By Robert Oliver
For decades, there have been black Americans, specifically descendants of slaves of African decent, who demanded reparations from the U.S. Government. They claim these reparations would be compensation for over 200 years of their ancestors’ unpaid labor. Now that the United States will have its first president of African decent, many blacks are hopeful that Barack Obama will be sensitive to their demands. However will President Obama give heed to their demands?
A group called the Los Angeles Reparations NOW-Promissory Note Coalition seeks to get President Obama’s attention by an open letter which invokes Dr. Martin Luther Kings’s speech in 1963. The letter says in part: “Being the First African-American or Black-adopted ‘son of the slaves’ in the White House as the Chief Executive of this nation, you can, after your inauguration, immediately by Executive Order implement the mechanism that will complete the unfinished business of all Congressional Civil Rights Acts, including Reparations, that the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called the Promissory Note.
“This Promissory Note which evolved out of the administration of Republican-minded President Abraham Lincoln, whom you seek to emulate, was/is the contention in Dr. King’s 1963 ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. King declared that one hundred years after the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, ‘the Negro is still not free.’..As the new President of the U.S. ‘Bank of Justice,’ you will be obligated to pay due attention to the business of the ‘bad check’ that came back in 1963 ‘marked insufficient funds.’”
On Sunday March 8, the Coalition will stage a "Black Holocaust Slave Procession," with people role playing slaves and masters and “slave ships” parading from the Los Angeles Sentinel newspaper building to Leimert Park in the for a "Slave Auction Block in America" rally.
The Coalition is also gathering signatures all across the United States for a petition, online and printed, to President Obama urging him to follow through on reparations, saying: “Before all else, with ‘the urgency of NOW is the time,’ it is morally imperative that you, as the first ‘one of us’ to be the Chief Executive Officer of the United States, execute the highest Order to ensure that America Keeps Its Promise to the emancipated slaves and their children.” The Coalition plans a cross-country caravan from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. in April 2009. At the White House, the Coalition will leave their petition for the President. Their goal is to gather 30 million signatures, representing the number of descendents of emancipated slaves and black freedmen.
The demand for reparations has had a long history in the United States. Professor Roy E. Finkenbine, Professor of History and Director of the Black Abolitionist Archives at the University of Detroit Mercy commented: “As the generations of African Americans who had known bondage passed from the scene, their descendants, then flocking in ever larger numbers to America's urban centers, continued to push for reparations for slavery. Many black nationalists, especially followers of Marcus Garvey, Communists, and adherents to the Nation of Islam, generated calls for an all-black state or states in the South as a form of restitution to slavery's grandchildren. In 1962, ‘Queen Mother’ Audley Moore of Harlem, a former Garveyite, even presented pro-reparations petitions bearing a million signatures to President John F. Kennedy. During the era of the Civil Rights Movement, a range of African American leaders and organizations called for reparations, including Martin Luther King (the “Promissory Note” – Ed.), Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, the Republic of New Africa, and especially James Forman, whose ‘Black Manifesto’ (1969) shocked white Americans by demanding $500 million from mainstream churches and synagogues to be directed into black economic development.”
Randall Robinson, black author and former head of Transafrica, in his book The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks says: “(W)hite Americans can begin making reparations for slavery and the century of de jure racial discrimination that followed with monetary restitution, educational programs, and the kinds of equal opportunities that will ensure the social and economic success of all citizens.”
Recently, a “corporate restitution” movement was started to hold Corporate America accountable for past involvement in slavery. In 2002, descendents of slaves filled nine federal lawsuits against several corporations in different industries. These suits claimed that the companies or their predecessors benefited from the transatlantic slavetrade. The Business &Human Rights website says: “ In October 2002, these lawsuits were consolidated into one class-action lawsuit. In 2004, the court dismissed the claim but allowed the plaintiffs to amend their complaint. The plaintiffs submitted an amended complaint making claims of intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress, civil rights violations due to the denial of property rights and consumer fraud…In May 2007, the plaintiffs petitioned the US Supreme Court to hear their appeal of the 2006 court of appeals decision. The Supreme Court denied the plaintiffs’ petition in October 2007, declining to hear the case.”
Writer Bruce Walker takes a different view: “Reparations lawsuits would force the descendants of John Newton to pay the descendants of tribal leaders who had willingly participated in the slave trade, and then wound up transported slaves themselves, for the collective wrong of Europeans and Americans. These were the very people who ended slavery around the world, including enslavement of Europeans by Africans and of Africans by other Africans. This is not justice, in any real sense of the word, but vile and narrow tribalism.”
Barack Obama during his presidential run has indicated that he does not support the concept of reparations as defined by those in the reparations movement. The Huffington Post writes: “Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama opposes offering reparations to the descendants of slaves, putting him at odds with some black groups and leaders. The man with a serious chance to become the nation's first black president argues that government should instead combat the legacy of slavery by improving schools, health care and the economy for all. ‘I have said in the past - and I'll repeat again - that the best reparations we can provide are good schools in the inner city and jobs for people who are unemployed,’ the Illinois Democrat said recently.”
While in South Carolina in 2007, in response to a video question on reparations, Obama said: “I think the reparation we need right here in South Carolina is investment, for example in our schools. I did a town hall meeting in Florence, South Carolina, in an area called the corridor of shame. They've got buildings that students are trying to learn in that were built right after the Civil War. And we've got teachers who are not trained to teach the subjects they're teaching and high dropout rates. We've got to understand that there are corridors of shame all across the country. And if we make the investments and understand that those are our children. That's the kind of reparation that are really going to make a difference in America right now.”
Obama also took a position against reparations during his U.S. Senatorial campaign in 2004. Based on his past statements, some can conclude that President Obama will not change his position. However, the Coalition in Los Angeles is hopeful that he will seriously consider their demands in the context of history.
Over the years, the general reparations movement in the United States debated how they want reparations to be manifested. There are those who want cash for every descendent of slaves, some demanding amounts of $500,000 to $1 million. There are also those who want financial resources directed to education and to black economic infrastructure and not to individuals. Former presidential and senatorial candidate Alan Keyes once advocated a one-generation-income-tax exemption for descendents of slaves. This writer has advocated that the profits of federal-, state-, and county-owned properties, such as mansions used for private events, that benefited former slave owners be earmarked for scholarships for Historically Black Colleges and Universities. One of the organizers of the Coalition John Peoples declares what he wants in the form of reparations: “Me personally, I demand everything.” Mr. Peoples has also recently filed suit against the Roman Catholic Church for its alleged participation in the slave trade.
Ted Hayes, homeless advocate and one-time congressional candidate in Los Angeles says: “There is an historical precedent for our actions. Queen Mother Audley E. Moore, the “mother” of the reparations movement, in 1963 presented to President John F. Kennedy a one-million-signature petition for reparations. Dr. King said to President Kennedy and to the nation in August of that year that the check came back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ We say to President Obama that he can make the check good. Mr. Obama, with the urgency of now, this is your time. Pay the Promissory Note!”
Robert Oliver is a writer, radio commentator, and photographer living in Southern California. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.