Making Amends
Debate Continues Over Reparations for U.S. Slavery

audio Listen to a Morning Edition report by NPR's Cheryl Corley.

audio Listen to a Justice Talking debate on reparations.

audio Listen to Philip Martin's report about reparations debates at Ivy League schools.

Aug. 27, 2001 -- The U.S. government's first reparations plan to compensate African-Americans for the legacy of slavery was 40 acres and a mule apiece -- that was Gen. William Sherman's promise to former slaves shortly after the Civil War ended in 1865. His order set aside land on the Georgia and South Carolina coasts for the settlement of thousands of newly freed families. But the promise was quickly recanted and the land was taken back, with no other plans for reparations.

Slaves weeding cotton

Illustration: U.S. Civil War Center exhibit Beyond Face Value, courtesy Jules d'Hemecourt

Since then, the issue has been revisited time and again by leading civil rights activists. In 1963, for example, Martin Luther King Jr., called Sherman's promise "a check which has come back marked 'insufficient funds.'" King called instead for "a check that will give (African-Americans) upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice."

Support from the White House and Congress still remains weak: President Bush is said to oppose paying slave compensation, and U.S. Rep. John Conyers' proposal to set up a commission to study the impact of slavery has languished for over a decade.

But the movement has been gaining momentum elsewhere, most notably in the courts. There is now an increased focus on getting compensation from corporations that once profited from slavery. And a major legal battle may be waged early next year when a group of Harvard University professors plans to file a class action lawsuit to seek restitution.

The supporters of reparations face many hurdles, however. Critics say it will be difficult to determine plaintiffs and defendants, arguing that non-black Americans living today are not responsible for slavery and that their tax dollars should not be used for compensation.

This week, NPR takes a closer look at the slavery reparations movement as part of its special report on the United Nations World Conference Against Racism. On Monday, Cheryl Corley gives an overview of the issue on Morning Edition.

Adjoa Aiyetoro

Adjoa Aiyetoro
Photo: David Ickes

Robert Sedler

Robert Sedler
Photo: Wayne State University

The coverage continues on Tuesday, when NPR airs part of a debate sponsored by Justice Talking, a radio program created by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. NPR's Margot Adler moderates the debate between two leading activists, Adjoa Aiyetoro and Robert Sedler.

Aiyetoro is a legal consultant to the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America. She is also a former adjunct professor at American University's Washington College of Law, where she taught courses on the legal issues surrounding reparations.

Sedler is currently a professor at Wayne State University Law School, where he teaches constitutional law and conflict of laws. He has litigated numerous civil rights cases and has received the Presidential Award from the Detroit Branch of the NAACP.

Other Resources

Visit the U.N. World Conference Against Racism Web site.

Visit the Human Rights Watch Web site on Racism and Human Rights.

Visit the Web site of U.S. Rep. John Conyers, who has pushed legislation since 1989 calling for a commission to study reparations for African Americans.

Read TransAfrica President Randall Robinson's Restatement of the Black Manifesto, calling for slave reparations, from his book, The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks. And read the transcript of a TransAfrica Forum roundtable discussion January 2000 on The Case for Black Reparations.

Read conservative columnist David Horowitz's article in FrontPage Magazine, titled "Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Blacks is a Bad Idea for Blacks -- and Racist Too."

Read the recent New York Times article titled "Calls for Slavery Restitution Getting Louder." (Registration required.)

See the results of a recent poll on the issue of reparations conducted by BlackVoices.com.

Read "Repairing the Past," a November 2000 article in the American Bar Association Journal.

Visit the Web sites of the Coalition of Blacks for Reparations (N-COBRA) and the African Reparations Movement.

Read articles on reparations from The Detroit Free Press and The Kansas City Star.

audio Listen to a Morning Edition report Aug. 2, 2001, on the debate leading up to the UN Conference Against Racism, including the issue of reparations for the legacy of the slave trade.

audio Listen to an All Things Considered report March 22, 2001, on the controversy over a Brown University newspaper's decision to run an ad opposed to U.S. reparations for slavery.

audio Listen to a Morning Edition interview Feb. 10, 2000, with Randall Robinson, author of The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks.

audio Listen to an All Things Considered report June 27, 1997, on the debate over U.S. Rep. John Conyers' call for a presidential apology for slavery.

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