tirelessly for decades to further the reparations cause – and much of that work has local roots. “It was Detroit that catalyzed the first introduction of H.R.40, which started as a ‘study’ bill and has now evolved into a bill to remedy the well-documented repair required after 400 years,” Watson says.

Former U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-Michigan) introduced H.R.40 in every Congressional session since 1989 until his resignation in 2017. Watson, who once served as public liaison for Conyers, said she has been involved with reparations advocacy for 50 years.

Now 68, she credits her introduction to the issue to leaders such as Imari Obadele, Rev. Milton Henry and “Reparations Ray” Jenkins, a Detroit-based activist whom Watson nicknamed herself on her radio talk show for his tireless advocacy. It was Jenkins, Watson said, who first encouraged Conyers to sponsor H.R.40.

In June 2019, Detroit hosted two national reparations conferences in the same week – one from the city-based Reparations Labor Union and the other from N’COBRA. In July, not long after the Congressional hearings for H.R.40, a group of 2020 presidential candidates discussed reparations during the annual NAACP convention at TCF Center and tackled questions related to reparations during two days of Democratic debates in Detroit.

During those debates, a national viewing audience heard Beto O’Rourke, the former Congressman from El Paso, Texas speak in support of reparations, saying he would sign H.R.40 into law if he becomes president. But it was spiritual leader and motivational speaker Marianne Williamson – who once led Warren-based Church of Today, now known as Renaissance Unity – who perhaps showed the strongest support of cash compensation.

“It’s not $500 billion in financial assistance,” the presidential candidate said in response to the question posed by CNN’s Don Lemon. “It’s (a) $200-$500 billion payment of a debt that is owed.” Watson thinks it’s fitting that Detroit has played, and continues to play, a significant role in the reparations movement, considering that the city birthed many national black organizations and businesses, and long had the highest rates of black homeownership in the United States.

Up from 40

From the arrival of the first Africans to Jamestown in 1619 to the end of the Civil War in 1865 to the ratification of the 13th Amendment, Africans and their descendants contributed significantly to the growth of the American economy through forced labor.

The United States seemed open to the idea of reparations for slaves immediately after the end of the Civil War. Sherman, the Union Army general, promised 40 acres of land to freed slave families after the war, and he suggested that the Army lend them a mule to tend their new land.

Johnson’s nixing of the order effectively ended the federal reparations discussion for more than 150 years. But the 40-acres-and-a-mule idea never died in the minds of the black collective, and a colloquial understanding of the phrase exists among many black Americans today. Filmmaker Spike Lee might have made the most public homage to the idea of a promise unfulfilled, naming his production company 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks.

Reparations proponents point to the wealth gap between black descendants of U.S. slaves that started with centuries of forced, uncompensated labor and continued through the decades of Jim Crow laws, segregation, real estate redlining and other regulations that limited or restricted African Americans’ access to property ownership and higher wages.

Without the ability to collect and build generational wealth, black wealth and earnings have lagged far behind those of whites, contributing to disproportionate rates of poverty among black Americans today.

The Federal Reserve’s 2016 Survey of Consumer Finances reported that the median wealth of black households is $16,000 – compared with $163,000 for whites. Such themes have been articulated for decades in academic texts and activist work, but Coates’ 2014 essay represented a breakthrough.

Earlier this year, Rep. Jackson Lee again introduced H.R.40 – as she has done since Conyers’ departure – and 2020 presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) introduced a companion bill, S.1083, marking the first time a reparations bill emerged post-Reconstruction.

The Senate bill has 12 co-sponsors, including 2020 presidential candidates Sen. Kamala Harris (D-California), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota). Another co-sponsor, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York), ended her presidential campaign in late August. In June, a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee sponsored hearings for H.R.40, marking the first time in the bill’s 30-year history that members of Congress chose to move it to a hearing.

A subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee held a three-and-a-half-hour session on the bill on June 19, with testimony taking place before a packed audience and three overflow rooms filled with observers who came to Capitol Hill to be a part of history. Speakers included Coates, economist and former Bennett College president Julianne Malveaux and actor Danny Glover.

A New York Times article noted the symbolism of the entire process. The hearing took place on June 19 – Juneteenth – and the numeral in H.R 40 had long been selected in reference to the 40 acres and a mule promised to freed black slaves in 1865.

As of late October, the bill has 119 co-sponsors, and at least 11 Democratic presidential candidates for 2020 have gone on record in support of immediate reparations or the launch of an exploratory commission. “The superb scholarly work of Ta-Nehisi Coates, as represented in The Atlantic, and in his statement before the U.S. House of Representatives’ reparations hearing on June 19 generated a huge boost for the reparations movement worldwide,” Watson says.

Debts Settled

Reparations supporters point to the fact that the United States has paid financial compensation for those wronged by federal government policies, notably to Japanese Americans sent to internment camps during World War II. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, which issued $20,000 to each surviving victim of the internment camps. More than 82,000 survivors were alive at the time of the bill’s passage.

Other western nations have also provided cash compensation to address government wrongdoing. Germany has paid more than $70 billion in reparations to Israel and to Jewish organizations for its killing and forced labor of Jews during the Holocaust.

Critics of reparations for African Americans say the difference in this instance is that no former slaves are still living, and determining who would be considered eligible for reparations could prove daunting. Supporters counter by noting that the legacy of Jim Crow and segregation – which persisted through much of the 20th centurystill affects black Americans today, including many who lived through it.

There’s also the question of how reparations would be paid. Cash payments? Free college tuition? Zero-interest loans for homes? A variety of scholars, politicians and economists have proposed myriad possibilities. For all the interest on the Democratic side of the aisle, any reparations measure would struggle in the Republican-controlled Senate.

“I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago for whom none of us currently living are responsible is a good idea,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) said to news outlets a day before the House committee hearing in June.

But the 2020 elections could dramatically change the face of Congress and the presidency. And if a reparations-friendly president enters the Oval Office with the support of Congress, the long-denied dream of 40 acres and a mule could finally come to fruition.

In Memoriam: John Conyers

May 16, 1929-Oct. 27, 2019

U.S. Rep. John Conyers died on Oct. 27 at age 90, a day before this issue went to press. A representative for 53 years, Conyers was the longest-serving African American in Congressional history. As highlighted in this piece, Conyers introduced the H.R.40 bill in every Congressional session from 1989 until he resigned in 2017.

The bill established the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans, charged with examining slavery and discrimination against black Americans from 1619 to present and recommending appropriate remedies.

Conyers was elected in 1964 and, throughout his career, he’d prove one of the House’s most liberal members. He was an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War, and when Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, Conyers headed the charge to make Dr. King’s birthday a national holiday. Of course, Conyers succeeded in garnering a victory for King – and for all of us – when, in 1983, it was declared that the third Monday of every January would be Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Conyers was also a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus, established in 1971 and comprised of mostly black members of Congress committed to advocating for African American and other marginalized communities, fighting for criminal justice reform, combatting voter suppression and the like.

Conyers resigned in 2017 amidst accusations by two women of unwelcome sexual advances. He and his lawyers fiercely denied the allegations; still, he was forced to step down. Controversy notwithstanding, Conyers’ legacy of determination and fortitude stands sturdy.

Shannon Shelton is a freelance journalist and Detroit native.

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