African Americans

Broken Promises, Seeking Reparations – An Interview with Sheila Jackson-Lee by TJ Baker

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Courtesy African American News & Issues

HOUSTON – There has been much debate going on about the Reparation bill, H.R. 40. Some wonder, whether it should be passed or not; if Black folks should receive any kind of compensation like the Japanese and Jewish people did following World War II. The Japanese, because America held majority of the Japanese people, including children, living in confinement until World War II was over. Not sure why we paid reparations to Jewish people, since Germany paid out large sums of money to them; and then in 2009, President Obama paid $12 million to them as a form of assistance to survivors living below the poverty line.

Every nationality has received money from the United States, except Black folks. Speaking about Black faces in the White House… You may not know, but back in 2009 the White House installed a permanent Black face – the unveiling of a head to shoulder statue of Sojourner Truth. She is the first Black woman to be memorialized at the United States Capitol.

Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee’s generosity helped with this phenomenal task. We greatly appreciate her remarkable and willing contributions. She works not only for Black folks, but for all people of Color. And that’s why we are here at the point of, Broken Promises, Seeking Reparations.

Not only that, White folks have received reparations. According to Historynet.com, “In 1862 slavery was abolished in Washington, D.C., and in an effort to keep the local slave owners loyal to the Union. Abraham Lincoln’s administration offered to pay $300 for each slave in compensation. This was paid out to 979 owners for 2,989 slaves…”

That’s right, WHITE FOLKS/SLAVE OWNERS got money, behind slaves being freed. So, how come we keep debating about our 40 acres and a mule, which is what the H.R. 40 bill stands for. Twelve million dollars is just the beginning resolution for healing. Because as Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee puts it, “The United States Is Not Broke!”

The Interview

TJ: You’re in the mainstream fighting this ongoing cause. It appears you’re receiving more support on the Democratic side, but not as much as the Republican side. Let’s say, you get the measure approved and the committee is formed to investigate the issues of reparations, what do you think some of the recommendations would be?

Congresswoman Lee: This legislation was filed originally in 1989. I’m grateful that John Conyers had the courage to do so over the years, with many advocates and it really had advocates, people who were building a record for Reparations. In the meantime, of course, Japanese-Americans and others received reparations.

I was honored when John Conyers retired from Congress. He was the Dean of the Congress at that time and he wanted me to carry his legacy forward, which included among other legislative initiatives, H.R. 40. I had already worked with him on it while he was in Congress and was pleased to have this leadership challenge.

The bill is for the establishment of a commission to study reparations and proposals, and we base it on the historical perspective, that this country’s wealth, it’s early wealth was based on cotton for 250 years. African slaves came and were in bondage. They had no workman’s comp, no salary, no pension, no insurance, no healthcare and they worked. Sometimes as African-Americans, we look to the negative, we look to the fact this will never happen. We look to the fact that we buy into the wrong argument that this was a way, a long time ago, who are we going to be able to find to be able to pay? We’re not focused on payments, but, we are focused on compensation and reform.

We don’t know what the commission is going to do. But I tell people, this is a commission equal to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the Federal Communications Commission and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. If approved, this will be a serious Commission that will have members appointed by the President, Speaker of the House and leader of the United States Senate. There will be as well, members who have been engaged in this throughout the United States. There should be scholars, academicians and activists who know what they’re doing. And we’re going to, as members of Congress, have the oversight, right.

You can be assured, my goal is for this bill to be signed by the President of the United States. The goal is to ensure that this is one of the most effective and constructive commissions. We need to discern how best to deal with the ailments that I truly believe, have generated from the fact that slaves were freed. We welcome freedom, but it was without any compensation, including the legitimate 40 acres and a mule.

TJ: In your political experience, and with the spearheading of this bill now, what exactly is owed to the descendants of the enslaved men and women, after centuries of bondage and legalized discrimination? Please, if you can give a dollar amount that will satisfy the Black caucus of the Democratic Party?

