The reparations movement has amassed impressive energy support and attention over the last several years–and so has its opposition. But arguments on both sides have been pushed at least since the end of the Civil War. A brief history of the battle over slavery reparations:
1865: Union Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman declares that a strip of land along the Southeast coast be set aside for freed slaves; families can receive up to 40 acres. The federal government also establishes the Freedmen’s Bureau to provide assistance. But, within the year, President Andrew Johnson undermines Sherman and weakens the bureau.
1890: William R. Vaughan, a white man from Alabama, persuades members of Congress to introduce the first of nine bills mandating federal pensions for former slaves, but none of the bills passes.
1890s: African Methodist Episcopal Church Bishop Henry M. Turner campaigns to secure reparations for black Americans who want to move to Africa.
1897: The Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty & Pension Association is founded. Under the leadership of Callie House, it eventually enlists hundreds of thousands of members, but the government later indicts House for mail fraud. After serving time in prison, she helps file a lawsuit demanding African Americans receive $69 million acquired through cotton taxes.
1962: New York activist Queen Mother Audley Moore submits a petition to the United Nations asking the U.S. government to pay slavery reparations.
1968: Radicals in Detroit form the Republic of New Africa, demanding five Southern states and $400 billion.
1969: Civil rights activist James Forman marches into a service at the mostly white Riverside Church in New York City and begins reading his “Black Manifesto.” Forman charges white churches and synagogues with complicity in slavery and racial oppression, and asks them to pay restitution.
1971: The U.S. government agrees to grant $1 billion and 44 million acres to Native American tribes in Alaska.
1988: Congress allocates $20,000 for each Japanese American survivor of internment camps. Meanwhile, activists form the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America.
1989: A reparations bill introduced in Massachusetts by state Sen. William Owens languishes. And U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr., a Detroit Democrat, calls for a federal study of slavery, racial discrimination and “appropriate remedies.” The bill doesn’t leave the House Judiciary Committee. Conyers reintroduces it every subsequent year, with similar results.
1995: A federal appeals court in California dismisses Cato v. United States, which asked for $100 million in slavery reparations. Judges can find no law allowing the government to be sued for slavery, declaring it an issue for Congress.
1997: U.S. Rep. Tony Hall, a white Ohio Democrat, introduces a resolution asking Congress to formally apologize for slavery. Despite provoking intense debate, it is buried in committee.
1999: Acknowledging a pattern of discrimination, the U.S. Department of Agriculture agrees to pay restitution to thousands of black farmers.
2000: Randall Robinson’s “The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks,” an argument for reparations, is published, becoming a bestseller and dramatically raising the movement’s profile.
2001: Writer and activist David Horowitz places an advertisement in college newspapers around the country, arguing that blacks have benefited from being brought to America. And, after intense lobbying, the final document of the United Nations World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, declares that slavery was a crime against humanity.
2002: Deadria Farmer-Paellmann, a New York advocate, files 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 is consolidated with eight others and moved to federal court in Chicago. Over the summer, activist Conrad Worrill co-organizes a rally in Washington, D.C., that draws thousands of reparations supporters. And in October, the Chicago City Council passes the Slavery Era Disclosure Ordinance, requiring firms that want contracts with the city to investigate and reveal ties to slavery.
2003: Virginia residents Robert L. Foster and his daughter Crystal are sentenced to prison after filing an income tax return claiming she was owed $500,000 for reparations.
Sources: Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s “Special Field Orders, No. 15”; “The Freedmen’s Bureau,” by W.E.B. DuBois; “The Ex-Slave Pension Movement,” by Walter B. Hill; “The Roots and Righteousness of the African American Demand for Reparations,” by Sundiata Keita Cha-Jua; David W. Blight’s 2002 keynote talk at Yale University; “Black Religion and Black Radicalism,” by Gayraud S. Wilmore; “Should America Pay?” edited by Raymond A. Winbush; “The Debt,” by Randall Robinson; www.africana.com; U.S. federal court documents; news reports; interviews with Conrad Worrill and Deadria Farmer-Paellmann.
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