By Rep. John Conyers (Click here to view the entire issue)
The lingering effects of slavery have been a continuing issue within the African American community for many years. All of us are painfully aware of the damage racism did to African Americans as it expressed itself through slavery, racial segregation and discrimination. A national movement has emerged in favor of reparations to the descendants of African American slaves, especially among groups such as the Black Reparations Committee and the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America. I am strongly in favor of investigating all of the alternatives to bring this issue to a resolution.
Approximately 4,000,000 Africans and their descendants were enslaved in the United States (and the colonies which became the United States) from 1619 to 1865. Slavery in our country was Constitutionally and statutorily sanctioned by the government from 1789-1865. Yet our government has never actively studied the effects of that slavery and possible recompense to its victims.
In 1989, I first introduced a bill, The Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act, which is designed to investigate different options to resolve the issue of the effects of slavery. I reintroduced it this year as House Resolution 40. While this bill would not directly provide for actual compensation, it would establish the first federally chartered commission to study the impact of slavery on African Americans and recommend a range of appropriate remedies.
Opponents of this commission argue that the transgressions of slavery took place 150 years ago and that we owe nothing to its victims’ descendants. My contention is that African Americans are still victims of slavery as surely as those who lived under its confinement. Just as white Americans have benefited from education, life experiences, and wealth that was handed down to them by their ancestors, so too have African Americans been harmed by the institution of slavery. The fruits of their labor were stolen from them; their African culture, heritage, family, language and religion were denied them; their self-identity and self-worth were destroyed by repression and hatred.
There is no question that the federal government has a moral responsibility to investigate the possibility of compensation to those who have been injured by its actions. Reparation payments to Japanese Americans interned by the government during World War II are a similar case. There is no question that African Americans have experienced similarly intense discrimination; the degradation and deprivation which African Americans have suffered did not end with the Emancipation Proclamation or ratification of Constitutional amendments that followed the Civil War.
Racial tensions are high in this country due in part to a lack of understanding about the low self-esteem, lack of cultural identity and economic dependence that are among slavery’s most enduring legacies. America must come to terms with the implications of its history Fairness and justice for the descendants of slavery, including the question of reparations, need to be dealt with once and for all.
John Conyers is a 15-term Congressman from Detroit who chairs s the House Government Operations Committee. A copy of H. R 40 may be obtained from Rep. Conyers, 2426 Rayburn House Office Building, Washington, DC20515, 2021225-5126.