Dignitaries from three continents gathered in New York City recently to sharpen their strategies for confronting some of the world’s most powerful nations over a subject that sizeable numbers of citizens support in the nearly two-dozen nations represented: reparations for the legacy of a history of slavery, colonialism and government-sanctioned segregation.
Those dignitaries, whose number included ambassadors and legislators, along with luminary activists and legal experts, participated in the three-day International Reparations Summit convened by the Institute of the Black World 21st Century, a research, policy and advocacy organization based in the United States.
Dr. Ron Daniels, President of the Institute, stated, “We are delighted that the Institute of the Black World can be a clearinghouse for ideas and strategies on how to pursue reparations for historical crimes and injustices against people of African descent in the U.S. and across the Americas.”
An action in 2013 reenergized reparations activities already operative in the U.S., throughout the Americas, in Africa and in Europe. That is when CARICOM, the organization of Caribbean nations, announced its plans to also mount actions against former European colonial countries for native the slave trade, colonialism and genocide against indigenous peoples. That was the first time that a collection of countries had agreed on taking coordinated action for reparations.
“We have a just cause. And we have a duty to right the wrongs done during the slave trade, slavery and colonialism,” CARICOM representative Dr. Douglas Slater said during the opening session of the Summit. “Today, racism continues to impede development of African peoples all over the world.”
Members of the recently established National African American Reparations Commission participated in the Summit. That African American Commission is composed of 15 people who are respected academic, community, labor, legal and religious leaders. Commission members will expand existing strategies within the U.S. and coordinate with CARICOM and the European Reparations Commission on activities.
The issue of eparations in the United States was described as payment for exploitations and exclusions “during slavery and also during ‘Jim Crow’ –- the century of legalized segregation after the Civil War,” as Kamm Howard explained during a Summit-related interview. Howard is an official with N’COBRA, The National Coalition of Blacks for Reparation in America.
The Summit featured a special recognition honoring U.S. Congressman John Conyers (D-Mich.), who, in January 1989, introduced a measure in Congress to establish a national commission to study the issue of reparations in the United States. However, Congressional leaders –- Republicans and Democrats –-have persistently refused to even allow a vote on Conyers’ measure, which would simply study the issue of reparations, not directly allocate monetary or other compensation.
Iconic civil rights activist, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, blasted America’s state of “denial” regarding the subject of reparations during his keynote address at the Summit’s opening session.
“To limit our history from 1954 [when the U.S. Supreme Court ended legalized segregation] to the present is a sin. The period in the U.S. between 1880 and 1950 was worse than slavery,” Jackson said during his address at the historic Mother AME Zion Church in Harlem.
“There were over 5,000 blacks lynched during that period and many lynchings took place after church on Sunday where whole families would watch the brutality. Lynching was terrorism…political terrorism.”
Efforts by African-Americans to obtain some form of reparations for slavery began in the mid-1800s, initially with demands for land for the freed slaves as compensation for their unpaid labor.
Efforts around the turn of the 20th Century to obtain pensions for ex-slaves never gained much traction in Congress, despite support for such pensions from a few white Congressmen. Federal government opposition to those pensions led to imprisonment of some black leaders of that movement for the pensioning of ex-slaves.
Federal imprisonment was the punishment meted out to the ‘Father’ of America’s modern reparations movement – Imari Obadele. In 1968 Obadele and an older brother of his, delivered letters to the White House and State Department demanding $400-billion in reparations.
That demand for reparations resulted in the FBI targeting Obadele for its infamous COINTELPRO, that illegal covert campaign to crush domestic dissent. Obadele’s federal imprisonment, based on a corrupted conviction, resulted in his 1978 designation as a political prisoner by Amnesty International.
Obadele was among the first group of Americans ever-designated as political prisoners by Amnesty International. (American officials continue to deny the existence of any political prisoners in U.S. jails despite some of those prisoners being still held on COINTELPRO-tainted convictions which were purely political in nature.) Obadele was a founding member of N’COBRA in 1987.
French reparations activists have filed lawsuits and initiated other actions around reparations from deprivations by France in the Caribbean and in Africa. CARICOM nations have established a Reparations Commission to conduct further research to initiate legal and other actions against governments of Britain, France and other European countries that maintained colonies in the Caribbean basin.
Louis-Georges Tin, an anti-racism and reparations activist in France, said he had travelled to the Summit with a delegation from the European Reparation Commission to establish closer connections with other reparations activists.
“We did a survey in 2012 of French Overseas Territories and 63 percent of the population favored reparations,” Tin said. “Before that survey, people told me there was low support for reparations. We are pleased with this result.”
The United Nation’s Conference on Racism held in South Africa in 2001 declared the Atlantic slavery trade and chattel slavery to be a “crime against humanity.”
The administration of then U.S. President George W. Bush refused to send an official U.S. delegation to that 2001 anti-racism conference. The Obama Administration also boycotted the UN’s 2009 racism conference.
Linn Washington, Jr. is a founder of This Can’t Be Happening and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He lives in Philadelphia.