Congresswoman Lee: Well, first of all, thank you for being a journalist who’s interested in this very important topic. And thank you to the African-American News & Issues, which I consider one of the ‘Star Wars’ historical documents of African-American history, both yesterday, today and tomorrow. And I uniquely thank Mr. & Mrs. Malonson for the vision and their leadership.

I believe there is no doubt that we have, as a people, made great strides. Coco is now in center court. The 15-year-old, is playing tennis and winning, having recently defeated Venus Williams, another great African-American tennis player. We are magnificent in the sports and arts, and academics and science class. African-Americans, who give people that, are becoming very successful. Many of you have made it. But, if we look into the poor of our community, we have born the brunt of the wrongness of American policies. From the time President Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, until we in Texas heard it in 1865.

And so we have a million African-Americans incarcerated across the nation. Why is that? We have issues dealing with police relations, where African-American men are shot in the misinterpretation of the law; the likes of Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner, and Sandra Bland, and Walter Scott, and Trayvon Martin who was shot by someone who was operating under the color of law, and so many other names and circumstances. We have healthcare disparities, educational disparities and HBCU’s, which were founded mostly by freed slaves, which have no reason in the 21st century to doubt whether their doors will stay open.

So frankly, I believe the continuation of racial disparities looking back into our history has played its part… You remember that we had Reconstruction, but it lasted for only 12 years. Then, we had the Compromise, which was broken in the 1800s… Excuse me in the 1880s, with the dream of President Lincoln that we would reconstruct, and with the mindset that this country would change and we would be integrated into society. One of the worst presidents ever, Andrew Johnson came and imploded that.

Then we moved into the 1880s, which eliminated that Compromise, took the Union soldiers out of the South. And here we were living in the reign of terror. Then, the Ku Klux Klan began to reign, that was the law and order, or if you will, the hanging fruit of the early 1900s. Even when we were going to World War I, there were Black men, being hung in trees in the Deep South. The reign of terror was the worst between 1964 – 1969. After that, we got rights to go to hotels and rights to vote – somewhat in a comfortable manner. But that means, there is evidence the country never repaired the breach of slavery.

Now the dollar amount is an untenable amount to spew out. The commission will be funded by $12 million and if more is needed, that will be Congress’ decision. That is their job, to take all of what I just said and to be able to calculate how that will best be done. And for all of those naysayers who want to condemn this process, by raising questions of who will get it, and how much it will be… I tell them, ‘No one ever is successful without facts.’ I can’t go into a courtroom and win a case without facts. The pastor cannot go to the pulpit and bring in souls without facts. So people need to, in essence, treat this with the dignity of deserving facts.

I just recounted for you documented facts. The commission will have to look at documented facts. They will have to look at the fact that General Sherman tried to give us 40 acres and a mule and it was blocked. The mule being the mobility element and the 40 acres is our wealth. So I truly believe that we will pass this commission and African-Americans will raise their level of understanding and begin to focus in on that commission. That could be nothing but goodness, the way that we got to ‘64. Second was ‘65. It was not only facts, but the little girls that were bombed; Bull Connor, the three civil right leaders and boys, as we call them in Mississippi and others whose names sometimes are not raised up. It is because of those were facts that we needed to pass laws to let Black folk in the 60s be able to vote. So we expect to have facts that can be documented which will be the resources that will need to be given, to provide the reparations to the descendants of slaves.

TJ: Speaking in the future, once this recommendation has been passed, how will you plan to fund it?

Congresswoman Lee: Well, as I said, first the proposals. And I say to all of those who listen, ‘America is not broke. Again America is not broke.’ We have many ways to be able to fund legitimate proposals. Now the Democrats are in the United States House, we have clustered all of the things our Republican friends took down. Education, healthcare, science, climate change and issues dealing with maternal mortality rate, particularly with Black women.

We put money in because we have money to put in. So the way it would be funded, is that Congress would look at it as a priority and begin to fund it as the proposals might ask us to do. The United States that takes in money all the time, or finds ways to ensure they have dollars to pay for things such as defense. Multi-multi-billion dollars in defense are spent, so we’ll find a way through the congressional appropriations process.

TJ: Senator Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey was against reparations at first. Now, he’s for it. Please share your unbiased political opinion?

