ARTICLE

Brief History of the
Effort to Obtain Reparations

Many Americans believe that the reparations movement is something new, or at least an idea newly resurrected from long ago. Reparations activists, however, know that, against incredible odds, the movement has remained persistently alive since 1865. Even though it is impossible to include the initiatives of all reparations organizations and leaders because so many have played a part, CURE has put together an overview in order to demonstrate the fact that the call for reparations has been voiced since slavery ended.

Here below are some of the occurrences in the struggle for reparations as it has taken form over the years legislatively, as a social activism movement, in the courts, and at the international level.

1865-1867: Union Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman declared that a strip of land along the Southeast coast be set aside for freed slaves with families to receive up to 40 acres. Rep. Thaddeus Stevens introduced the Slave Reparations Bill in the House of Representatives. The Federal Government established the Freedmen's Bureau to provide assistance. However, later the freedmen were removed from their new homesteads by President Andrew Johnson who allowed the white southerners to reclaim the land.

1890: African Methodist Episcopal Church Bishop Henry M. Turner began a campaign to secure reparations. An advocate of repatriation, he said that the US should pay $40 billion for 200 years of service.

1890-1893: William R. Vaughn, a white Alabamian, introduced 9 Congressional bills seeking $100 to $500 payment (depending on the age of the formerly enslaved person) plus $4 to $15 per month pension. None of these measures ever became law.

1897: Callie House founded The National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief Bounty and Pension Association. The purpose was to organize a demand that would force the US to provide pensions for aging individuals formerly held in slavery, their surviving spouses, caregivers, and heirs. Her organizing was so successful that for 10 years the government went after her for mail fraud, finally jailing Ms. House and halting her work in 1915.

1915: Cornelius Jones, with the help of Callie House, sued the US Government for reparations, arguing that it had profited from enslaved labor through a federal tax on cotton. Since the enslaved persons were never paid, he calculated a $69 million debt for their labor. He lost the suit.

1960: Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Lost-Found Nation of Islam, argued that human rights are more important than civil rights. He began publishing a newspaper notice entitled "What the Muslims Want," stating that the US Government was obligated to establish a separate territory of fertile and minerally rich land, and maintain and supply the needs of descendants of slavery for 20 to 25 years until they could produce and supply their own needs.

1963: Long-time activist Queen Mother Audley Moore founded The Reparations Committee of Descendants of US Slaves. She garnered support for a petition to the US Government, and was successful in delivering that petition to President Kennedy. A supporter of human rights, she twice delivered a petition to the United Nations charging genocide and asking for reparations.

1963: Detroit activist Ray Jenkins formed an organization he called Slave Labor Annuity Pay. He distributed leaflets, made speeches, sent letters to Black organizations and personalities, and ultimately talked Michigan Congressman John Conyers into introducing a reparations study bill in Congress.

1968: Members of the Malcolm X Society, led by Imari Obadele, organized the Republic of New Africa and demanded five Southern states and $400 billion in slavery damages.

1969: Civil rights activist James Forman marched into a service at the mostly white Riverside Church in New York City and began reading his "Black Manifesto." Forman charged white churches and synagogues with complicity in slavery and racial oppression and asked them to pay restitution.

1987: Dr. Imari A. Obadele called for the creation of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N'COBRA). This important organization has continued to form new chapters and grow in strength. Dorothy Benton Lewis, founder of the Black Reparations Commission, served as co-chair for a number of years.

1988: Mr. Silis Muhammad, leader of the Lost-Found Nation of Islam, gathered a group of attorneys under the banner of the National Commission for Reparations in order to examine human rights law and take the reparations battle inside the UN. In 1994 he delivered a reparations petition to the UN under an official communications procedure. In 1995 he founded All For Reparations and Emancipation, which became a UN NGO. In 1997 he began personally to speak before the UN human rights bodies on behalf of the descendants of enslaved Africans in the US and across the Americas and slavery Diaspora.

1989: US Representative John Conyers called for a federal study of slavery, racial discrimination, and "appropriate remedies" in a bill entitled the Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act, known today as HR 40. The bill has been re-introduced in every legislative session since 1989, but it is yet to get a subcommittee hearing. Due in great part to the efforts of N'COBRA chapters and members, over the years city councils across the nation have adopted resolutions urging passage of the Conyers bill.

1992: Ida Hakim gathered together other white allies to Black Reparations and founded an advocacy organization, Caucasians United for Reparations and Emancipation (CURE). CURE began publishing materials, holding events and making television appearances to inform white America of the need to do justice through reparations.

