Rally urges reparations for slavery

Mass gathering is first in Washington on call for federal compensation

August 18, 2002|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - Supporters of reparations for slavery gathered in front of the Capitol yesterday and demanded a national dialogue on how to repay the descendants of slaves for their centuries of free labor.

"We are millions strong. Reparations are a global issue now," Rep. John Conyers Jr., a Michigan Democrat., told the crowd scattered along the National Mall.

The rally, whose theme was "Reparations Now: They Owe Us," marked the first such mass gathering in Washington in favor of federal compensation to the descendants of African-American slaves. The crowd at the rally was estimated at hundreds to thousands.

Organizers said they hoped the rally would spark broad debate on the effects of slavery and the issue of whether the federal government, or private companies, should compensate descendants of slaves 137 years after the practice was abolished in the United States.

While the issue remains contentious, dividing even black Americans, most of those at the rally cheered the speakers demanding federal compensation.

"America owes black people [and] Native Americans a lot for what we have endured," said Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam. "Black America must unite on the principle of reparations."

Descendants of slaves should obtain significant federal territory rather than cash payment from the government, Farrakhan said.

"We need land as a basis of economic and political independence. We can't settle for some little jive token. We need millions of acres of land that black people can build," he said.

While Farrakhan and Conyers attended, many major names in the black civil rights movement were absent, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton.

Activists arrived from more than 30 states, organizers said. They poured onto the National Mall after marching from the Robert F. Kennedy Stadium under a blazing sun.

"Obviously, there are a lot of black people who feel very strongly about this. Otherwise they wouldn't be here on a 94-degree day," said Glenda Royal of New York City.

"America is in a serious state of denial," said Alvin Brown, who came with a group of 47 from St. Louis. "We're talking about a crime - chattel slavery - that was committed against one group of people."

Organizers of the rally said reparations have been paid to a number of groups victimized by history, including Japanese-Americans sent to internment camps and Holocaust survivors of World War II, some Sioux and Ottawa Native Americans, and other groups.

"It's a real simple issue. There was a crime. It has to be compensated for," said Viola Plummer, national coordinator for the rally. Plummer, appearing on a C-Span television call-in show, dismissed arguments that too much time had passed since the abolition of slavery to discuss reparations.

Conyers, serving his 19th term in the House, said that he has been trying since 1989 to get his colleagues to undertake an exhaustive study of the reparations issue, but that a House committee has blocked the matter.

"You could be uncommitted on reparations and support that," Conyers said.

Rally supporters referred to the supposed pledge by the U.S. government at the end of the Civil War to provide newly freed slaves with 40 acres and a mule. Many at the rally wore T-shirts that said, "I want my 40 acres."

In March, the great-great-granddaughter of a South Carolina slave filed suit in federal court against three companies for damages and a share of the profits they allegedly made in the era of slavery.

Several prominent lawyers, including Johnnie Cochran of Los Angeles, say they are preparing other lawsuits to demand reparations for descendants of slaves.

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