Congresswoman Lee: Well, I’m excited Senator Booker is a co-sponsor and has secured almost 20 sponsors in the Senate. That’s never happened before. He has shown himself with the other presidential goals, to support this for its intellectual capacity and its rightness. And so I don’t view his actions in any other way, other than his commitment to the cause, that H.R. 40 is a legitimate constructive approach to discuss rates and a resolution of what happened to slaves for 250 years. In fact, I believe, he understands that when we do the study, we’ll do it economically, sociologically, psychologically, politically and scientifically. That’s how I view the supporters of this legislation, and we have never had upwards of 100 co-sponsors in the house, and we’re working to increase those numbers every single day.

TJ: Do you think some of them are riding on your coat-tail legacy?

Congresswoman Lee: When you’re legislating you work as hard as you can to bring people in, not only people inside the Congress but all the people outside who’ve had different views of you. I’m delighted Danny Glover, Harry Belafonte, our newest supporter, John Legend, who has now done a video for us to be able to spark H.R. 40, will be together in January, doing something that hopefully brings in more people in this country.

So the idea of a legislator is to not look to legacy, because someone else will define legacy for that person, but to look to bring as many people as possible on the cause speaking the right talk, so that we can ensure we have the support we just got, in the last 24 hours. The National Education Association, thousands and thousands and thousands of teachers are now endorsing HR 40.

TJ: Coleman Hughes, a Columbia undergraduate, and Quillette columnist argues… “Reparation, by definition is only given to victims. And so the moment you give me reparations, you made me into a victim without my consent.” What’s your take on that and others who think just like him?

Congresswoman Lee: Wrong thinking, I’m thinking wrong thinking, wrongheaded, and with lack of understanding. I appreciate disparate views or different views. We had a hearing, which was historic, it was packed and we overflowed with people flying in from all around the country. With it was live streaming, they were looking at it from all around the world. And he happened to be one of the witnesses, a young student from Columbia, we respect that he was a Republican witness. There was also another Republican witness.

But we had Dr. Julian Malveaux we had a lawyer who had dealt with these issues before we had Danny Glover. We had the singular writer of the story of reparations, making Mr. Coats his presentation. We had young leaders making their presentation about the value of reparations. So the idea of being a victim, no, I’m an empowered, historical member of this community and of this nation. I’m an African-American, whose ancestors were also slaves. And it means that I am in no way of the victim to the extent that I am still here.

But there are those who may have been victims, they were slaves, and we, therefore we must honor them and must recognize how they live their life. Some were born, lived and died as a slave, never to think that they would ever be a whole person in the United States Constitution. I reject that argument. And I frankly, believe that today, what we want for our children to believe, even though they may live in the most impoverished conditions in this country, whether it’s rural or urban America, that there’s nothing they can’t do, and that they have the opportunity to stand on the shoulders of their ancestors, and that this nation appreciates what their ancestors did, and will give them the future that they deserve.

TJ: In some of the videos, clips, we have seen of African-American citizens testifying before your committee, we noticed that there are some positions which very much opposed to each other. How do you plan to work around those issues, to get some customers somehow to make progress?

Congresswoman Lee: Person by person, block by block, state by state. And when I go back to Washington in a day or two, I will start up again. To I will work in Washington on supporting HR 40. This week, as I indicated, I spoke to the National Education Association, which has thousands of members. When I spoke, I spoke about HR 40, and I asked for their support within 24 hours. They texted me back and said the National Education Association has endorsed HR 40. I’m planning on going around this nation, while also serving my constituency, and not forgetting about my district. And everywhere I go, I will be speaking about the sense of HR 40. The idea of lifting up this community for what it deserves, from housing, from credit from health care from historically black colleges, from ensuring wealth passes, to allow black businesses to strive and survive.

The African-American News & Issues is a paper that never has to look back, but has the focus of corporate Houston on giving them the respect as with the other Black media that is working in this community. They should never look for anything. Why do we have to look for anything, because we are giving today, we gave yesterday we are giving tomorrow. So I expect that I will not shun those who disagree with me, rather I will seek to explain to them what this means.

