How Reparations Went From the Fringe to the Headlines

The national movement for racial justice pushed an idea that was once a pipe dream deeper into the halls of Congress. 

A sign touts racial justice in Evanston, Ill., which, through a housing grant plan adopted this year, emerged as the first community in the country to Black residents reparations. (AP Photo/Shafkat Anowar)

WASHINGTON (CN) — On April 14, the movement for reparations saw a historic, albeit quiet, win: national reparations legislation had finally moved out of committee. 

The House Judiciary Committee voted 25–17 to push H.R. 40, a bill establishing a commission to study and develop a slavery reparations program, to the full House. 

But the vote fell along party lines, with zero Republicans voting alongside the Democratic majority. Utah Representative Burgess Owens went as far as to call the bill “treacherous” and “traitorous” during his testimony on the floor. 

The bill’s small step forward could be its only for a long time. 

It used to come by a different name. Nearly up until his death in 2019, Representative John Conyers introduced it as H.R. 3745 in 1989 and spent the next 30 years introducing it to the House every congressional session thereafter. 

“He was the legislative champion of reparations in this country,” Ron Daniels, convener of the National African American Reparations Commission, said in a phone interview of the longest-serving member of Congress. 

Before time rendered that mission obsolete, Conyers initially drafted H.R. 3745 to only study reparations proposals. He did so in collaboration with the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, which was founded in 1987 to organize the longstanding reparations movement. 

Early incarnations of H.R. 3745 aimed to acknowledge the role U.S. government played in slavery and examine how the institution of slavery still affects Black Americans today. In the 32 years since the bill’s introduction, however, the country has seen mountains of research and literature advocating for the need for reparations and exploring different proposals.

“The Case for Reparations,” published for the Atlantic in 2014, was one of many watershed moments for the movement.

“He was not a believer, but he was converted by his research,” Daniels said of the essay’s author, Ta-Nehisi Coates. It was Coates’ transition from skeptic to “vocal advocate” that introduced reparations to “a whole generation of people who hadn’t been involved in the movement at all,” Daniels said.

Congressman John Conyers, a Detroit Democrat, uses a bullhorn on on July 23, 1967, in an attempt to disperse a riot that broke out in the city. (AP Photo, File)

When Conyers rewrote H.R. 3745 in 2016 — collaborating again N’COBRA, as well as other organizations including the Movement for Black Lives and NAARC, the commission overseen by Daniels — they sought to develop reparations proposals rather than just make a case for them. 

“The focus became that it would become a remedy bill,” Kenniss Henry, co-chair for N’COBRA’s legislative commission, said in a phone call. She joined the organization later that year after two other reparations advocacy groups disbanded. 

“I mean, enough evidence had been done,” Daniels said, “enough studies upon studies upon studies.” 

The 2020 presidential primaries created another boon for the movement. On the heels of a growing racial justice movement, several presidential candidates, like early favorite Julian Castro and resident wildcard Marianne Williamson, directly called for some form of reparations program in the United States. Senator Cory Booker spearheaded the Senate companion bill to H.R. 40. 

Rania Batrice, a Democratic operative and 2016 deputy of Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, got involved with NAARC at around this time.  

“I had relationships with multiple teams and candidates from the Democratic 2020 slate of presidential candidates,” Batrice said in an email, “and I did share my thoughts and strong recommendation to support the dismantling of systemic racism — including through long overdue reparatory justice.” 

After Congressman Conyers resigned over sexual harassment claims in 2017, Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, who couldn’t be reached for comment, took over the legislation and formally reintroduced it to the House in January 2019. 

Six months later, as the nation marked the holiday known as Juneteenth commemorating the emancipation of enslaved black people in the United States — a House Judiciary subcommittee held a widely publicized hearing to debate the merits of H.R. 40. It became a national spectacle, featuring testimony from Coates, fellow NAARC member and economist Julianne Malveaux, and the actor Danny Glover. 

Conyers passed away at home in Detroit another four months after this latest watershed moment in the movement. 

Today H.R. 40 has more than 170 co-sponsors, but they’re all Democrats. It would need 218 votes to advance to the Senate. 

“When the bill was reintroduced in January, it had 118 original co-sponsors,” Henry recalled. “And the majority of them were co-sponsors in the last session. So, those were the easy ones.” 

The organizers have run into roadblocks on both sides of the aisle. Henry says that they hope to gain 37 more Democrats as co-sponsors, but many of them have tip-toed around the issue, or outright declined to support the bill. “We’ve had some elected officials straight-up say, ‘I’m not voting for that; I’ll never vote for that,” she said. “But you still have to keep going back because, maybe, just maybe, they’ll have a change of heart.” 

She also worries about career politicians who may have reason to support the bill but represent a constituency harshly against it. Even a member of the Congressional Black Caucus member might avoid the issue if 78% of their district is white.  

U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee outside the Bob Casey United States Courthouse in Houston on Nov. 2. (Courthouse News photo / Cameron Langford)

During the hearing in 2019, Senator McConnell touched on the general mood on reparations from the right: Republicans consider the idea too divisive, too expensive or unconstitutional.  

“We tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a Civil War, by passing landmark civil rights legislation,” the Kentucky Republican told reporters. “We elected an African American president. I think we are always a work in progress in this country. But no one currently alive was responsible for that, and I don’t think we should be trying to figure out how to compensate for that.” Senator McConnell did not immediately respond to requests for comment. 

N’COBRA still recognizes the need for bipartisan support, Henry said, so they’ve taken to reaching out to Republicans who may be on the outs with their party — like, say, Representative Liz Cheney, who was just ousted from her leadership post in the House. “At this point, they’re targets,” Henry quipped. 

But today, the movement still stands stronger than ever. Now that politicians and pundits have presented the idea to a wider audience, legislative progress that could have taken decades took place in a handful of years, leading to tangible changes: Georgetown University has offered restitution for its ties to slavery, a suburb in Illinois has launched a pilot program to give descendants of slavery housing vouchers, and a House Judiciary subcommittee held another highly publicized hearing on reparatory policy on the centennial of the Tulsa-Greenwood massacre. 

The movement gathered even more attention after the nationwide protests that erupted following the death of George Floyd last summer, but Daniels sees a longer path ahead. “The public lynching of George Floyd is one of the tragically great inflection moments in American history,” he said, “but it’s not the first one. Even before the tragedy occurred, we were systematically pushing forward with getting co-sponsors.” 

What was most consequential, he believed, was Democrats recognizing the “foundational indispensability of the Black vote.” 

But advocates can’t stop now. “We can’t take anything for granted,” Batrice said, “and we need allies and advocates to continue putting pressure on members of the House and Senate to co-sponsor if they haven’t already and demand the floor vote.” 

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