Bold Step: Reparations Movements Make International Connections

Dignitaries from three continents gathered in New York City recently to sharpen their strategies to confront some of the world’s most powerful nations over a subject that sizeable numbers of citizens support in the nearly two-dozen nations those dignitaries represent: reparations for deprivations from slavery, colonialism and legal segregation.

Those dignitaries, that included ambassadors and legislators, along with luminary activists and legal experts, participated in the three-day International Reparations Summit convened by the Institute of the Black World 21st Century, a research, policy and advocacy organization based in the United States.

Dr. Ron Daniels, President of the Institute, stated, “We are delighted that the Institute of the Black World can be a clearinghouse for ideas and strategies on how to pursue reparations for historical crimes and injustices against people of African descent in the U.S. and across the Americas.”

An action in 2013 reenergized reparations activities already operative in the U.S., throughout the Americas, in Africa and in Europe. That is when CARICOM, the organization of Caribbean nations, announced its plans to mount actions against former European colonial countries for native the slave trade, colonialism and genocide against indigenous peoples. That was the first time that a collection of countries agreed on taking coordinated action for reparations.

“We have a just cause. And we have a duty to right the wrongs done during the slave trade, slavery and colonialism,” CARICOM representative Dr. Douglas Slater said during the opening session of the Summit. “Today, racism continues to impede development of African peoples all over the world.”

The Summit featured a special recognition honoring U.S. Congressman John Conyers (D-Mich.) who, in January 1989, introduced a measure in Congress to establish a national commission to study the issue of reparations in the United States. However, Congressional leaders — Republicans and Democrats — have persistently refused to even allow a vote on Conyers’ measure that would simply study the issue of reparations, not directly allocate monetary or other compensation.

Iconic civil rights activist, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, blasted the failure of Congress to even consider the Conyers measure as yet another example of the America’s “denial” on the subject of reparations during his keynote address at the Summit’s opening session.

“Reparations — which is the repair for damage done — is an ‘unspeakable’ topic in the United States,” Jackson said during his address at the historic Mother AME Zion Church in Harlem. Members of that church, founded in 1796, have included the legendary Paul Robeson, a supporter of reparations.

“The period in the U.S. between 1880 and 1950 was worse that slavery,” Jackson said. “There were over 5,000 blacks lynched during that period and many lynching took place after church on Sunday where whole families would watch the brutality. Lynching was terrorism.”

Efforts by African-Americans to obtain some form of reparations for slavery began in the mid-1800s, initially with demands for land for the freed slaves as compensation for their unpaid labor.

In 1893, AME Church Bishop Henry McNeal Turner, an advocate of emigration to Africa, stated in a speech that America owed blacks “forty billion dollars for daily work performed “work done and service rendered.”

Efforts around the turn of the 20th Century to obtain pensions for ex-slaves never gained approval in Congress, despite support for such pensions from a few white Congressmen. Federal government opposition to those pensions produced imprisonment of some black leaders of that movement for pensioning ex-slaves.

Federal imprisonment was the punishment for the ‘Father’ of America’s modern reparations movement — Imari Obadele. In 1968 Obadele and an older brother of his, delivered letters to the White House and State Department demanding $400-billion in reparations.

That demand for reparations resulted in the FBI targeting Obadele for its infamous COINTELPRO, that illegal covert campaign to crush domestic dissent. Obadele’s federal imprisonment, based on a corrupted conviction, resulted in his 1978 designation as a political prisoner by Amnesty International. Obadele was among the first group of Americans ever-designated political prisoners by Amnesty International. (American officials continue to deny the existence of political prisoners in U.S. jails despite some being captives still held on COINTELPRO tainted convictions.)

Louis-Georges Tin, an anti-racism and reparations activist in France, said he travelled to the Summit with a delegation from the European Reparation Commission to establish closer connections with other reparations activists.

“We did a survey in 2012 of French Overseas Territories and 63 percent of the population favored reparations,” Tin said. “Before that survey, people told me there was low support for reparations. We are pleased with this result.”

French reparations activists have filed lawsuits and initiated other actions around reparations from deprivations by France in the Caribbean and in Africa. CARICOM nations have established a Reparations Commission to conduct further research to initiate legal and other actions against governments of Britain, France and other European countries that maintained colonies in the Caribbean basin.

Members of the recently established National African American Reparations Commission participated in the Summit. That African American Commission is composed of 15 people who are respected academic, community, labor, legal and religious leaders. Commission members will expand existing strategies within the U.S. and coordinate with CARICOM and the European Reparations Commission on activities.

The United Nation’s Conference on Racism held in South Africa in 2001 declared the Atlantic slavery trade and chattel slavery as a “crime against humanity.”

The administration of then U.S. President George W. Bush refused to send an official U.S. delegation to that 2001 anti-racism conference. The Obama Administration boycotted the UN’s 2009 racism conference.