On June 19, a subcommittee of the House Judiciary held a historic hearing on reparations for slavery—the first of its kind in over a decade. The hearing coincided with Juneteenth, a day that commemorates June 19, 1865, when slaves in Galveston, Texas, finally learned that the Emancipation Proclamation had abolished slavery. This year marks the 400th anniversary of the transatlantic slave trade. Lawmakers are considering a bill titled the “Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act.” It was introduced by Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Houston, after former Congressmember John Conyers had championed the bill for decades without success. The bill carries the designation H.R. 40, a reference to “40 acres and a mule,” one of the nation’s first broken promises to newly freed slaves. Ahead of the hearing, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said, “I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago, for whom none of us currently living are responsible, is a good idea.” Award-winning author Ta-Nehisi Coates and actor Danny Glover testified at the historic congressional hearing on reparations.
AMY GOODMAN: We turn now from that famous address in 1852, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” to more recent history, the June hearing on reparations for slavery—the first of its kind in over a decade. A House Judiciary subcommittee held the hearing as lawmakers consider a bill titled the “Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act.” The bill was introduced by Democratic Congressmember Sheila Jackson Lee of Houston, after former Congressmember John Conyers championed it for decades without success. The hearing took place on Juneteenth, the day that commemorates June 19th, 1865, when enslaved Africans in Galveston, Texas, finally learned the Emancipation Proclamation had abolished slavery. This year also marks the 400th anniversary of the transatlantic slave trade.
Ahead of the hearing, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was asked by Spectrum reporter Eva McKend whether the government should issue a public apology for slavery. This was McConnell’s response.
MAJORITY LEADER MITCH McCONNELL: I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago, for whom none of us currently living are responsible, is a good idea. We’ve, you know, tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a civil war, by passing landmark civil rights legislation. We’ve elected an African-American president. I think we’re always a work in progress in this country, but no one currently alive was responsible for that. And I don’t think we should be trying to figure out how to compensate for it. First of all, it would be pretty hard to figure out who to compensate. We’ve had waves of immigrants, as well, who have come to the country and experienced dramatic discrimination of one kind or another. So, no, I don’t think reparations are a good idea.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Well, award-winning author Ta-Nehisi Coates testified at the historic congressional reparations hearing and took direct aim at McConnell’s response.
TA-NEHISI COATES: Yesterday, when asked about reparations, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell offered a familiar reply: America should not be held liable for something that happened 150 years ago, since none of us currently alive are responsible.
This rebuttal proffers a strange theory of governance, that American accounts are somehow bound by the lifetime of its generations. But well into this century, the United States was still paying out pensions to the heirs of Civil War soldiers. We honor treaties that date back some 200 years, despite no one being alive who signed those treaties. Many of us would love to be taxed for the things we are solely and individually responsible for. But we are American citizens, and thus bound to a collective enterprise that extends beyond our individual and personal reach. It would seem ridiculous to dispute invocations of the Founders, or the Greatest Generation, on the basis of a lack of membership in either group. We recognize our lineage as a generational trust, as inheritance. And the real dilemma posed by reparations is just that: a dilemma of inheritance.
It is impossible to imagine America without the inheritance of slavery. As historian Ed Baptist has written, enslavement, quote, “shaped every crucial aspect of the economy and politics” of America, so that by 1836 more than $600 million, or almost half of the economic activity in the United States, derived directly or indirectly from the cotton produced by the million-odd slaves. By the time the enslaved were emancipated, they comprised the largest single asset in America—$3 billion in 1860 dollars, more than all the other assets in the country combined.
The method of cultivating this asset was neither gentle cajoling nor persuasion, but torture, rape and child trafficking. Enslavement reigned for 250 years on these shores. When it ended, this country could have extended its hallowed principles—life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—to all, regardless of color. But America had other principles in mind. And so, for a century after the Civil War, black people were subjected to a relentless campaign of terror, a campaign that extended well into the lifetime of Majority Leader McConnell.
It is tempting to divorce this modern campaign of terror, of plunder, from enslavement. But the logic of enslavement, of white supremacy, respects no such borders, and the god of bondage was lustful and begat many heirs—coup d’états and convict leasing. vagrancy laws and debt peonage, redlining and racist GI bills, poll taxes and state-sponsored terrorism.
We grant that Mr. McConnell was not alive for Appomattox. But he was alive for the electrocution of George Stinney. He was alive for the blinding of Isaac Woodard. He was alive to witness kleptocracy in his native Alabama and a regime premised on electoral theft. Majority Leader McConnell cited civil rights legislation yesterday, as well he should, because he was alive to witness the harassment, jailing and betrayal of those responsible for that legislation by a government sworn to protect them. He was alive for the redlining of Chicago and the looting of black homeowners of some $4 billion. Victims of that plunder are very much alive today. I am sure they’d love a word with the majority leader.
What they know, what this committee must know, is that while emancipation dead-bolted the door against the bandits of America, Jim Crow wedged the windows wide open. And that is the thing about Senator McConnell’s “something.” It was 150 years ago. And it was right now.
The typical black family in this country has one-tenth the wealth of the typical white family. Black women die in childbirth at four times the rate of white women. And there is, of course, the shame of this land of the free boasting the largest prison population on the planet, of which the descendants of the enslaved make up the largest share.