1997: US Rep. Tony Hall, a white Ohio Democrat, introduced a resolution asking Congress to formally apologize for slavery. Despite provoking intense debate, it was buried in committee.

2000: Randall Robinson's The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks was published, becoming a bestseller. Other books have been published on reparations both before and since, but Robinson's book is mentioned specifically because it raised dramatically the profile of the reparations movement.

Atty. Charles Ogletree forms the Reparations Coordinating Committee to ascertain, document, and report comparative repair and restitution in the United States and abroad on behalf of the contemporary victims of slavery and the century-long practice of de jure racial discrimination which followed slavery.

2001: The December 12th Movement, led by Viola Plummer and Atty. Roger Wareham, along with the National Black United Front, led by Dr. Conrad Worrill, organized a more than 300 member delegation, called the Durban 400, to attend the UN World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa where they lobbied for key issues, including reparations for African people on the Continent and throughout the Diaspora.

2002: Deadria Farmer-Paellmann, a New York City advocate, filed a class-action lawsuit against several major corporations for profiting from slavery and violating human rights laws. By the end of the year, the case was consolidated with 8 others and moved to federal court in Chicago.

Organized primarily by Viola Plummer and Dr. Conrad Worrill, the Millions for Reparations Rally was the first reparations rally to be held in the nation's Capital.

2004: Dr. Ray Winbush, author of Should America Pay? hosted the fourth Ndaba (great sit-down in Zulu) at Morgan State University in Baltimore, MD. Minister Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, was the keynote speaker. The NDABA Movement is collecting names on a petition for reparations to be presented to the US Government.

The corporation lawsuit begun by Deadria Farmer-Paellmann in 2002 against several major corporations that profited from slavery was dismissed "without prejudice" by a judge who stated that their claims were filed too long after slavery ended, and that they raised complicated social and political issues that were generally resolved by either Congress or the President. The case was re-filed in April 2004.

2006: On December 13th, the US Court of Appeals in Chicago reversed the earlier ruling in the corporation lawsuit and upheld fraud claims against 15 major US banks, insurers, and transportation companies that concealed their slave trading histories from consumers. Judge Richard Posner stated that a seller of goods who hides his company's slave trading history because he's afraid of losing customers is "guilty of fraud." Other claims that sought recovery of past profits made from slave trading were dismissed in his ruling because of the lack of federal jurisdiction; however, such claims are still permitted to go forward in the state courts.

2007: In addition to litigation and legislation, there are extremely important things going on at the international level as well. The sustained efforts of Silis Muhammad and other leaders, such as Atty. Roger Wareham, have resulted in significant progress internationally. When the work was begun in the early 1990s, the UN had not given any consideration to the descendants of enslaved Africans. Today, because of consistent communications with UN human rights bodies, including the World Conference Against Racism, the lingering effects of slavery in the Americas and reparations are among the most important topics under discussion at the United Nations.

Along with the national and international initiatives, there are local initiatives going on, such as the historical "Queen Mother Moore" Reparations Resolution, first introduced by Councilmember Charles Barron in the New York City Council in 2003. It calls for the creation of a commission to explore reparations from New York City to New Yorkers of African ancestry.

Many cities, including New York City, are considering bills based on the groundbreaking legislation that Alderman Dorothy Tillman succeeded in getting passed unanimously in Chicago's City Council in 2002. This bill requires companies seeking to do business with a city to search their past and reveal whether they engaged in or profited from slavery.

There are also diverse people and organizations looking into how various universities, such as Harvard, Yale, and Brown University, first established themselves on money related to slavery. Many other things are happening, too, such as California mandating that Insurance Companies must disclose policies they signed related to slavery.

With the growth of the reparations movement, there are far more reparations organizations than the ones mentioned above, and even more organizations with reparations as a part of their agenda. It has become nearly impossible to give recognition to all of these organizations, but some of the best known are the Africa Reparations Movement, TransAfrica, Uhuru Movement, African American Jewish Coalition for Justice, Self Determination Committee, Reparations Central, Hebrew Israelites, African People's Socialist Party, Pan African International Movement, African People's Solidarity Committee (a white allies organization), IHRAAM (a UN NGO), NAACP, and the Grassroots Malcolm X Movement.

There are also numerous leaders, authors, pastors and many other men and women who speak or organize around this issue. We recognize all of the valuable work of organizations and leaders and hope that soon a comprehensive and inclusive history of the movement will be undertaken.

Again, this is only a brief overview of the effort to obtain reparations; however, we hope we have made our point - that this is an ongoing and growing call for justice that has held up against great opposition.