I didn’t even speak to the idea that from the very beginning of the country, this nation, Black men, and then women served in the military, we fought in the Revolutionary War, and we weren’t slaves. And when I say that there were those who got freed and fought, and my understanding that may have been slaves before. But we fought in every single war, and we fought in wars when we were slaves. We fought in the war, for our freedom, in terms of the Civil War, and fought in the Union Army, and have fought since we fought in World War I when Black boys and men were being hung in the Deep South. We fought in World War II when we came back and had to ride in the back of the trains when Germans prisoners were in the front of the train. So I think that there’s so much that we have contributed, and no one has ever had our history. And I do think there is a rightness to HR 40, will be together in January, doing something that hopefully brings in more people in this country.

TJ: I know that you’ve expressed already. But please tell our readers, why you really feel very passionate about this.

Congresswoman Lee: I feel very passionate because I am very fortunate to be a descendant to those who have not been a slave. But yet to have all the things that have poured into me to be a graduate of a prominent university and to go into a University Law School that previously would not allow Blacks to attend. There were only three black women in my class when I went to the University of Virginia law school. Then to be able to come and practice in law firms, where I was either one or two, to have the ability to serve on the city council, to also be a judge, and then to go to the United States Congress. Only three persons passed the Honorable Barbara Jordan, who became the first African-American woman to serve in the United States Congress from the south, Post-Reconstruction. I owe everything to my ancestors, everything to the people who walked in Freedman’s town and who walked in First-ward, Second-ward, Third-ward, Fourth-ward, Fifth-ward; those people who walked in the 1900s here in Houston, Texas, who had to walk on the other side of the street, and lived well, in many instances. The richness of treatments down in wonderful communities with the great histories of South Park, Sunnyside and many other places, like Acres Home and yet not getting the fullness of what they deserved. I am honored that they stood their ground and lay the groundwork for many of us. I think HR40 is a tribute to them in recognition, not of me, but of all that they’ve done. I’m under them. So now you know why this is a hot topic and today’s news in the house representative, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, District 18 has currently sponsored a measure that if approved would form a congressional committee to look into reparation for the Black community. Well, there are still many hurdles to overcome and certainly many dissenting voices against the idea with an election year coming up next year. Nearly all the Democratic presidential candidates are letting the voices to be heard on the subject.

Dissenting Opinions

So let’s take a look at the dissenting opinions. One of the most notable dissenters who appeared before a congressional panel was Burgess Owens. He is a former NFL player and was on a winning team in the Super Bowl years ago. He frankly told the congressional representatives that if reparations were to be paid, then the Democratic Party should pay for it themselves, since they were the party with embraced slavery in the south. He stated quite a few facts implicating the Democrats for being the party which favored slavery and fought against it being ended by President Lincoln. He called out the Democrat’s for continuing to implement poor policies which continue to hurt our Black communities around the country. In addition, he made mention that he felt that the best way for the Black community to get on their feet was by hard work and education. A lot of what he said made sense, but you could tell that some of the congressional representatives were uneasy with what he had to say. His stand is not new, as he has written a book on the subject and been on several talk shows and interviews over the years. Originally a member of the Democratic Party, he switched over to the Republican Party when he felt that party was more aligned with his thoughts on issues facing our country.

As mentioned above, several of the numerous Democratic presidential contenders had thoughts on the subject, most of which were positive that something needed to be done. The only problem is that most of them are like many Americans, in that they don’t have a solid conclusion yet as to what needs to be done. The ideas run from cash payments to improved opportunities for education, or even improving living conditions for those living below poverty levels. If they ever decide on something; it won’t be paid for by the Democratic Party. They will demand a tax hike to pay for any solution that is approved. Then, the Black community will pay taxes to help pay for our own reparations (stupid on our part, brilliant on their part). As always, we will probably be tricked into going along with something that isn’t very beneficial to us. Then, as usual, they will be able to plan on a lot of Black votes to keep themselves in office and controlling our lives. Entitlements have always been a trap for our communities.

