OPINION: Reparations, an age-old issue, slowly becomes a mainstream topic

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Twenty-five years ago, a close friend, Tommie Jenkins, gave the writer a book entitled, “SHOULD AMERICA PAY?: Slavery and the Raging Debate on Reparations.” It traced the call for reparations by African peoples back to the period of Reconstruction. The book is well-documented and should be required reading not just for advocates of reparations, but for educators, law-makers, policy-shapers, and all who would be informed. Shortly after receiving that book, in June 2014, the same friend sponsored a trip to the 25th National Conference of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, where the issue was thoroughly aired. That means that the writer has been formally involved in the movement for at least a generation.

The movement, however, is much older than that. As the “SHOULD AMERICA PAY?” book documents, it goes back to slavery itself. There are many milestones in the movement that can be noted, going back to the promise of forty acres and a mule made to ex-slaves in the Sea Islands area in 1861 and more specifically in Special Field Orders 15 in January 1865. 

 Throughout much of his career in Congress, U.S. Representative John Conyers, a Democrat from Michigan, proposed legislation to study the impact of slavery on Black people in America. Although the bills that he proposed never saw the light of day, they could have formed the basis for considering a viable reparations program. (Conyers’ efforts have been taken up by U.S. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat from Texas. And it continues up to this day.)

More than a few organizations, including the Republic of New Afrika, the Nation of Islam, and the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, have argued the Black reparations case for years. Their voices, however, have been confined primarily, if not exclusively, to audiences of progressive and radical activists.

This past fall, a Catholic priest, Christopher Kellerman, wrote a book, “ALL OPPRESSION SHALL CEASE,” which traced support for and participation in slavery and the slave trade by Catholic leaders and laypersons from its roots. It is a well-documented book that closes with a call for not just a sincere apology to African peoples but it also calls for reparations by the Catholic Church as well as its affiliated enterprises. Similar books can and should be written by other religious denominations, including, but not limited to, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and Baptist, that were in existence during the period of African slavery and the Atlantic Slave Trade. They all should be paying reparations.

Last week, we learned that a series of debates on the matter of reparations is being held on the campuses of many historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs. This is a welcomed and healthy development. Hopefully, the participants will avail themselves of the most powerful and recent data, and that the misinformation and “red herrings” will be ferreted-out. We certainly would like to witness such debates at JSU, Tougaloo, and the other HBCUs in this state.

As these new developments emerge, it is also gratifying to learn of concrete reparations efforts being made in places such as Evanston, Illinois; San Francisco, California; and Asheville, North Carolina. Other reparations efforts are in the making elsewhere. 

Reparations to African people are owed by the governments of every level, since they provided the legal umbrella for the enslavement; by the banks and insurance companies that helped finance the slaving and shipping companies; by the churches, since they offered moral/religious cover for the crime; by the institutions such as schools and colleges that benefited from slavery; and by individual families and companies whose wealth can be traced directly to the institution of slavery.

Reparations are nothing more nor anything less than payment for the wrongs heaped upon African people in America through the vestiges that have lasted to this day but most particularly through enslavement. The history of the payment of reparations is well established in America and other countries, including but not limited to, the Jewish people of Nazi, Germany; Indian people in America; and interned Japanese people in America.

At this point, the question seems to be not whether reparations should be paid, but in what form and in what amount. It is an idea that has refused to go away and has now gained the support of many outside the original circle of victims. It is a matter of justice finally being done. 

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OPINION: Reparations, an age-old issue, slowly becomes a mainstream topic

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
March 27, 2023