Sins of the Past

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

Volkswagen AG admitted to using the labor of 15,000 Eastern Europeans during World War II and announced plans to set up a fund to compensate these workers. Separately, the U.S. government issued a formal apology and $20,000 to each Japanese-American held in an internment camp during the war.

An unrelated lawsuit targets three well-known names in corporate America alleged to have benefited from slavery. In March, lawyers for Deadria Farmer-Paellmann, an African American New York City resident, filed a class-action reparations lawsuit in a Brooklyn federal court against FleetBoston Financial Corp., Aetna Inc., and CSX Corp. claiming they profited from slave labor. The suit, which the plaintiff claims was filed on behalf of the nearly 37 million blacks in America, seeks restitution for slave labor valued at about $1.4 trillion, an estimate of the current value of the unpaid labor with interest.

Cochran was dismayed at the Farmer-Paellmann lawsuit. He said the failure of that suit could jeopardize future court battles for reparations. “We’re somewhat distressed about that,” he said. “If somebody jumps out of the umbrella and goes to trial and it gets dismissed, all you need is for one judge to throw a case out and this thing doesn’t go anywhere.”

Walters admits that the fight won’t be easy, noting that past attempts to obtain reparations from the U.S. government on behalf of African Americans have failed. Mounting a successful case would likely hinge on avoiding claims made in the past. Suing corporate America for its involvement in slavery, however, has never been done before, and proving that companies profited from slave labor means meeting the challenge of tracing each one through mergers, acquisitions, and other structural changes over a century and a half. Then there’s the conservative political climate.

One such failed attempt occurred in 1995 when a U.S. Appeals Court in California dismissed a reparations lawsuit against the federal government by two African Americans. The plaintiffs in the case of Cato v. the United States sought damages on behalf of all the descendants of slavery. In dismissing the case, the court ruled that the United States, as a sovereign nation, had immunity from such a lawsuit. Reparations, it ruled, was an issue for Congress to take up. The court also cited the length of time that had passed since slavery, claiming it would be too difficult to identify all the parties that had been damaged and would be due a piece of any settlement.

Nkechi Taifa, director of the Equal Justice Program at Howard University’s School of Law, said any future reparations lawsuits would have to address the issues that resulted in the dismissal of Cato v. the United States.

Not all African Americans agree with these lawsuits. Armstrong Williams, a nationally syndicated black conservative columnist, is one of them. “The reparations movement detracts from the gains of previous generations of civil rights activists by casting a shadow of victimization on all African Americans,” he said. “Many African Americans resent being typecast as victims of an institution that ended more than

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