The matter of reparations is one of making amends and direct redress, but it is also a question of citizenship. In H.R. 40, this body has a chance to both make good on its 2009 apology for enslavement and reject fair-weather patriotism, to say that a nation is both its credits and its debits, that if Thomas Jefferson matters, so does Sally Hemings, that if D-Day matters, so does Black Wall Street, that if Valley Forge matters, so does Fort Pillow, because the question really is not whether we will be tied to the somethings of our past, but whether we are courageous enough to be tied to the whole of them. Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: That was award-winning author Ta-Nehisi Coates testifying before a House Judiciary subcommittee in June. His seminal 2014 essay, “The Case for Reparations,” helped spur new calls to make amends for slavery. He’ll join us in a minute. But first, actor and civil rights activist Danny Glover also testified at the hearing.
DANNY GLOVER: Thank you, Mr. Coates. It’s not often that you hear the words of a young man and they enliven your emotional memory, your historic memory, as he just did at this moment. Thank you so much.
I am deeply honored to be here today offering my testimony at this historic meeting about the reckoning of a crime against humanity that is foundational to the development of democracy and material well-being in this country. A national reparations policy is a moral, democratic and economic imperative.
I sit here as the great-grandson of a former slave, Mary Brown, who was freed by the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1st, 1863. I had the fortune of meeting her as a small child. I also sit here as the grandson of Reese Mae Hunley and Rufus Mack Hunley, my maternal grandparents, who were both born before Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision in 1896. And for a significant portion of their lives, they worked as sharecroppers and tenant farmers in rural Georgia, until they were able to save enough money to purchase a small farm. They were subsistence farmers.
Despite much progress over the centuries, this hearing is yet another important step in the long and heroic struggle of African Americans to secure reparations for the damages inflicted by enslavement and post-emancipation and racial exclusionary policies. Many of the organizations who are present today at this hearing are amongst the historical contributors to the present national discourse, congressional deliberations and Democratic Party presidential campaign policy discussions about reparations. We are also indebted to the work of Congressman John Conyers for shepherding this legislation.
The adoption of H.R. 40 can be a signature legislative achievement, especially within the context of the United Nations International Decade of People of African Descent. We should also note that the Common Market nations and the Caribbean Community—CARICOM—Reparations Commission, chaired by professor Sir Hilary Beckles, who is here with us today, has exercised a leadership role from which we, as a nation, can benefit.
A sustained, direct, effective policy, actions in full collaboration with African Americans and progressive citizens, allies, is the ultimate proof of the sincerity of our national commitment to repair the damages of the legally and often religiously sanctioned inhumanity of slavery, segregation and current structural racism that limits full democratic participation and material advancement of African Americans and of our country’s progress as a beacon of justice and equality. …
I close—excuse me—with the insightful and still relevant words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. And I quote: “Why is the issue of equality still so far from solution in America, a nation which professes itself to be democratic, inventive, hospitable to new ideas, rich, productive and awesomely powerful? … Justice for black people will not flow into society merely from court decisions nor from fountains of political oratory. Nor will a few token changes quell all the tempestuous yearnings of millions of disadvantaged black people. White America must recognize justice for black people cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure of our society. The comfortable, the entrenched, the privileged cannot continue to tremble at the prospect of change in the status quo.” Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Danny Glover. Economist Julianne Malveaux also spoke.
JULIANNE MALVEAUX: The journalist Ida B. Wells said that lynching was the first example of white supremacy because it was a tool of terrorism. It dampened the ability of African-American people to participate in the vibrant entrepreneurship of the late 19th and early 20th century, with a chilling message that our economic success could be punished by the rope.
The economic damage to black people post-Reconstruction can be summarized in three ways. Number one, we were denied the ability to participate in our nation’s economic growth. The Homestead Act of 1862 did not include formerly enslaved people. More than 10% of the continental U.S. land was distributed to recent immigrants from Europe, but not black folks. So the 40 acres and a mule was given to somebody else, not us. These folks were able not only to get land, but then to get grants from the federal government to develop their land. Meanwhile, African-American people were denied the right to these wealth transfers.
Secondly, we were denied the right to accumulate. The attached—the paper that I mentioned talks about how our accumulation was essentially stymied by lynching. The first lynching that Ida B. Wells examined was one when a black man had the nerve, the utter nerve, to open up a grocery store near a white man’s store. So the white man had the brother lynched, had three people lynched because of economic envy. Listen to those words: “economic envy.” This is how black people have been suppressed in their ability to accumulate. Tulsa, Oklahoma; Wilmington, North Carolina—long stories that I don’t have any time to talk about them, but I want y’all to look at the paper that I submitted and to think about the many ways that black people who tried to participate, tried to encourage, tried to be American, simply tried to be economic actors, were suppressed, because they had the nerve to think it worked. So, my brothers over here who say “their American dream,” it’s some people’s American nightmare. Let’s just be clear.
Now, number three is public policy hostility. There was public policy hostility to black people. GI Bill legislation truncated opportunities for African-American veterans. Federal Housing Administration reinforced redlining and segregation as an official policy of the federal government. People talk about racists as if they’re individuals. Yes, sir. But the fact is, they’re not individuals; they are individuals who are buttressed by the federal government and legislation.
So let me simply say, H.R. 40 is important. NAARC has developed a 10-point plan. But more importantly, as you, my brothers and sisters on this Congress, go forward, may there be a racial justice audit of any new legislation that has economic implications. Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: That was economist Julianne Malveaux. When we come back, award-winning author Ta-Nehisi Coates joins me and Democracy Now!’s Nermeen Shaikh for the rest of the hour.
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