Black Workers, News

Reparations Activists Ready for New Phase in Long Struggle

By Linn Washington Jr.

NEW YORK — Racism is a topic that usually divides black and white Americans. However, iconic civil rights activist Rev. Jesse Jackson said there is one contentious race-mired issue where blacks and whites seemingly share a similar posture.

Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. and  Mirelle Fanon-Mendes-France, Frantz Fanon's daughter, speak at the National/International Reparations Conference last week in New York.
Rev. Jesse Jackson and Mirelle Fanon-Mendes-France, Frantz Fanon’s daughter, spoke at the National/International Reparations Conference last week in New York. Photo by Linn Washington, Jr.

“Blacks and whites have one thing in common. They will not discuss reparations,” Jackson said, defining reparations for slavery and post-slavery institutional racism as “repair for damage done.”

This common aversion among blacks and whites to address reparations comes from “different reasons” Jackson noted.

“On the topic of reparations, whites are in denial and blacks think reparations cannot be attained.”

Rev. Jackson offered his assessment of America’s reparations-denial-dynamic during his keynote address at the opening session of the International Reparations Summit held recently in New York City. Participants for that three-day conference came from three continents. The Institute of the Black World 21st Century, a research, policy and advocacy organization based in the United States convened the Summit.

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.”

One participant at that Summit was Mirelle Fanon-Mendes-France, the daughter of the legendary intellectual-activist-author Franz Fanon. She is president of the Franz Fanon Foundation. The writings of Franz Fanon have provided inspiration for legions of reparations advocates.

“Apologies cannot compensate for the injustices of slavery and colonialism. The time is now for concerted progress on economic and political compensation,” the internationally respected human rights activist Fanon-Mendes-France said during her remarks at the opening session of the Summit.

An action in 2013 reenergized reparations activities already operative in the U.S., throughout the Americas, in Africa and in Europe. That year CARICOM, the organization of Caribbean nations, announced its plans to mount actions against former European colonial countries for the slave trade, colonialism and genocide against indigenous peoples. CARICOM’s announcement was the first time that a collection of countries formally agreed to mount 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.”

The Summit featured a special event 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 even to allow a vote on Conyers’ measure that would simply study the issue of reparations, not directly allocate monetary or other compensation.

The historic Mother AME Zion Church in Harlem hosted the opening session of the Reparations Summit. Members of that church, founded in 1796, have included the legendary Paul Robeson, a supporter of reparations.

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.

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.

Members of that Reparations Commission will expand existing strategies within the U.S. and coordinate with CARICOM and the European Reparations Commission on activities.

CARICOM Reparations Commission chair, Sir Hilary Beckles, said, “One purpose of the reparatory moment is to rebuild the inner-core of humanity” during his keynote speech at the Summit’s closing session.

“This movement is about cleansing the world of the toxic effects of slavery that continue into our time,” Beckles said. “Plantation overseers have become policemen. There is a transfer of that plantation mentality into police precincts.”

Beckles, the in-coming President of The University of the West Indies, declared that the efforts for reparations from slavery, colonialism and institutional racism “is not a movement” for blacks only.

Beckles is the author of “Britain’s Black Debt: Reparations for the Caribbean Slavery and Native Genocide,” which is considered a blueprint for the reparations movement.

“We did not commit this crime. Those that committed the crime must ‘uncrime’ it,” Beckles said, lightheartedly asking the audience to forgive his new twist on the word crime.

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