Valena Conley has never picked a crop of cotton beneath a slave master’s watchful eye. Nor has she felt the lash of a whip on her back, or the pinch of a chain on her wrist.
But her forebears suffered these injustices--and more. And now, 130 years after the death of slavery in America, Conley believes the time has come to even the score.
“This country got rich off our sweat, and we have never been paid what’s due,” said Conley, 70, a former schoolteacher who lives in a tidy but ramshackle house in one of Oakland’s bleakest neighborhoods. “Slavery is something that still bears on the minds and hearts of our people. It’s time to set things right.”
Driven by such convictions, Conley has sued the federal government for the enslavement of her ancestors, seeking $110 million in damages. The lawsuit also asks the United States to formally apologize for slavery and acknowledge its “fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality and inhumanity.”
Legal experts give Conley little chance of success. But by bringing her plea to court, the stout, soft-spoken grandmother has added her voice to a rising chorus of African Americans demanding reparations for 246 bloody years of forced servitude.
The cry for such a pay-back has echoed across the American landscape since the end of the Civil War, when the country’s 4 million slaves pinned their hopes on promises of being given “40 acres and a mule” once freed. The promises were mostly unfulfilled, and subsequent generations of blacks--including such leaders as Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X--have talked of someday collecting on the debt.
Despite such deep historical roots, the reparations movement has remained modest and obscure, scorned by critics who call it foolish and question its rationale.
Now, however, the drive appears to be gaining steam, fueled in part by the successful push by Japanese Americans to win redress for their internment during World War II.
In addition to a recent wave of dozens of lawsuits like Conley’s, the reparations movement today includes a national organization about to have its fifth annual convention, a newsletter and training manuals to help local groups rally support for the cause.
Some reparationists have begun withholding federal income taxes--writing “exempt” on their forms--and a Michigan congressman has introduced a resolution calling for a commission to study the effects of slavery and suggest remedies, perhaps including cash payments to descendants.
Prominent figures such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Coretta Scott King have expressed support for reparations, and several cities--such as Detroit and Cleveland--and the District of Columbia have passed resolutions endorsing the basic principle.
In yet another sign of its resurgence, the topic has sparked debate on college campuses and has penetrated pop culture--surfacing in rap music and the name of Spike Lee’s film production company, 40 Acres and a Mule.
“Awareness and interest are spreading, and at some point, the U.S. government will have to stop ignoring us,” said Adjoa Aiyetoro, director of the National Conference of Black Lawyers, which is developing legal strategies for obtaining reparations. “It may not be tomorrow, but I don’t believe all this work will be for naught.”
As reparationists see it, poverty, family disintegration, crime and other problems plaguing segments of the black community are rooted in the capture of Africans, their terrifying journey in filthy slave ships and subsequent bondage.
Once emancipated, the penniless freedmen had to cope with racism, educational deprivation and a lack of basic survival skills--in short, a shaky foundation on which to build a prosperous future. The effects of such conditions, reparationists argue, have persisted over the years.
“African Americans are not in this position because we don’t have the moxie to make it,” said Dorothy Benton-Lewis of the Black Reparations Commission, a Maryland-based education and lobbying group. “Our ancestors had every single payday of their lives stolen so that whites could be unjustly enriched. When they died, there was nothing to pass on to the next generation and the next.”
More philosophically, reparationists say the demolition of the slaves’ native African culture, the splintering of their families by plantation owners and their status as chattel contributed to what activist Charles Kahalifa King calls an enduring “slave mentality.”
“There is a sickness among our people, a sickness of the mind that is a residual of our state of bondage,” said King, president of San Diego’s chapter of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, known as N’COBRA.
Though few would dispute the heinousness of slavery, the reparations movement has no dearth of critics. Many dismiss it as an impractical crusade with no chance of success. Clay Carson, who teaches African American history at Stanford University, calls it “appealingly simplistic” but unrealistic.
“I wish things could be resolved so easily. I wish blacks and whites could come together, decide on a payment and afterward agree that we’re all free and clear,” Carson said. “Unfortunately, things are far more complicated than that.”
Walter Williams, a conservative black columnist and professor of economics at George Mason University in Virginia, objects to reparations on moral grounds. It is “perverse,” he says, “to suggest that some poor white kid who’s the son of a coal miner in West Virginia owes me--someone in the top 1% or 2% of income earners in the U.S.--money.
“Certainly the slave owners owe their slaves reparations,” Williams said. “But they’re all dead, so that’s an account that will be settled in another time and place.”
Other critics accuse reparationists of perpetuating a “victim complex” that distracts African Americans from true solutions to their troubles. Although slavery may have contributed to the lot of black people today, this argument goes, focusing on it is a shameful preoccupation.
