Reparations Sought for Black Americans : Slavery: Activist says government should compensate descendants of captured Africans enslaved in America for ‘loss of culture and of humanity.’
Nearly 130 years after the death of American slavery, Robert Brock is still fighting for his 40 acres and a mule.
For the better part of his adult life, the 66-year-old Brock has been campaigning in churches, community centers and colleges for an idea whose time, he says, is overdue: reparations for the descendants of the captive Africans who helped build the nation.
A lonely voice for decades, the Los Angeles activist is now revered as the elder statesman of a grass-roots movement invigorated by rising black consciousness and the government’s recent payments to Japanese-Americans interned during World War II.
“The government owes us money on a number of different fronts: for time, for labor, for loss of culture and of humanity,” Brock said recently, leaning over a weather-beaten picnic table at Jesse Owens Park in south Los Angeles.
“It’s like an inheritance,” Brock explained. “We have inherited the ills of slavery. We also inherit a loss that was forced upon our parents.”
Brock concedes that the price for black reparations would be huge, somewhere in the trillions, by his estimate. But the money, he said, can and must be found. Besides, he added, it’s too soon to worry about the cost.
“Right now, I just want to deal with getting people to think about the idea of reparations,” said Brock, who said he has so far collected 265,000 signatures on redress petitions that he will present to the government. “Everywhere I go, it seems people want to know more.”
The son of a politically astute Houston stevedore who came to Los Angeles in 1945, the itinerant Brock said he first became interested in reparations while attending Southwestern University School of Law during the early 1950s. There, he studied a desegregation case in which a black chauffeur married to a white woman was denied the couple’s home after her death.
“It started me looking at how they violated this man’s rights,” Brock said, “treating him like he wasn’t a full citizen.” He said he concluded that “black people are still slaves. We didn’t get free. We got emancipated. There’s a difference.”
But Brock said he was not propelled to action until after reading about President Andrew Johnson’s veto of post-Civil War legislation that would have given African-Americans 40 acres and a mule.
In 1956, Brock and a handful of like-minded activists decided to take up the battle Johnson had cut short, founding the Self-Determination Committee. Since then, he said, his organization has spread throughout the country.
“This is my life,” said Brock, a former seaman in the merchant marine who has never married, has no children and said he sustains himself through lecture honorariums and donations to him and his organization.
Although Brock is regarded as one of the leading reparations figures--and perhaps its most vociferous--the cause has now been embraced by activists in Detroit, New York and Washington, where the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations is based.
Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan has pushed for the payments and U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) introduced a bill last year that reparation backers see as a sign that the modest movement is gaining momentum.
Conyers’ bill would create a congressional committee to examine the impact of slavery and racism on blacks. In the end, according to Conyers, the proposed committee could recommend federal restitution as a remedy to racial injustices.
“We have to enlighten people to the idea of reparations, first, and that happens by the introduction of this legislation,” said Inglewood City Councilman Garland Hardeman, whose own reparations resolution was adopted by the City Council. “Now, we have Congress dealing with the issue. That’s a step.”
For now, most of the better-known civil rights groups have not waded into the controversial reparations debate, although some of their members privately express support for the redress measures.
“We have not taken a position on (reparations for blacks),” said Jim Williams, an NAACP national spokesman in Baltimore. “I haven’t heard anything about it in my three years here.”
Brock contends that groups such as the NAACP have ducked the issue because they are afraid of offending politically moderate blacks and supporters in the white community.
Some opponents argue that, unlike the Japanese-American internees, African-Americans today are too far removed from the slave era to suffer directly from its after-effects. They also say that the government cannot afford to support a massive reparations program for blacks.
“The cost of reparations couldn’t be anymore devastating than the $1 billion daily we spend in keeping troops in Saudi Arabia,” countered Inglewood Councilman Hardeman. “And it’s no more costly than what we plan to spend on the bailout of the S&Ls;, in which white male Americans have gotten filthy rich.”
Brock said the movement, while unified in purpose, is divided over how the money would be distributed. Some believe that payments should go directly to individual African-Americans. Others say the money should be invested in massive social programs designed to rectify inequities in American society.
Brock said he would like to see African-Americans use reparations to repatriate themselves to Africa, where they could enjoy the self-determinism he believes blacks have been denied here.
“I don’t know if I’ll live to see reparations for black people,” Brock said, “but I’ve been laying the foundation. Sooner or later, we are going to get what this country owes us.”