Questions: Charles Ogletree on reparations

Questions: Charles Ogletree on reparations

Burroughs, Todd Steven

On March 26, a former law student and her attorneys filed a class action lawsuit against several corporations accusing them of profiting from the enslavement of African Americans. Filed in federal court in Brooklyn, the suit names railroad corporation CSX, the Aetna insurance company and FleetBoston Financial Group, and promises to add an additional 100 corporations to the list. The plaintiffs beat a high-profile team working on the same issue to the courtroom, For two years Harvard University law professor Charles J. Ogletree Jr. has been searching for a reparations legal strategy. Members of his Reparations Coordinating Committee include, among others, attorney Johnnie Cochran, incoming Bennett College president Johnetta Cole, University of Maryland political science professor Ronald Walters, Cornel West and the former law student who beat him to the punch.

What do you think of the impact of the suit filed in Brooklyn? The Reparations Coordinating Committee-which I co– chair with Randall Robinson-is not involved in the lawsuit filed in New York. Our efforts have been focused not only on private entities, but also on public entities. We have looked at the role our government played during slavery, [and] the century after slavery, in perpetuating some of the legacies of slavery through legal forms of discrimination.

Our remedy is very different from those advocated by others. We are not asking that each individual African American receive a check. [Instead we are asking that there is a trust fund available focused exclusively on the poorest of the poor, descendants of African slaves.

Have you been in contact with the plaintiff of this suit? Have you encouraged her to go forward?

I did not encourage them. But I have always applauded Deadria Farmer-Paellmann’s courage as a law student who has spent her law school career investigating reparations.

I support legitimate efforts to further the reparations movement – not only in courtrooms, but also in more public forums. Reparations is not just a legal issue. It is very much a political and moral issue. There will be lawsuits filed, and the Committee has never taken the position that we’re the gatekeepers. We like to coordinate with people. We like to encourage them. We like that they consider our judgment. But ultimately, we cannot prevent anyone from filing a lawsuit on an issue that has so many significant areas to explore and so many different forums. (Farmer-Paellmann filed the suit outside of her role on Ogletree’s committee.)

Is there any legitimate program that is trying to get reparations money for individuals?

There is no program that I’m aware of that is now in existence that provides reparations, either through tax rebates or some [other means]. All the things I’ve heard about and read about on email are false and misleading and shouldn’t even warrant serious consideration. We’re going to have to be careful as a community and educating ourselves to make the right choices about which matters we support and what matters we expose as being fraudulent and detrimental to the community’s long-term interests.

What is the current status of your committee’s suit?

Our actions will be taken in fall 2002. We have identified plaintiffs and defendants as part of the lawsuit. We have not disclosed any of that with any specificity and we won’t. And we’re doing work that would not result in a lawsuit, but will result in an opportunity to have these issues addressed and resolved.

Your suit is against the government, right?

The government is a central aspect [to our proposed legislation], but it’s not limited to the government. If you think about reparations, there are a lot of actors – public and private– who have their hands dirty from slavery and its aftermath. Even the idea of what government can do is being aggressively explored. We came close to that when President Clinton acknowledged slavery was a horrible act and offered his apologies. His conversation on race was the beginning of the examination of that history. It didn’t examine it as carefully as it should, but it examined some of the problems government can play a critical role [in solving].

Many African Americans consider reparations a lost cause. Others wonder how compensation can be distributed in a way that would make sense.

The first [concern] is wrong, the second is misguided. An overwhelming majority of African Americans not only believe in reparations, but [also] applaud the efforts. Surveys make it clear that while [the majority of] whites are opposed to it, African Americans see the connection between the past and the present. We have a plan that addresses those at the bottom, and that is a remarkable differenece from what we’ve heard and seen in the past. So it is on the front pages of the paper, being discussed on the Internet and around the world, and it is quite significant.

– Interview by Todd Steven Burroughs

Copyright Crisis Publishing Company, Incorporated May/Jun 2002

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