Sen. Tim Scott, (R. South Carolina), had his own ideas on the subject of reparations. In an interview with Fox News, he stated that he felt reparations were one hundred years too late. Instead, he mentioned that he felt the most important thing was for every zip code in the USA to have a great educational system, that there should be increased opportunities in the business world for Blacks, criminal justice reform needs to be reviewed, and he stressed that communities need to be rebuilt, among other things. Some of these ideas have already been put forth by the administration, but it is yet to be seen if they will be followed up on.

He felt the current hearings were more of a “political stunt” and would be divisive and sow discontent. He was not in favor of passage of Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee’s current recommendations, although he did favor having a committee look into other ways of moving our Black community forward.

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R. Kentucky) stated that he believes progress has been made but did draw some criticism about his remarks. But basically, he stated that we’ve fought a civil war to free slaves, passed many laws combating segregation and other civil rights, and elected an African-American president to highlight some of the areas of progress.

Spike Lee’s Movie Production is called ’40 Acres and A Mule’ which means when Colored people got free that’s what they supposed to have been received, but here it is now 2019 and we’re still fighting for that 40 acres and a mule. Are we ever going to receive it? Hell No! That’s the honest answer that the right wing (The Republicans) should go on and tell us. But then again the Republicans had been telling us by either going against the ‘Reparation’ bill or keep moving the agenda to another calendar date and besides this fight has been going on since the end of the American Revolution.

However, let’s be fair is it impossible to imagine America without the inheritance of slavery. And let’s be fair again, have Black people really been done wrong than any other race, because if so, then why there’s not a lot of Black people helping to fight this cause? And surely Black people – Negroes don’t want to go back to Africa, where it’s even more chaotic! So why keep harping on ‘Reparation’?

There are no Black slaves living today. Slavery ended more than 160 years ago at the cost of several hundred thousand lives lost in the Civil War. It is unfair to ask American taxpayers, many of them from families that came to the United States after slavery ended, to pay for the wrongs of slavery.

Reparations would be too expensive, depriving the country of the opportunity to fix the Social Security and Medicare systems and meet other budget needs that benefit all Americans.

Here is what I’ve also learned about HR40 which originated from 40 acres and a mule.

Quoting from Constitutional Rights of Foundation, “Reparations for slavery is not a new idea. Before the Civil War ended, General William Tecumseh Sherman issued an order in South Carolina. He wanted 40 acres and the loan of an Army mule set aside for each former slave family. This order was never carried out. After the war, Radical Republicans in Congress passed laws requiring confiscation of former-Confederate property to provide the ex-slaves with ‘40 acres and a mule.”

In 1866, President Andrew Johnson vetoed the legislation. President Johnson was the vice-president who assumed the presidency when Lincoln was assignated. Not widely known is that he was also a democrat.

The next push for reparations took place at the turn of the century. Several black organizations lobbied Congress to provide pensions for former slaves and their children. One bill introduced into the U.S. Senate in 1894 would have granted direct payments of up to $500 to all ex-slaves plus monthly pensions ranging from $4 to $15. This and several similar bills died in congressional committees. The pension movement itself faded away with the onset of World War I.

During the 1960s, some black leaders revived the idea of reparations. In 1969, James Forman (then head of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) proclaimed a “Black Manifesto.” It demanded $500 million from American churches and synagogues for their role in perpetuating slavery before the Civil War. Black Nationalist organizations, such as the Black Panther Party and Black Muslims, also demanded reparations.

In the 1980s, a new call arose for black reparations. It was stimulated by two other movements that successfully secured payments from the U.S. government. The Supreme Court in 1980 ordered the federal government to pay eight Sioux Indian tribes $122 million to compensate for the illegal seizure of tribal lands in 1877. Then in 1988, Congress approved the payment of $1.25 billion to 60,000 Japanese-American citizens who had been interned in prison camps during World War II. Also on that note, even the Jewish community has received reparation from the American Government. There will probably be a lot of infighting on the subject as time goes on.

About the Author

Tj Baker is a resident of Houston, TX.  She is an author and an educator who is passionate about her work and her community.  She loves interviewing people who share her commitment to improve the lives of others.

Photo credit: Priscilla Graham Photography

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