Still No 40 Acres, Still No Mule

By Keels, Crystal L. | Black Issues in Higher Education, August 11, 2005 | Go to article overview

Still No 40 Acres, Still No Mule


Keels, Crystal L., Black Issues in Higher Education


Acknowledgement of past wrongs may help put African-American reparations in the spotlight

The simple mention of reparations for African-Americans in the United States can be counted on to generate a firestorm. When it comes to the issue of recompense for injustices Black Americans have suffered throughout U.S. history - slavery, Jim Crow segregation and other political and social mechanisms designed to maintain racial inequality - the question of accountability is one the nation has historically ignored. The United States has customarily denied the need for restitution for the "peculiar institution" of slavery and its aftermath, and the legendary post-civil war promise of "40 acres and a mule" still remains elusive.

But in the 21st century, avoiding the issue is becoming increasingly difficult as activists, scholars, politicians and grass-roots organizations work diligently to ensure that the issue of reparations for African-Americans and all people of African descent is one the country - indeed the world - must at least consider.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS AND APOLOGIES

A spate of recent public apologies for connections to the crime of slavery and other racial injustices have surprised many, considering a cultural context that for centuries maintained an adamant disavowal of responsibility for the degradation of millions of people of African descent.

"We are beginning to look back and correct the past," says Harvard law professor Charles J. Ogletree Jr. "The good news is that things we never imagined would happen last year happened." He notes this year's conviction of Edgar Ray Killen for the 1964 murders of civil rights workers James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodwin and Michael Schwerner; the reinvestigation of the 1955 kidnapping, torture and murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till; and the recent apology for the crime of lynching issued by the U.S. Senate. "These are major steps," he says.

In mid-July, a South Carolina church service was held to atone for the 1916 lynching of a wealthy Black farmer who was hung from a pine tree and shot to death by a White mob after a quarrel with a White man over the price of cotton. And in June, Wachovia Corporation, the North Carolina-based financial giant, offered an apology for its historical ties to slavery. Other modern banking and insurance companies, including JPMorgan Chase, have come under public scrutiny for their involvement in the highly profitable slave trade.

The Wachovia findings were the result of a Chicago city ordinance supported by Alderwoman Dorothy Tillman, a project that Ogletree has been instrumental in as part of the Reparations Coordinating Committee. City law requires that companies that want to do business with the city of Chicago disclose any historical ties to slavery. In compliance with that ordinance, Wachovia uncovered its links to slavery through past acquisitions of institutions that owned enslaved Black people.

"We are deeply saddened by these findings," Wachovia chairman and CEO Ken Thompson said in a statement. "On behalf of Wachovia Corporation, I apologize to all Americans, especially African-Americans and people of African descent."

Public response to these events demonstrates that admissions and acknowledgements are not necessarily welcome news, however. John Carlisle, director of policy at the National and Legal Policy Center, a conservative organization dedicated to "promoting ethics in public life," said in a recent article that in Wachovia's case, an apology is "ridiculous" and adds that "slavery reparations is nothing but a shakedown, pure and simple." Carlisle argues that the company was mistaken to take responsibility "for business transactions conducted more than a century and a half ago," and has now opened itself up to possible lawsuits. Conservative columnist Thomas Sowell, senior fellow at the Hoover Institute, similarly describes reparations as a "hustle."

And some contend that an apology is all that is necessary. …

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