Sins of the Past

Activists seek reparations from U.S. government and corporations with ties to slavery

In what could be the most serious effort to get the U.S. government and certain corporations to admit to and compensate for involvement in nearly 250 years of slavery, a group of activists is planning to take both to court.

The Reparations Coordinating Committee includes attorney extraordinaire Johnnie Cochran, professors Manning Marable of Columbia University and Charles Ogletree of Harvard University, and Randall Robinson, founder of the think tank TransAfrica Forum. The group plans to file its first suit by the end of the year.

The committee’s first plan is to seek monetary damages from corporations it believes it can prove owned slaves or otherwise benefited from slavery. Later, Cochran says, academia will be targeted, with universities like Harvard and Yale facing possible lawsuits that could lead to the institution of special scholarship funds for African American students. Finally, the group will seek an apology from the U.S. government. “At every point of slavery, it was protected by the writ of law,” says Ronald Walters, professor of political science at the University of Maryland and a member of the Reparations Coordinating Committee’s research team. “We think they need to own up to that.”

The committee is comprised of legal experts and academicians, a strategy it says will be an advantage in proving that specific companies bear some liability for slavery. By identifying the companies and introducing historical documents tying them to the slave trade, the committee believes it can get around stumbling blocks that befell previous reparations suits and force the companies to pay up.

Documenting the role the government and corporations played in slavery is the linchpin of the reparations effort, says Walters. “We are providing the content for the historical side of the claim,” he says. “Then the lawyers are taking it where it needs to go.” Part of the committee’s strategy is to bring in noted academics who can provide a wealth of factual research to document any claims made in court.

But several issues remain. Among them is determining what, if anything, America owes blacks in restitution for the legacy of slavery. Then there’s the question of who would be responsible for paying up — the U.S. government, corporations, or individual descendants of slaveholders. With slavery having been abolished nearly 140 years ago, determining eligibility for payment would represent a new set of challenges since African Americans today are, for the most part, at least four generations removed from slavery.

The earliest slave sale was recorded in 1619 in Jamestown, Virginia. It wasn’t until almost 250 years later, with the passing of the 13th amendment in 1865, that slavery was abolished.

The committee’s undertaking, however monumental, has precedence — albeit with several differences. In the late 1990s, survivors of the Holocaust successfully pressured Swiss banks into producing lists of accounts suspected of containing monies gained from the looting of Jewish households and institutions by Nazi supporters. The banks also agreed to pay $1.25 billion into a fund to provide financial aid and medical services to hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors. In July 1998,

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