“If a mugger knocks you down, do you wait for the mugger to come and pick you up?” asked Robert Woodson, president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise in Washington. “This is escapism, a way to escape responsibility for doing anything affirmative to improve your conditions.”
Historians trace the concept of reparations to the Reconstruction Era, when liberated slaves were led to believe they would receive land and other assistance--such as farm animals and equipment--with which to homestead.
There was ample evidence to support this belief. In January, 1865, Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman ordered that plots of land in a strip of coastal territory extending south from Charleston, S.C., be awarded to freed blacks. Later that year, Congress passed a law reserving 3 million acres in five Confederate states “for the use of freedmen,” who would be asked to purchase their property once they were on their feet.
President Andrew Johnson, however, quickly vetoed the law, and few slaves benefited under Sherman’s order. Still, those actions--and other Reconstruction Era rumors and promises--fostered an enduring expectation among blacks that land and a mule would someday come their way.
“If the freed slaves had been granted 40 acres of tillable land and a mule, that would have been plenty for them to make it,” said Johnita Scott, a preschool director in Baton Rouge, La., who is national co-chair of N’COBRA. “Instead, they were forced to find work back on the plantations where they had been held captive. The U.S. took a very wrong turn right then and there.”
In the decades since, blacks have repeatedly sought to collect that once-promised assistance. For many, the motivation was spawned by family stories of the brutal treatment their ancestors endured.
“It hurts so much to think that one race would do such things to another,” Scott said. “I think a lot of us are doing this work because we want these injustices fully acknowledged. In a way, it’s a healing process.”
Ray Jenkins, a veteran reparationist from Detroit, agrees. But Jenkins, who grew up poor in Tennessee, also says his crusade is an effort to avenge his grandfather, Will Mobley, a Mississippi slave.
“They so-called ‘freed’ him in 1865, but then they re-enslaved him right away as a sharecropper,” said Jenkins, who spent his youth working summers as a water boy in the Arkansas cotton fields. “When he died, at 103, he had nothing to his name despite a lifetime of hard labor. We had to pass the hat just to bury him.”
Until 1988, reparationists such as Jenkins fought a lonely battle, facing cold shoulders and ridicule, even within their own race. But when Congress authorized payments totaling $1.25 billion to 60,000 surviving Japanese American internees, things changed.
“When I first started pushing reparations 27 years ago, people laughed at me,” said Jenkins, 63, a real estate broker. “But when (the Japanese Americans) got $20,000 each in tax-free money, they stopped laughing real quick.”
Reparationists say the compensation of Japanese Americans is proof that the United States will, if pressured, address historic injustices. But others note that those payments went to victims of U.S. policy, rather than to descendants long removed from the injustice. Moreover, the number of internees was far fewer than the millions of African Americans who might be eligible for reparations, making their claim more politically realistic given the nation’s fiscal woes.
In any case, the success of Japanese Americans invigorated the reparations movement. In 1989, N’COBRA, a national coalition of groups and individuals devoted to the cause, was founded. And for the first time in modern history, someone in Washington began to show an interest in the idea--Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.).
Conyers, who pioneered the long fight for a national holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr., has introduced a resolution asking that a congressional commission research the effects of slavery and recommend remedies. It is the third reparations-related measure he has authored since 1989.
N’COBRA has mounted a petition and letter-writing drive on behalf of the bill, which has 19 co-sponsors and the endorsement of half of the Congressional Black Caucus. But aides, speaking privately, give the resolution little chance of passage anytime soon.
Aside from the controversial nature of the topic, the potential cost of reparations--a sum that could stretch into the trillions--makes it politically unappealing given the national debt and competing budget demands.
As for the form reparations should take, opinions vary widely. Some advocate payments to direct descendants of slaves. A Tacoma, Wash., activist has estimated the amount owed each African American to be $198,149, calculating the 1865 value of 40 acres and a mule plus interest.
Others, however, favor creation of a reparations fund to benefit all African Americans through investments in education, housing, economic development and other needs.
“If you give a man a fish, he might be hungry tomorrow,” said Jenkins, the Detroit reparationist. “But teach a man how to catch that fish and he can feed himself.”
In Oakland, Valena Conley echoes such sentiments, and says she would donate any money from her legal efforts to a reparations fund. From her weathered doorstep, she sees what she calls the most heartbreaking remnant of slavery, “hopeless kids wrapped up in drugs and crime.” Reparations, she says, can “bring these young people up.
“I’m not trying to collect money for me, because I don’t need it,” Conley said. “But talk is cheap, and this is something that must be done. . . . If we don’t fight for it, who will?”